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NBCC Featured Review: Nicole Rudick on Mom, by Rebecca Jo Plant

By Eric Banks

Critical Mass reguarly highlights exemplary reviews by NBCC members. This week, in a review published by The Millions, Nicole Rudick discusses Rebecca Jo Plant's Mom: The Transformation of Motherhood in Modern America (University of Chicago Press)

The caress of your hair, soft silver
On my cheek how I fain would feel,
And from lips that are soft as roses,
A sweet kiss I would like to steal.

This poem, the full version of which was published in the military newspaper Stars and Stripes in 1918, was written by an American soldier on the field of war not to his girlfriend or wife, but to his mother. Nearly half a century later, Raymond Shaw and his mother steal a kiss in The Manchurian Candidate. Though similar, these shows of affection were received in radically different ways. In the early part of the century, such deeply felt mother-son expressions were earnest and admirable. But in 1962, the display was considered not simply inappropriate but incestuous and intensely disturbing. What caused attitudes about a mother’s love to change so dramatically? This is the central question in Rebecca Jo Plant’s Mom, which traces the complex social and political transformation of middle-class motherhood in American and the ways in which women conceived of that role.

Plant’s nuanced history is bookended by two screeds against the housewife-mother: Philip Wylie’s Generation of Vipers (1942), which coined the term momism as a critique of the perverting powers of Victorian-era “mother love”; and Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique (1963), an early feminist text that called for women’s liberation from their domestic shackles. Though these works would seem to fall at opposite ends of a spectrum—one is a misogynistic attack on the “deforming” effects of old-fashioned motherhood, the other set the stage for the women’s liberation movement later that decade—Plant argues that both books’ criticisms stem from the same poison tree: blaming mothers for the world’s ills.

When Wylie launched his attack, mothers had already found themselves under heavy fire. Victorian culture had idealized them as martyrs and moral repositories, capable of molding virtuous and noble children, and the sacrifice required by this “sacred estate” made them symbols of civic virtue, on par with the nation’s soldiers in the trenches of World War I. In the ’20s and ’30s, critics protested this sentimental construction, arguing that the authority it bestowed on mothers was politically coercive. Wylie’s assault came at a time that Plant describes as the zenith of mother-blaming, helped along by the rise of therapeutic culture and the growing influence of psychological experts. His aim was to show that these outmoded, yet still prevalent, ideas were irrational and that women’s moral dominance in social and political realms was not only cloying but a danger to the health of the nation. Freidan offers the best rundown of the litany of offenses that women found themselves saddled with in the postwar period:

In every case history of a troubled child; alcoholic, suicidal, schizophrenic, psychopathic, neurotic adult; impotent, homosexual male; frigid, promiscuous female; ulcerous, asthmatic, and otherwise disturbed American, could be found a mother. A frustrated, repressed, disturbed, martyred, never satisfied, unhappy woman. A demanding, nagging, shrewdish wife. A rejecting, overprotecting, dominating mother.

If this account seems hyperbolic, consider a journalist’s summation in 1935: “Iron-willed, frustrated, self-sacrificing mothers, trying to live a dream life through their progeny, have wrecked more lives than has syphilis.”

The “mass-produced sentimentalism”—such as the commercialization of Mother’s Day and radio soap operas—of the interwar era served, in the words of one Wylie fan, to turn the population into “a race of soft-brained guinea pigs” and was likened to fascist mind control. (Ironically, today a similar brand of emotional idealism is in vogue with conservative political commentators such as Glenn Beck, Bill O’Reilly, and Pat Buchanan, who nostalgically evoke the past as a way of condemning the current administration’s policies. “Obama is literally ripping apart the foundation of the America that we knew and grew up in,” laments Sean Hannity.) Yet at the time of its publication, Wylie’s book could boast a certain progressive air, partly by hinging on the idea that women were stultified by their domestic identity. It’s here that Friedan’s account agrees with Wylie’s. In order to fight gender discrimination, Friedan found it necessary to employ the same demoralizing tactics against mother-homemakers. Yet by 1963, such attitudes were “nothing new.” This helps explain why both Friedan and Simone de Beauvoir, who quoted approvingly from Wylie’s book in The Second Sex, saw Wylie’s critique “not as an attack on women per se but as an attack on women who defended paternalism and sexual inadequacy” —that is, not as a misogynist rant but as an argument for the psychological price of sexual and cultural inequality.

However, Plant is quick to discern an important difference between Wylie’s and Friedan’s use of mother-blaming. Although the former sought to banish women from their traditional roles as homemaker and mother, he proposed no alternative. Friedan, on the other hand, deduced “the logical implications of momism in a forceful and systematic way” and realized that to counter the pathological mother, women must pursue fulfilling work away from home and children. Plant’s study is most interesting in parsing the “fundamental division” among white, middle-class women that occurred alongside the publication of The Feminine Mystique: Though some women were liberated by their rejection of homemaking and motherhood roles as the only ones available to them, for others “those roles did not present oppression or constraint but rather the basis of a meaningful identity.” (Of course, as psychologist Anna Wolf argued in 1941, working women now had “two jobs in life, not one.”)

Plant’s examination of these reactions to Friedan’s book both enriches an understanding of second-wave feminism’s development and offers a valuable lens by which to consider the current discussion of women’s roles. In a large sense, the conversation has come full circle, and the work of equality for working women and respect for those who stay home is far from done. Ann Crittenden’s The Price of Motherhood, details the social devaluation of stay-at-home moms and the financial penalty paid by women who choose caring for children over working. Crittenden’s book is hailed as The Feminine Mystique for the motherhood movement, yet it owes more to Friedan’s 1980 follow-up, The Second Stage, in which she that argues equality is only one part of the feminist argument; the other is diversity among gender roles. In addressing some of the backlash against The Feminine Mystique when it was published, Freidan admits that many women felt forced out of meaningful identities, and she emphasizes the need for an equal partnership in domestic chores and childrearing. “After fighting hard to win respect in the workplace,” Crittendon reasons, “women had yet to win respect for their work at home.”

“I felt like my choices were either to break the glass ceiling or to accept the gilded cage,” explains one woman in a recent New York Times profile of “femivores,” stay-at-home moms who turn their backyards into extensive kitchen gardens complete with chicken coops. In rejecting the either/or that has formed the basis of women’s lives for the past fifty years, these mothers have created a third option: infusing domesticity with new meaning and real economic worth.