Nora Doyle: How Motherhood in America became White and Middle Class

Maternal Bodies by Nora DoyleToday, we welcome a guest post from Nora Doyle, author of Maternal Bodies:  Redefining Motherhood in Early America, publishing this month from UNC Press.

In Maternal Bodies, Nora Doyle shows that depictions of motherhood in American culture began to define the ideal mother by her emotional and spiritual roles rather than by her physical work as a mother. As a result of this new vision, lower-class women and non-white women came to be excluded from the identity of the good mother because American culture defined them in terms of their physical labor.

Maternal Bodies is now available in both print and ebook editions.


How Motherhood in America became White and Middle Class

Women from all backgrounds and all walks of life in American society become mothers, yet the image of motherhood that predominates in American society today is deeply rooted in race- and class-specific identities. Doing a quick internet image search of “motherhood” or paying attention to television commercials for domestic products is instructive: nearly all of the many images that emerge are of a very particular kind of mother. She is almost uniformly white or light-skinned, young, attractive, healthy, and her clothing and surroundings (not to mention the time that she has to dedicate to her children) suggest a comfortable, or even affluent, economic status. Women of color, women with disabilities, older women, heavy women, sick women, poor women (the list could go on) are often absent from common cultural depictions of motherhood in magazines, advertisements, television, and other popular media. When did the popular American vision of motherhood become so narrowly defined?

The figure of the mother emerged as a mainstay of American popular culture in the nineteenth century. Thanks to advances in printing technology, by the 1830s publications such as magazines and books became both more abundant and cheaper than ever before. Moreover, for the first time much of this new print culture was directed at a specifically female audience. Women’s magazines became a new and booming sphere in American popular culture, and they provided an important venue for representations of motherhood. It was in this context that a very specific vision of motherhood emerged.

Sentimental poems were one of the favorite genres for depicting motherhood, and they appeared by the dozens in issues of popular women’s magazines. These texts developed a new vision of the mother as a disembodied figure, untainted by the weaknesses or labors of the flesh. While real-life mothers worked hard at feeding, dressing, teaching, and healing their children, literary mothers became re-imagined as spiritual figures defined primarily through their piety and their maternal love. The ideal mother did not need to labor in order to care for her family; she simply cast her virtuous influence over them. The mother’s body disappeared from these poems, to be replaced by highly idealized depictions of her smile, her voice, her love, and her piety. In short, the ideal mother came to be imagined as an ethereal spirit whose influence was vast but who did very little. Her labor was emotional rather than physical.

The cultural disembodiment of the ideal mother in popular print culture was particularly significant because of its links to beliefs about race and class identities. In nineteenth-century America (and, one might argue, still today), physical labor was most strongly associated with non-white (often enslaved) and lower-class white Americans. These Americans were culturally defined by their bodies rather than by their moral, emotional, or intellectual qualities. Moreover, women of color and lower-class women were often associated with sexual labor as well, thus separating them from the privileges attached to womanly virtue. Because these women were defined by their bodies, their sexuality, and by their physical labor, they could not fit into the model of the disembodied mother as she was defined in popular print culture. Only white and socioeconomically privileged women could (in theory at least) hope to achieve the standards of ideal motherhood as they were set out in popular feminine print culture.

The vision of the ideal (white, middle-class) disembodied mother is still very much with us today in American popular culture. As a society, we like to see depictions of mothers doing the emotional work of bonding with their children, but we are less comfortable with images in which the maternal body is too present—with leaking breasts, ungainly belly, unsightly stretch marks, signs of pain or suffering—or present in the wrong places. For instance, we generally do not like to see maternal bodies in the workplace rather than at home. And we are uncomfortable with images of mothers that don’t quite fit our ideal in others ways, such as women who are older mothers or women who display markers of ill health or poverty. Can women whose bodies are noticeable because of race, class, and other markers be recognized as good mothers, or does our narrow cultural definition of motherhood preclude most women? Studying the narrow definition of ideal motherhood that emerged in nineteenth-century print culture is instructive in helping us cast a more critical gaze on the way American culture constructs motherhood today.


Nora Doyle is assistant professor of history at Salem College.  You can read her first blog post here.