Motherhood is not an inconsequential and ideologically neutral individual role in society. Instead, “motherhood” is considered, according to critical and cultural scholars and theorists, to be both a complex set of experiences individuals embody and a symbolic social institution that has been used to regulate human behavior through cultural norms and social scripts that are discursively struggled over across history. The institution of motherhood is imbedded in cultural, economic, and legal systems and is a central consideration in how we come to define the domestic and public spheres. Black feminist, liberal feminist, radical feminist, Marxist, queer, postcolonial, and decolonial theories are mobilized by critics in communication to investigate motherhood as a complex symbolic interlocutor. Critical scholars from these divergent theoretical and political traditions analyze motherhood as an experience, a practice, a performance, and/or an ideology. Because of the importance of the concept of mothering in society, examining discourses about motherhood is a central concern for critical and cultural communication scholars who are interested in the formation of gender and sexual scripts and the maintenance of racial and class-based systems of oppression.
Ashley Noel Mack
The nature of motherhood and maternalism in Africa challenges perceptions and assumptions about women, families, and societies in unexpected ways. Across Africa, motherhood has operated as an institution and ideology that shaped social, economic, and political organization, especially before European colonialism expanded across the continent during the late 19th century. The sociocultural significance of biological motherhood and childrearing remains an important theme in the study of the past and the present as African women form families, sometimes outside of the bonds of marriage. Ideas about biological motherhood have also shifted to address health, disease, and sexuality. African women and men are reimagining motherhood in the face of diverse issues such as infertility, the impact of HIV/AIDS, and an emergent, self-identified LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer) community. Similarly, maternalism in Africa extends beyond the common focus on issues such as women’s rights, reproductive health, or children’s education. Maternalist politics in Africa in the 20th and 21st centuries have addressed broader political questions such as state policies, housing, and infrastructure, often with an internationalist vision. Taken together, motherhood and maternalism in Africa not only encompass personal and emotional realms often associated with both terms but also bridge historical and political questions, including ones about belonging and citizenship in an interconnected world.
Jill E. Kelly
Gendered processes produced and sustained families and labor in southern Africa from the first hunter-gatherers through the present, but these processes were never static or uncontested. Archaeological, oral, and ethnographic sources suggest that southern Africa’s first hunter-gatherers experienced tense contestations of social and sexual roles and that the division of labor was more fluid than is normally assumed. Some 2,000 years ago new ways of life—pastoralism and agriculture—organized societies according to gender and generation, with young persons under the control of adults, and older women able to wield control over children-in-law as well as political and spiritual power. For agriculturalists, the home was a political space. During the centralization of states in the region, leaders tightened control of women, coming-of-age practices, and marriage as well as militarized age sets. After the onset of colonialism, gendered violence and contested social relations shaped and maintained a gendered and racialized capitalist society. Enslaved, dependent, and free African women’s labor unfolded in the service of white settlers along European ideas of women’s work, and a consensus emerged among officials, missionaries, and African Christian converts over the centrality of educated women converts to the making of Christian African families. Authorities enacted legislation to govern sex and marriage and to differentiate by race and culture. The developing system of migrant labor relied upon women’s agricultural work in the reserves. The apartheid state, too, intervened in social relations to control labor and produce not only racialized but also ethnicized persons in the service of separate development. Across the 20th century women shaped nationalisms, often using their association with social reproduction, and mobilized both within larger nationalism movements and specifically as women. Their political and social activism continues in the post-apartheid era.
