Recent tragedy highlights greater risks for new mothers

by Emilie Egger

After days of countless press outlets expressing pity for  “nice guy” Jovan Belcher, who suddenly “snapped” and committed a murder-suicide, and even the indirect blaming of Kasandra Perkins, his girlfriend whom he shot nine times and killed, certain media outlets are finally coming around to examining the actual victims in this case. Namely, Perkins and her now orphaned 3-month-old daughter. As analysis of this dark story spreads, we can at least be glad that it has sparked a resurgence of discussion around Domestic Violence in the United States.

However, even much of this ‘fairer’ news coverage is missing the larger point. The U.S. has serious qualms about taking seriously the safety of women, who are at a much greater risk for domestic violence than men, and a general refusal to acknowledge issues of race and class that put poor women of color at even greater risk for abuse. Women’s agency, and control of their own bodies, has always been a controversial subject in the U.S.

In one article that appeared in the Washington Post in the wake of the Belcher murder-suicide, Sharon Katz, the executive director of SafeHome, the domestic violence shelter in Kansas City where Belcher and Perkins lived, asserted that “[Domestic violence] isn’t a woman’s problem. It is a human problem.” While Katz’s words are true in the sense that both women and men are at risk for becoming victims of abuse, the implication that domestic violence affects men and women equally obfuscates the overwhelming prevalence of abuse toward women in our culture.

According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, 85 percent of domestic violence victims are women and 1 in 4 women will be abused during her lifetime. The United States Department of Justice has found that most of these victims are abused by someone they know, often an intimate partner. Violence is a threat for new and expectant mothers. According to the Centers for Disease Control, between four and eight percent of American women are abused while pregnant, Furthermore, a 2005 CDC report found that this risk for abuse continues after pregnancy into the early months of motherhood.

For new and expectant mothers of color, like Perkins, the risk for abuse is even higher. Black mothers have a seven times increased risk over white mothers for death by homicide. For women of color under the age of 29, that number is eleven.

Abuse of pregnant women also extends beyond physical violence to verbal and emotional abuse. Women report their partners making them feel guilty about how they conduct themselves during their pregnancy or how they choose to mother their child once s/he is born. Beyond the adverse effects of these kinds of abuse on pregnant women, which include depression, anxiety, loss of appetite, etc., the stress associated with verbal, emotional abuse can have adverse effects on a fetus, changing the hormonal balance of the womb and leaving it more susceptible to anxiety, depression, and substance abuse as a child and adult.

Often, abuse surrounding women’s reproductive rights begins before pregnancy.  A 2009 study of young women in Boston found that many domestic partners manipulate birth control as another way of controlling their partner. This is especially prevalent among poor women, 26 percent of whom, in the Boston study, reported that their partners attempted to control their access to contraception.

These statistics and examples of abuse are indicative of a larger national anxiety over the rights of women to make decisions regarding their reproductive health and the lives of their children. The Guttmacher Institute reports that since 2010, 32 states have restricted abortion rights in some capacity. And the intense focus on birth control during the 2012 presidential campaign reminded women that seemingly basic rights could be at risk.

Some officials seem to be on the right track in addressing the true roots of this problem. In the same Washington Post article, Sharon Katz calls for a re-examination of healthy romantic and domestic relationships, including the need for positive role models for boys, many of whom have learned to associate masculinity with varying degrees of abusive control over their female partners. In this, Katz is calling for a critique of the power structures that exist between men and women, especially during the vulnerable state during pregnancy and the early postnatal months. However, it is a shame that she and others like her do not explicitly connect the dots between the inherent power differences for males and females under patriarchy and the disproportionate rates of violence women face.

On the legislative front, it is politics as usual, as members of Congress fail to pass laws with tangible protections for vulnerable individuals. It is in this arena that groups like LGBTQ folks, Native Americans, and immigrants face another hurdle in their fight for protection against domestic violence. Republicans continue to refuse reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), which for the first time would include protections for these groups. The new version of the bill would provide provisions for Native American women, 40 percent of whom will be physically or sexually abused; LGBTQ individuals, as the new law would make discrimination at domestic-violence shelters illegal; and undocumented immigrant victims of abuse, who, under the 2012 VAWA, would be granted legal status while cooperating with authorities to confront their abusers.

