“Bad” Mothers: The Politics of Blame in Twentieth-Century America. – Review

“Bad” Mothers: The Politics of Blame in Twentieth-Century America. – Review – book reviews

Beryl Satter

“Bad” Mothers: The Politics of Blame in Twentieth-Century America. By Molly Ladd-Taylor and Lauri Umansky (New York: New York University Press, 1998. ix plus 411pp. $60.00/cloth $19.95/paperback).

Although Americans glorify the idea of motherhood, a virulent denigration of individual mothers permeates American humor, literature, film, academic study and public policy. Mothers have been blamed for problems ranging from autism and serial murder to racism and the national debt. Anyone who doubts the extent–and the dangers–of mother-blaming will be convinced after reading Molly Ladd-Taylor and Lauri Umansky’s volume, Bad Mothers. The editors present twenty-six entries that explore the development, the functions, and the often devastating repercussions of mother-blaming in twentieth-century America. Many are by historians; pieces by literary scholars, psychologists, journalists, sociologists and legal scholars are also included.

The editors’ beautifully-written introduction summarizes recent scholarship on motherhood, 1600–present; situates twentieth-century mother-blaming as the product of specific historic forces; and explains how the cultural misogyny undergirding mother-blame works to elide broader social analysis. The remainder of the volume demonstrates how mother-blame has functioned throughout the century. In Part I, “The Early Years” (1900-1940), we read about the struggles of African-American, poor white, and Italian immigrant mothers with social welfare organizations that applied middle-class norms of child-raising to women who lacked middle-class resources. Other essays describe how, by the l920s, the now-familiar mother-blaming complex was already in place: 1) any problem of the child is caused by the mother; 2) the mother damages her child by being too protective, not protective enough, or both.

These ideas could be, at least initially, beneficial for some women. Elizabeth Rose shows how the new 1920s anxiety about “excessive” mother-love both provoked self-doubt among mothers and gave them a culturally-sanctioned excuse to separate themselves from demanding children. Kathleen W. Jones similarly argues that psychologists’ mother-blaming could aid two groups of women: female social workers, who were thereby able to extend their professional purview; and mothers themselves, who used the new focus on maternal failure to get attention for-and receive some advice about-hitherto unspeakable marital problems.

The second section of the book, “The Middle Years” (1940-80), details the dizzying array of personal and social problems that were blamed on bad mothers. For example, Ruth Feldstein shows how mid-century liberal anti-racists cast racism as a psychological defect-and therefore the creation of mothers, who were blamed for both excessive patriarchal authority (fascism) and insufficient patriarchal strength (bureaucratic conformity). We also read about how courts have taken children from their mothers for a wide range of ostensible moral infractions. For example, Renee Romano describes how white women who married black men often lost custody of their white children from previous marriages. The courts ruled that the mother’s choice of a black husband was “selfish” because it denied her children the full privileges of whiteness; white privilege overrode the maternal bond.

The third section, “‘Bad’ Mothers in Print” (1930s–1990s), presents five short primary-source essays that demonstrate typical mother-blaming moves. Mothers are blamed for giving their children too much attention, not enough attention, or for pursuing political work independent of mothering.

In the final section, “‘Bad’ Mothering of Late” (1980s–1990s), authors analyze “bad mothers” from Zoe Baird to child-killer Susan Smith. A moving essay by Annette R. Appell presents in-depth histories of women whose children were taken from them by the state. She depicts the damage wrought by a system whose premise is that to fix the child’s situation, you must “fix” the mother, that is, turn her into a different person–clearly an impossible task. Katha Pollitt contributes an essay on “fetal rights” laws that cast women as the dangerous “containers” of their fetuses. These laws both control women and help justify the neglect of social problems that devastate children, such as inadequate housing, schooling, and health care, joblessness, domestic violence, and lack of treatment facilities for addicts. Rickie Solinger offers a fascinating analysis of the abortion-rights rhetoric of “choice,” which obscures the social forces that mold individual choice. Like consumer choice, Solinger argues, reproductive choic e is real only if one has resources. Her essay illuminates the political moves through which reproductive self-determination, and motherhood itself, have increasingly become a class privilege in the United States. I did not find all of the volume’s essays equally convincing. A piece on rock star Courtney Love, for example, emphasizes how Love is “punished” in the media for her bad mothering, while ignoring the ways Love has been rewarded for her defiant persona. A piece on “Momism and the Making of Treasonous Homosexuals” rehashes well-known scholarship by John D’Emilio, Michael Rogin and Elaine Tyler May. A number of the essays were somewhat repetitive; several were descriptive rather than analytic.

At the same time, I was left wanting more. I would have liked at least one essay describing the dominant paradigm of late nineteenth-century motherhood. This would enable the reader to understand precisely how new twentieth-century mother-blaming really is. Although we learn how non-mainstream women suffer when judged by white middle-class standards of mothering, we learn little about their own attitudes toward motherhood. This leaves unexplored the extent to which virulent mother-blaming is a product of specifically white, middle-class, or Protestant American culture. And few pieces thoroughly probed the sources or etiology of mother-blame.

These are minor quibbles with what is, on the whole, a powerful volume of finely written essays. The book is scholarly enough for use in women’s history and U.S. history courses, and accessible enough for any reader interested in examining one of the dominant tropes of contemporary political, psychological, popular and academic discourse. The editors modestly present their work as a “call for further study,” and a “contribution toward ending the ‘bad’ mother label” (p. 18). In these aims they succeed beautifully. By highlighting a pervasive but dangerous idea and providing some historical tools with which to analyze it, Ladd-Taylor and Umansky have managed a rare feat; they have produced a volume that both enriches scholarly understanding and serves as an impetus for social change.

COPYRIGHT 1999 Carnegie Mellon University Press

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