By the end of the 19th century, the medical specialties of gynecology and obstetrics established a new trend in women’s healthcare. In the 20th century, more and more American mothers gave birth under the care of a university-trained physician. The transition from laboring and delivering with the assistance of female family, neighbors, and midwives to giving birth under medical supervision is one of the most defining shifts in the history of childbirth. By the 1940s, the majority of American mothers no longer expected to give birth at home, but instead traveled to hospitals, where they sought reassurance from medical experts as well as access to pain-relieving drugs and life-saving technologies. Infant feeding followed a similar trajectory. Traditionally, infant feeding in the West had been synonymous with breastfeeding, although alternatives such as wet nursing and the use of animal milks and broths had existed as well. By the early 20th century, the experiences of women changed in relation to sweeping historical shifts in immigration, urbanization, and industrialization, and so too did their abilities and interests in breastfeeding. Scientific study of infant feeding yielded increasingly safer substitutes for breastfeeding, and by the 1960s fewer than 1 in 5 mothers breastfed. In the 1940s and 1950s, however, mothers began to organize and to resist the medical management of childbirth and infant feeding. The formation of childbirth education groups helped spread information about natural childbirth methods and the first dedicated breastfeeding support organization, La Leche League, formed in 1956. By the 1970s, the trend toward medicalized childbirth and infant feeding that had defined the first half of the century was in significant flux. By the end of the 20th century, efforts to harmonize women’s interests in more “natural” motherhood experiences with the existing medical system led to renewed interest in midwifery, home birth, and birth centers. Despite the cultural shift in favor of fewer medical interventions, rates of cesarean sections climbed to new heights by the end of the 1990s. Similarly, although pressures on mothers to breastfeed mounted by the end of the century, the practice itself increasingly relied upon the use of technologies such as the breast pump. By the close of the century, women’s agency in pursuing more natural options proceeded in tension with the technological, social, medical, and political systems that continued to shape their options.
Two images dominated popular portrayals of American women in the 1950s. One was the fictional June Cleaver, the female lead character in the popular television program, “Leave It to Beaver,” which portrayed Cleaver as the stereotypical happy American housewife, the exemplar of postwar American domesticity. The other was Cleaver’s alleged real-life opposite, described in Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique (1963) as miserable, bored, isolated, addicted to tranquilizers, and trapped in look-alike suburban tract houses, which Friedan termed “comfortable concentration camps.” Both stereotypes ignore significant proportions of the postwar female population, both offer simplistic and partial views of domesticity, but both reveal the depth of the influence that lay behind the idea of domesticity, real or fictional. Aided and abetted by psychology, social science theory, advertising, popular media, government policy, law, and discriminatory private sector practices, domesticity was both a myth and a powerful ideology that shaped the trajectories of women’s lives.
Almost all information about women in antiquity comes to us from male sources. Some women could read and write (see literacy), at least to the level needed for their role as guardians of the *household stores (e.g. Xen.Oec. 7.5 and 9.10; see housework), but, although there are many references to literary works by women, very few texts survive. The known exceptions to male authorship include women poets (e.g. *Sappho, *Corinna, *Erinna, *Nossis, Sulpicia (1 and 2)), early philosophers (e.g. *Hypatia; some Hellenistic pamphlets are attributed to Pythagorean women; see women in philosophy), personal letters from women, and the 5th-century ce travel diary of Egeria (*Itinerarium Egeriae). Many attributions to women are problematic. Were women's letters written by scribes? Is a text ascribed to a woman simply in order to attack a man (e.g. Aspasia's alleged authorship of *Pericles(1)'s speeches)?The central source problems, and the strategies developed to overcome them, underpin the large amount of work on ancient women produced since the 1980s.
Valentine M. Moghadam
Economic development gained prominence as a field of economics after World War II in relation to the prospects of what came to be called underdeveloped, decolonizing, developing, or Third World countries. The period between the 1950s and 1980s saw the emergence of various theories of economic development and policy strategies, and the growth of “development studies” reflected cross-disciplinary interest in the subject. In the early decades, women received little or no attention. If women were discussed at all in policy circles, it was in relation to their role as mothers, an approach that came to be known as the welfare or motherhood approach. The field of women in development (WID) emerged in the 1970s. Since the 1990s, women’s participation and gender dynamics have evolved as central issues in the discourse and policies of international development. Along with changes in theories and policies of economic development, WID developed with distinct or overlapping fields known as women and development (WAD), gender and development (GAD), the efficiency approach, and the empowerment approach. Several basic themes can be identified from the literature on women and gender in development, including: all societies exhibit a division of labor by sex; economic development has had a differential impact on men and women, although the impact on women has tended to be conditioned by class and ethnicity; economic policy making and institutions have a gendered nature, and the ways in which macroeconomics and the social relations of gender influence each other.