Even though the bill has enough votes to get through the Senate, House Republicans refuse to pass it because of these very provisions.

Of course, legislation can only do so much. We must take seriously events like last week’s tragedy, examining what role everyday power dynamics take in such unthinkable events. Real progress will only come after people recognize the connections between cultural anxieties over women’s bodies and agency and the violence directed against them.

Emilie Egger is a student in Sarah’s Lawrence’s women’s history program. 

“In the Service of the Matriarchy”: A Conversation with Author Robert Leleux

by Emma Staffaroni

“I am overwhelmed with gratitude for the life I have. The life I get to live is the life imagined by my mother, my grandmother, and my great-grandmother. It’s like Gloria Steinem said: ‘We have to imagine change before we can begin to move toward it.’ I am so grateful for these women who imagined this Manhattan life.” – Robert Leleux

Anyone who has had the privilege of meeting Robert Leleux, author of The Memoirs of a Beautiful Boy and The Living End, will know that a reference to a notable woman like Gloria Steinem is a commonplace part of a conversation. And he writes with the same style; to quote from The Living End, in a chapter called “Indomitable Ladies”: “I suspect the real reason Mother decided to make beauty her vocation was to protect her heart. She’s always reminded me of that old joke about Marlene Dietrich. ‘Come now, Marlene,’ somebody said. ‘You’re wearing rouge, powder, a wig, false eyelashes, and a girdle.’ ‘Yes darling,’ Dietrich replied, with a glance down at her famous figure. ‘But all the rest of it is me.’”

Memoirs of a Beautiful BoyLeleux’s memoirs tell of his youth in small-town Texas. His Mother-capital-M, Jessica, is a larger-than-life character in these hilarious and one-of-a-kind stories. Jessica is pure Texas: big blond hair, melodic drawl, and Texas sass–a “dame,” as Leleux calls her. In public, he tells us, she was often mistaken for a starlet; her glamour and eccentricity permeated all aspects of Robert’s childhood. Indeed, while he revels in the often bizarre lengths to which his mother went for beauty and style, Leleux cherishes their unique bond, forged through hardship and humor. When he came out to his mother at 17, telling her he was in love with his now-husband, Michael, Jessica’s response was nonchalance and total acceptance. “How could you be my child and not be gay?” she replied.

He is also as funny in conversation as he is in his two memoirs. But as Robert told me during a phone chat about matriarchs, “I am only the feint photocopy of my grandmother and mother.” His late grandmother Joann, the subject of his second book, was what one his family members called “mascara-streaming-down-your-cheeks funny.” Joann passed this “gallows humor” to her daughter Jessica, who “spoke in quotable phrases, as though she intended her words to be embroidered.” This line from Memoirs perfectly captures the gift Leleux’s matriarchs seem to have bequeathed to him; the man is a guru of quips of quotes.

Partly in earnest and partly in jest, Leleux explained what his unusual young life instilled: a sense of beauty. “Professionally, I am an editor of an interior design magazine. I’ve had no training, and yet…I know what I’m talking about. Now this is sounding arrogant but let me finish,” he said, with a big, Robert Leleux laugh. “I was raised by people with a sense of beauty. Not only could they make anything beautiful, but there was an atmosphere of beauty they created. And that is really a talent and a gift–the gift of atmosphere.”
Leleux 1There are yet other benefits of being the gay grand/son of such “artists” of language and living. “Often there’s that mother-daughter thing, but as a gay guy there’s not this ‘I’ve come to this planet to replace you’ thing going on.”

Despite some of their absurd content, Leleux’s books are written with true devotion and respect for his subjects. The outlandishness of the stories—like the time he Krazy-glued fake hair to his mother’s head–are paired with a profound humanizing of the characters. For people who often acted like caricatures, they appear on every page to be deeply complex and profoundly human. In the same passage in which he cites Marlene Dietrich, he tells us, “Mother may have indulged in artifice, from the top of her wig to the heel of her platform shoes. But all the rest of her was real—her humor and devotion, her fierce stubbornness and Texas temper.”

