Skip to main content


The Transformation of Motherhood in Modern America


The Transformation of Motherhood in Modern America

In the early twentieth century, Americans often waxed lyrical about “Mother Love,” signaling a conception of motherhood as an all-encompassing identity, rooted in self-sacrifice and infused with social and political meaning. By the 1940s, the idealization of motherhood had waned, and the nation’s mothers found themselves blamed for a host of societal and psychological ills. In Mom, Rebecca Jo Plant traces this important shift by exploring the evolution of maternalist politics, changing perceptions of the mother-child bond, and the rise of new approaches to childbirth pain and suffering.
Plant argues that the assault on sentimental motherhood came from numerous quarters. Male critics who railed against female moral authority, psychological experts who hoped to expand their influence, and women who strove to be more than wives and mothers—all for their own distinct reasons—sought to discredit the longstanding maternal ideal. By showing how motherhood ultimately came to be redefined as a more private and partial component of female identity, Plant illuminates a major reorientation in American civic, social, and familial life that still reverberates today.


“In her highly readable book, Plant brilliantly illuminates some of the most vexing paradoxes of twentieth-century gender and feminism. Her account of how Mother was demoted from moral and civic paragon to Mom, hub of personal and emotional fulfillment, suggests that American women paid a high price for the privilege of making motherhood an individual choice. The decline of maternalism and the new age of Mom ushered in the cultural environment we still inhabit today, along with its unending work and family conflicts. Plant offers a wonderfully original analysis of why it has become more difficult than ever for women to live simultaneously as mothers and human beings.”—Ellen Herman, University of Oregon

Ellen Herman, University of Oregon

Mom takes the reader back to the stunning changes that took place from the mid-nineteenth century to the mid-twentieth century in shifts from maternalism to attacks on ‘momism’ and then to mothers’ self-fulfillment. Using articulate women’s statements, Rebecca Jo Plant revises the historical narratives of feminism, the therapeutic culture of the United States, and, above all, motherhood.”

John Burnham, Ohio State University

“In this compelling meditation on the absence of ‘mother love’ in contemporary U.S. discourse, Rebecca Plant shows how a multi-sided shift in views of motherhood occurred over the course of the twentieth century, one of such proportions that the cultural context could no longer support maternalist politics. Ranging from Gold Star Mothers through natural childbirth, Mom offers fresh interpretations of major figures such as Philip Wylie and Betty Friedan and makes the case for treating the decades from the 1920s through the early 1960s as one period of sweeping change. This is essential reading for all historians who are interested in the gender politics of modern America.”

Sonya Michel, coeditor of Mothers of a New World: Maternalist Politics and the Origins of Welfare States , Director of United States Studies, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars

“American historians have long struggled to understand the confluence of factors contributing to the erosion of nineteenth-century conceptions of Moral Motherhood: those assumptions about female selflessness, purity, and self-sacrifice that authorized white, middle-class women to participate in shaping twentieth-century civic culture. Explanations of the transition from maternalism to contemporary perceptions of mothering as a private experience—simply one choice among many that a woman may elect in the course of a lifetime—have, until now, been unsatisfying and partial. At last, Rebecca Jo Plant has identified social, political, cultural, and biomedical factors that ordained this change by the mid-twentieth century. Offering new and complex ways of thinking about this monumental transition, her book will inform work on modern American politics, culture, and society for years to come.”

Regina Morantz-Sanchez, University of Michigan

Filling a void in the scholarship, historian Plant (Univ. of California, San Diego) offers an intriguing examination of the death of the "moral mother," a concept that, as many historians have argued, grew out of Republican motherhood and solidified in the US during the Victorian era. By the start of the 20th century, motherhood was seen as a woman’s highest calling, a role marked by a mother’s self-sacrifice and devotion to her children above all else. According to Plant, however, this notion of moral motherhood would be yet another casualty of the impact of modernity on US society, the assault beginning in the interwar years and accelerating after WW II. Using a vast array of primary sources, she argues that the critics of exalted motherhood were many, from Philip Wylie, who emphasized the negative impact on men, to Betty Friedan, who focused on the stultifying effects for women. In this way, Plant posits that "the demise of moral motherhood" led to the rise of the white middle-class women’s movement in the 1960s. Well written and thoroughly researched, the book provides an engaging examination of the cultural reconstruction of motherhood in the modern US. Summing Up: Recommended. Most levels/libraries. -- K. B. Nutter, SUNY Stony Brook

K. B. Nutter | Choice

Table of Contents


Debunking the All-American Mom: Philip Wylie’s Momism Critique
Mothers of the Nation: Patriotic Maternalism and Its Critics
Pathologizing Mother Love: Mental Health and Maternal Affectivity
Banishing the Suffering Mother: The Quest for Painless Childbirth
Mother-Blaming and The Flaming Mystique: Betty Friedan and Her Readers


Be the first to know

Get the latest updates on new releases, special offers, and media highlights when you subscribe to our email lists!

Sign up here for updates about the Press