Elena Jackson Albarrán
The shape, function, and social meaning of the Mexican family changed alongside its relationship to the state, the Catholic Church, and popularly held beliefs and customs over the course of the 20th century. Liberal reforms of the 19th century, and in particular the Penal Code of 1871 and the Civil Code of 1884, accelerated the intentionally political function of the family, as policymakers sought to bring the domestic sphere into the service of the state. Although domestic policies aimed to wrest influence over the private sphere from the Catholic Church, both the secularizing effects and economic impact of these efforts resulted in markedly unequal gender standards. The Mexican Revolution of 1910 wrought some dramatic demographic changes that had a long-term impact on family structure, gender roles within the family, and, perhaps most significantly, the resulting revolutionary government’s conception of the role that the family unit ought to play in nationalist development projects. The post-revolutionary decades saw the reinterpretation of late-19th-century liberalizing tendencies to align the family more consciously with a vision of a modern, collectively identified economic nationalist vision of the future. Men, women, and children saw their social roles reimagined in the rhetorical ideal, even as agrarian and educational reforms revised individuals’ relationships to the labor and socializing institutions that had come to define their identities. By the 1940s, economic growth, political stability, and technological advances in medicine and healthcare all contributed to the beginning of a surge in population growth that continued until the early 1970s. Coupled with a radical shift in population density to the urban areas, these changes contributed to transformations in family residence patterns, the division of labor, and the role of children and young people. But events in the 1970s conspired to bring a radical end to the high birth rate. These included the conscious domestic-policy reform of the Luís Echeverría administration (1970–1976); the availability of contraception and its tacit approval by the Mexican Catholic Church; the transnational feminist movement, culminating in the 1975 meeting in Mexico City of the United Nations’ Conference on Women to commemorate International Women’s Year; and, not least of these, preventive measures taken by citizens themselves to reduce the strain on the family unit. By the end of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st, transnational migrations and remittances came to define an increasing percentage of families and kinship structures.
Jadwiga E. Pieper Mooney
The official histories of family planning and reproductive rights in Chile started in the 1960s, with initiatives by Chilean doctors to reduce maternal mortality due to self-induced abortions; Chilean women’s mobilization for rights surged in the 1970s, and the concept of reproductive rights became the focus within health policy debates only by the 1990s. Specific Chilean political developments shaped these trajectories, as did global paradigm changes, including the politicization of fertility regulation as a subject of the Cold War. These same trajectories also generated new understandings of reproductive rights and women’s rights. The goals of preventing abortions and maternal mortality, of controlling population size, and of protecting families all contributed to the public endorsement of family planning programs in the 1960s. Medical doctors and health officials in Chile collaborated with the International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF) and founded the first Chilean family planning institution, the Association for the Protection of the Family (APROFA). Since 1965, APROFA, affiliated with the IPPF, has remained the primary institution that makes family planning available to Chilean women and couples. The concept of “reproductive rights” is relatively new, globally, and in its specific national representation in Chile; questions of women’s rights gained unprecedented international prominence after the United Nation’s designation of the International Women’s Year (IWY) in 1975. International conferences, and the extension of IWY to a Decade for Women between 1975 and 1985, stimulated debates about policy norms that linked human rights, women’s rights, and the right to health to nascent definitions of reproductive rights. Just as international gatherings provided platforms for debates about rights, unparalleled human rights violations under military rule (1973–1990) interrupted the lives of Chilean citizens. Women in Chile protested the dictatorship, mobilized for democracy in their country and their homes, and added reproductive rights to the list of demands for democratic restructuring after the end of dictatorship. While family planning programs largely survived the changes of political leadership in Chile, the dictatorship dealt a lasting blow to quests for reproductive rights. The military’s re-drafted Constitution of 1980 not only compromised effective political re-democratization, but also imposed such changes as the end of therapeutic abortions, which have remained at the center of political activism against reproductive rights violations in the 21st century.