Robert Leleux is like a gay feminist Kurt Vonnegut, with a dash of David Sedaris and maybe even a soupçon of Kathy Lee Gifford. His smart irreverence has the register of comedy while revealing profound and intimate truths. “I think everyone should be a feminist simply as a result of having a mother,” he told me candidly. “I really–this is so cheesy–I would want my life to have been in service to the matriarchy.” So far, so good.

You can purchase Leleux’s books here and here.

“Kisses to the Little Ones”: Martha Jefferson Randolph & 18th Century Motherhood

by Katy Gehred

The little “about me” blurb at the end of all my posts says that if you have any questions
about Thomas Jefferson, I’m the one to ask.

Well, this is 100% true. As anybody who knows me for more than three minutes finds
out, I used to work as a tour guide at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello. (Don’t know what
that is? Look at the back of a nickel. That’s right. I worked THERE.)

I love the Teej as much as the next history nerd. In fact, on my list of “crush-worthy
Founding Fathers” he is second only to historical dreamboat John Adams.

Look at that handsome, non slave-holding, loyal to his wife son of a gun. SWOON.

HOWEVER. My bizarre personal fondness for the Founding Fathers aside, I am, first and
foremost, a women’s historian. After delivering five 40 minute tours of Monticello every
day for a few months I got sick of talking about the 6’2” amateur scientist president. Just
to switch things up I started to build up an arsenal of knowledge about his daughter,
Martha Jefferson Randolph.

MJR has played a largely anecdotal role in history, she’s TJ’s eldest daughter, and
historians love quoting Jefferson’s letters to her as a examples of how much of a big
softie the Teej was when it came to his kids.

But MJR herself has some of the most fascinating letters I’ve ever read, and as the
mother of ELEVEN CHILDREN, I thought that she fit the bill pretty nicely for this month’s

TJ was a prolific letter writer, and he demanded that his children and grandchildren write him on a steady basis. This was partially because he was interested in their lives,
and also because he was something of a worrier. He told his daughter he didn’t care
if she had no time to write, she just needed to scribble down “All is well” and he’d be

So Martha wrote him. A lot. And she went into a lot of detail about her family, detail
that is usually ignored by TJ historians because it doesn’t exactly say a lot about his
political life.

But I’m a women’s historian and I say sucks to your political life, lets take a look at early
18th century motherhood, shall we?

There are some things about which MJR writes that make early 18th century motherhood
seem pretty similar to modern motherhood. For instance, kids were and are adorable.

Take this letter from Martha to TJ, writing about her five-year-old Ellen and two year old

“Ellen counts the weeks and continues storing up complaints against Cornelia whom
she is perpetually threatening with your displeasure. Long is the list of misdemeanors
which is to be communicated to you, amongst which the stealing of 2 potatoes carefully
preserved 2 whole days for you but at last stolen by Cornelia forms a weighty article.”
MJR to TJ January 31, 1801

Jefferson loved these little family tidbits and demanded more of them in her letters,
particularly when they were about Ellen, who Martha called her father’s “little seet

MJR was slightly embarrassed by her oldest son Thomas Jefferson Randolph (she
calls him Jefferson) because he just refused to wear shoes for the vast majority of his
childhood. The historian in me ventures that this might have been partially influenced
by his playmates–mostly the enslaved boys on the plantation–who didn’t have the same
societal pressure to wear shoes that the little white master had. Just a thought.

Her seventh daughter, named Septimia in honor of that fact, went through a phase
where she called any animal a cat. “she calls every thing cat, sheep, horses, the dove
and even the landau, she distinguishes but between two things, men, & cats…” Cornelia
to Virginia Randolph Trist Nov. 7, 1814

But MJR’s life wasn’t just a heartwarming family sitcom set in the early 1800s. Some of
her parenting techniques come across as pretty callous to a modern reader, particularly
with regards to education. She worries constantly over her two eldest children, Jefferson and Anne.

