Work Life Balance

Was There a Time When We Hated Mothers?

By  | 

The New York Times celebrated Mothers Day with this provocative op-ed by Stephanie Coontz, “When We Hated Mom.”

Coontz writes that one of the most enduring myths about feminism is that 50 years ago, women who stayed home enjoyed higher social status and satisfying lives than they do now. This changed, we’re told, with the rise of feminism. But the good times weren’t the 1950s, it turns out, they were 150 years ago. Also the author of A Strange Stirring: ‘The Feminine Mystique’ and American Women at the Dawn of the 1960s, she clearly knows her stuff. The piece is worth reading for no other reason than she pulls together lots of fascinating historical tidbits. Women in the 19th century seemed quite secure about their import to society — but all that changed. Like a lot of things that are wrong with society today, we can start by blaming Freud:

“In the early 20th century, under the influence of Freudianism, Americans began to view public avowals of “Mother Love” as unmanly and redefine what used to be called “uplifting encouragement” as nagging. By the 1940s, educators, psychiatrists and popular opinion-makers were assailing the idealization of mothers; in their view, women should stop seeing themselves as guardians of societal and familial morality and content themselves with being, in the self-deprecating words of so many 1960s homemakers, “just a housewife.”

Stay-at-home mothers were often portrayed as an even bigger menace to society than career women. In 1942, in his best-selling “Generation of Vipers,” Philip Wylie coined the term “momism” to describe what he claimed was an epidemic of mothers who kept their sons tied to their apron strings, boasted incessantly of their worth and demanded that politicians heed their moralizing. Momism became seen as a threat to the moral fiber of America on a par with communism. In 1945, the psychiatrist Edward Strecher argued that the 2.5 million men rejected or discharged from the Army as unfit during World War II were the product of overly protective mothers.

In the same year, an information education officer in the Army Air Forces conjectured that the insidious dependency of the American man on “ ‘Mom’ and her pies” had “killed as many men as a thousand German machine guns.” According to the 1947 best seller “Modern Woman: The Lost Sex,” two-thirds of Americans were neurotic, most of them made so by their mothers.”

I had some sense this was going on back in the day, but the anecdotes Coontz provides are certainly eye-opening. However, aside from Coontz’s history lesson, I’m not sure what to make of Coontz’s political argument. Coontz is pretty unreserved in her cheerleading of modern feminism. She paints stay-at-home work as something that led to constant exhaustion. She says that full-time moms in the 1960s spent 55 hours a week on domestic chores, much more than they do today. She points out that domestic violence rates have fallen and that husband have done much more housework in the intervening decades. Stat-at-home moms today have “shorter total workweeks” than their husbands, we’re told.

A lot of her stats here strike me as dubious or requiring some context. For instance, the labor force in the 50s and 60s was very much different than our current corporate/information technology state of affairs. A lot of housewives have always worked harder than their husbands, but the way Coontz has written this makes it sound like housewives had a comparatively brutal existence compared to their husbands.

But life then wasn’t necessarily Mad Men where the husbands all ran off and had three-martini lunches while the mothers were left to do the real work. In 1950, one in three husbands worked in a manufacturing job. Perhaps this is a decidedly unfeminist thing to say, but as tough a job as being a housewife is, is it really that much tougher than the equivalent hours a week working on a factory line or at a steel mill?