“My 2 eldest are uncommonly backward in every thing much more so than many others,
who have not had half the pains taken with them.” MJR to TJ January 31, 1801

Her oldest son, Jefferson, she writes, is “quicker than I had ever thought him possible
to be,” but she is afraid he’s too far behind to ever catch up. Although he received an
education outside of the home, she was “seriously uneasy at his not going to school.”
MJR to TJ, April 16, 1802

Even Thomas Jefferson, who loved his grandchildren so much that he spoiled them
constantly and was always bringing them cake when he came home, figured that the
most his eldest grandson had in him intellectually was to be “an industrious farmer.” TJ
to MJR Feb. 5, 1801

Poor Anne, described by her mother in the same letter where she calls
her “backward”, “does not want memory but she does not improve. She appears to
learn absolutely without profit.” Ouch.

MJR eventually admits that her constant worries about the intelligence of her two
oldest children are “unreasonable”, “for surely if they turn out well with regard to
morals I ought to be satisfied, tho I feel that I never can sit down quietly under the idea
of their being blockheads.” MJR to TJ April 16, 1802

But the disconcerting honesty with which MJR treats her children’s strengths and
weaknesses is just one of many differences between parenting in the early 1800s and
parenting today. While MJR certainly took an active role in the raising of her children,
she had a “Mammy” do quite a bit of her work for her. At Monticello the enslaved
woman whom the children all knew as Mammy was named Priscilla Hemings. She took
care of the kids and even had sole responsibility for switching (hitting) them when they
deserved it. The children mentioned her in letters to one another after they were all old
enough to read and write. Once Septimia started to crawl, for example, Cornelia wrote
to her younger sister, “Mammy don’t like her to do that because she says that it makes
her too dirty.” Cornelia to Virginia Nov. 7, 1814

Modern comparisons might be made to having a live-in sitter or nanny, but Priscilla
couldn’t choose the family for whom she worked, or her hours, and she had no wages.
Her dedication to raising Martha’s children was taken for granted, as an enslaved
woman was meant to be grateful to her owners for their paternalistic care of her.

References to slavery in MJR’s letter’s can be jarring for one looking for charming family

The early 18th century was also a scary time for mothers, as medical science was pretty
much guesswork and bleeding was considered a go-to cure for just about everything.

It was incredibly common for a mother to lose her child, and infancy and childhood
were particularly dangerous times. Losing a child was always a horrifying experience,
but due to its great frequency it was treated with a little bit more emotional distance.
In modern times it might seem strange, but when MJR’s third daughter, Ellen, died at a
year old, they just named the next daughter Ellen again.

MJR had 12 children total, 11 of whom survived to adulthood, which was astonishingly
lucky. She was not without her scares, though. In 1801 both Cornelia and Ellen came
down with a bad fever, which MJR thought might be caused by worms. She described it
to her father:

“It was a terrible moment. Ellen and Cornelia were particularly ill both delirious one
singing and laughing the other (Ellen) gloomy and terrified equally unconscious of the objects around them. My God what a moment for a Parent. The agonies of Mr.
Randolph’s mind seemed to call forth every energy of mine. I had to act in the double
capacity of nurse to my children and comforter to their Father.” MJR November 18,

By the next time Ellen was delirious with fever, MJR was capable of making a joke about
it. Apparently whenever Ellen wasn’t lost in feverish delirium, she was reading one
of the texts her grandfather had sent her. “Judge of my feelings My Dearest Father
at seeing her escaping me so rapidly and often when hanging over her in agonies
indescribable to have some question of natural history which she was reading at the
time addressed to me by the little sufferer the activity of whose mind even the most
acute bodily pain was never capable of subduing.” MJR to TJ July 12 1803

Flippancy aside however, MJR closes that particular letter by saying “I reflect with
horror upon that week that no language can paint.”

And so you can see how MJR’s letters paint a picture of what motherhood
was like back at the turn of the century. It’s tempting, as an historian, to focus on all
the things that make MJR’s experience similar to a modern one, but it’s important to
remember that she lived in an extremely different time. Parenting was a bit more gritty
back then, accompanied by the constant knowledge that your child could be taken
from you by illness at any time. If you were an enslaved mother, your child could be
taken from you by death, or at the whim of your owner, a daily reality for thousands of
parents at the time that is now unthinkable to a modern reader.

It’s wildly arrogant to pretend that the past is something that a modern person can ever
truly understand. But thanks to alternative ways of looking at history (looking at letters
that are ignored for their mundane nature, for instance) we can at the very least gain a
new perspective.

That said, I’m going to close with a common refrain at the end of MJR’s letters, which
has to sound familiar to some modern mothers out there.

“I must beg you to recollect that I write amidst the noises and confusion of six children
interrupted every moment by their questions, and so much disturbed by [their] pratling
around me that I catch my self repeatedly writing [their words] instead of my own
thoughts.” MJR to TJ Jan. 14, 1804

Darn noisy kids.


Katy Gehred is a pop-culture obsessed feminist who is too enthusiastic about too many things. Hobbies include co-editing this blog, knitting, smashing the patriarchy with a hammer, and nerdfighting. She is currently working on her master’s degree in Women’s History at Sarah Lawrence College, and if you have any questions at all about Thomas Jefferson, she is the person to contact.

Breastfeeding in Public: Utterly Normal

by Jennifer Garvey

When I read the recent Huffington Post headline stating that a professor had breastfed her child in class, my first thought was that this was a lactivist at work. In a nutshell, lactivists are advocates for breastfeeding, but to the point where it borders on extremism. La Leche League is a good example of this. While LLL is an amazing resource for nursing mothers, they often do not understand that sometimes, mothers cannot breastfeed due to a plethora of other reasons such as lack of resources. In fact, my mother called them years ago saying that due to post-partum depression, she wasn’t sure she could breastfeed anymore. Their answer? Just breastfeed.

Gustav Klimt, Mother and Child, 1905

Gustav Klimt, Mother and Child, 1905

If you asked my future in-laws, they would probably call me a lactivist, and I wouldn’t
mind the label. I have already warned them that once their son and I have children my titties are going to be all over the place. In restaurants, at the park, in my home, in their home, in the supermarket, in the–well, you get the idea. When I read, however, that a professor had breastfed at school, my initial reaction was, Really? Then I started to read the online responses to this incident, and I realized that this wasn’t just about a professor breastfeeding in her feminist anthropology class. This was about blatant discrimination against breastfeeding mothers in America, as well as our country’s overall lack of support for mothers who give their babies the boob.

You can read this article, from Professor Adrienne Pine, the breastfeeding professor in question, in which she discusses the entire incident. I wish Pine would not have defensively explained why she brought her baby to class and subsequently breastfed her. She explains that not only was her child sick and could not be left at daycare, but also this was the first day of class. Mothers should not have to explain why they have to bring their kids to work, nor why they have to feed their babies. Would this woman have gotten as much flack if she had just handed her kid a bottle? No. It’s because she breastfed.

Breasts serve a purpose. I am so sick and tired of people thinking breasts are only for
sexual purposes. As soon as a baby starts sucking on one, they get all weirded out. I’m sorry, but you sucking on my boobs the other day when we were having sex is okay, but seeing a baby do it weirds you out? Right… Once, at a family reunion, I defended breastfeeding, which caused my male cousin to get flushed, deepen his voice and say, “I’m gonna go check on my car.” “Yeah, yeah,” I teased him, “we get it you’re a man, but guess what you sucked on your mom’s boobs, so get over it.” My female family members erupted into laughter.

The fact is, mothers–especially breastfeeding mothers–do not always get the support
they need from their families, jobs, and communities. This is often a major reason why mothers stop breastfeeding earlier than they would like. Unless you live on a commune like The Farm among other home-birthers and breastfeeding gals, you will probably catch criticism for nursing in public at some point. I once flipped out at a friend who asked why women needed to breastfeed in public. He argued that mothers should just time things out and do it at home. He later apologized, telling me he thought babies only had to be breastfed three times a day. This is the problem: folks who don’t know anything about breastfeeding with opinions about how and where it should be done.

But Adrienne Pine bringing her child with her to class that day is nothing new. Many
mothers, especially single mothers, have no other choice because they cannot afford to pay for childcare and/or cannot miss a day of work. The real issue is not that Pine breastfed in class. The problem is twofold: that there is not adequate support for mothers, and that our country is so hyper-sexualized that we are adverse to breastfeeding even though it is so utterly (pun intended) natural. Even I had to get used to women breastfeeding in front of me because it is simply not something we as Americans see often–and trust me, I plan to walk into an Applebee’s  when I am a nursing mother just because they are so adverse to it. One of my close friends simply lifts her shirt, sticks her child under it and breastfeeds. I never see a nipple. Another time I was helping a woman at my job and she had her child in ergo carrier where he was facing her. I saw him fidget, and she pulled her cardigan to the side, jiggled her chest, and he latched. Again, no sight of nipple. Every time I see a mother breastfeeding in public I have to fight the urge to run up to her, give her a high-five, and yell, “Good for you!”

As long as people scold mothers for nursing in public, and Facebook takes down photos
like these, because they are “inappropriate,” the majority of Americans will continue to take issue with a mother nursing in public. We have to teach young children that there is nothing wrong with a mother nursing her baby in public, so they grow up to be conscientious adults, aware and informed about the double binds mothers face.

Breastfeeding is normal; it is how we as a species have made it this far. Without
lactation and breasts, we wouldn’t be here.


Jennifer Garvey is a women’s history graduate student writing her thesis on Wilhelmina Geipel, a midwife, who delivered close to 700 babies in multiple neighborhoods of Queens between 1890 and 1914.

Mothers’ Pensions: A Case Study in Perceptions of Low-Income Mothers

By Emma Staffaroni

The following is edited and excerpted from a paper entitled “Single Mothers, Social Mothers, and Welfare Reform: Maternalism in the Early 20th Century.”

Mothers’ Pensions: A Case Study in Perceptions of and Attitudes toward Poor Mothers in the Early Twentieth Century

“The justice of today is born of yesterday’s pity.”  –Julia Lathrop

In order to fully comprehend the role maternalism–or political motherhood–played in the formation of the United States welfare state, we must examine one short-lived success in maternalist policy: mother’s pensions, also called widows’ pensions, the funds to parents act, and the mothers’ compensation act. Emerging as early as April 1911, these were the first laws in American history to provide public funds for women with dependent children. Because of the state-specific nature of these pension laws, each was slightly different, though a common purpose unites them: in the words of Julia Lathrop, the first Chief of the then-burgeoning Children’s Bureau, mothers’ pensions aimed at “preventing the breaking up of the home when on account of death or disability the support of the natural breadwinner of the family is removed.”[1] In many cases, this was aid to single mothers; however, as we will see, the category of “single mother” was not socially desirable and often conflated with widowhood or desertion.

Emma-Lathrop Image 1

Julia Lathrop, second from left, with fellow members of the Bureau, planning Baby Week in 1916. Photo Credit: Library of Congress.

For Lathrop and the Children’s Bureau, these laws constituted an intervention to prevent infant and child mortality, child destitution, and highly populated children’s homes. As we have seen, the philosophy of scientific motherhood imbuing the Children’s Bureau and its adherents established a socially acceptable and abstract notion of the home as a space in need of reform and systematic improvement. Though much of their advocacy and policy work centered on maternal and child health, the mothers’ pension, regulated and distributed by the state courts, was a socioeconomically-based reform effort, stemming from a recognition of the social consequences of male job loss, desertion, disability, or death. It bears noting here that the emphasis on poor women’s lived realities is central to activist women’s social motherhood. Part of their identities as social mothers involved an “innate” knowledge of the material lives of mothers. This “pity” and compassion for poor women left destitute by their husbands is part and parcel of a general “solidarity” effort on the part of women in the charity business as well as women entering public sector positions like Julia Lathrop’s in the Children’s Bureau.

If we read the Bureau’s detailed summary of mothers’ pensions laws across the 21 states that enacted them, it is clear that their principal end was keeping families together–or, as in the case of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, “giving financial assistance to the families of dependent and neglected children, instead of committing the children to the Milwaukee County Home for Dependent Children.”[2] This end was achieved with varying methods, which together illustrate the range of ideas and attitudes about women and mothers in this period.

Already we can glean understandings of motherhood from the different nomenclature used for the legislation. In Missouri, mothers whose husbands were either dead or in prison were eligible for the aid money: this was a “mothers’ pension.” In Illinois, however, the scope was broader and more gender-neutral (at least on the surface): “If the parent or parents of such dependent or neglected child are poor and unable to properly care for the said child, but are otherwise proper guardians and it is for the welfare of the child to remain at home,” states Illinois’ law, then they may be eligible. As one would expect, this law was called the “funds to parents act.” The gender-neutral language of “parents” here both obfuscates and illuminates its purposes: on the one hand, it appears progressive and not family-wage prescriptive by including the possibility of a father or another kind of parent in its scope; on the other, it deflects and ignores the patent reality that women were the beneficiaries of this aid.

Emma-Children's Bureau-Image 2

Propaganda like this illustrates the powerful message “social mothers” had to offer America in a time when infant mortality rates and low public education elicited government intervention. Photo Credit: Library of Congress

The language of “parents” also suggests another important attitude, one that can be characterized by the work of the Children’s Bureau in general: that these laws were first and foremost about children. The centerpiece of scientific motherhood is the impetus for mothers to raise better children–healthier, safer, smarter, and more “American” children. It is not hard to understand why maternalists would strategically frame their debates and policies in terms of children: it was a way to depoliticize the undeniably political work of intervening with state funds on behalf of a controversial, “deviant” population of women.

This controversial population ranges in characteristics from state to state. Lathrop’s report on mothers’ pensions lists both “persons to whom aid may be given” and “conditions on which aid is given.” These lists, strict policy points, classify needy mothers as follows:

In California, New Jersey, and Oklahoma the mother must be a widow in order to receive mothers’ aid; in the rest of the states, mothers whose husbands are in prison… mothers whose husbands are in state insane asylums… mothers whose husbands are totally incapacitated, physically or mentally… [and in some states] deserted wives…if deserted for three years. In Michigan are included also unmarried and divorced mothers.[3]

Each state’s case presents a different image of needy motherhood. Notably, there is no mention of a father as a recipient of this aid, contrary to the gender neutrality of the text. Yet despite its contradiction, this comprehensive summary gives us a glimpse of the experiences of women that the Bureau dealt with and sought to address. As in today’s United States, a woman’s freedoms and opportunities vary greatly depending on the state in which she lives; reproductive health laws, for example, illustrate this in the early 21st century.

Notably, two kinds of unmarried mothers are codified in these laws as legitimate mothers-in-need: widows, and less so, “deserted” women. Widows were seen as one of the few “deserving” groups of single mothers, as their status was incidental and tragic, not reflective of a “moral deficiency.” In 1900, 77 percent of single mothers were widows, and 16 percent were “deserted,” meaning they were not formally divorced but their husbands were absent.[4] Single mothers were “illegitimate” when they were never married, with children. As Linda Gordon writes, “welfare reformers redrew the image of the single mother” to emphasize widowhood. Even “desertion” was suspect, and the reformers at the Children’s Bureau needed to garner as much sympathy for these women as possible.[5]

The conditions under which a mother became eligible for aid also illustrate the perceptions of these women and their needs. Under “Degree of poverty,” we see conditions such as “destitute,” “dependent entirely on her own efforts,” and “may not own real property or personal property other than household effects.” Then, in a section called “Home conditions,” the moralist rhetoric of maternalist policy is evident: “requirement is made that the mother is a fit person, morally and physically, to bring up her children.” Most crucial in this piece of the summary is that “in Idaho, Illinois, Missouri, New Hampshire, Ohio, South Dakota, and Utah it is made conditional that…the mother shall not work regularly away from home.” (Emphasis mine.)[6] Here in black-and-white we witness the double-bind of many of these pensions; this aid, in other words, was often designed to substitute wages, not supplement them. Through the language of this legislation, we observe the strict workings of gender ideology as it defined “deserving” poor women–a definition and double bind that remains to this day in the American understanding of single mothers on welfare.

For further reading, please consult the books and articles of historians Eileen Boris, Linda Gordon, Molly Ladd-Taylor, Joanne Goodwin (alumna of SLC’s Women’s History program), and  Theda Skocpol.


[1] Julia Lathrop, “Laws Relating to Mothers’ Pensions in the United States, Denmark, and New Zealand,” in Dependent Children Series no. 1. U.S. Department of Labor, 1917, p. 9

[2] Lathrop, 8

[3] Lathrop, 9

[4] Linda Gordon, Pitied But Not Entitled: Single Mothers and the History of Welfare 1890-1935. New York: Free Press, 1994, p.19-20.

[5] Gordon, 27

[6] Lathrop, 10.

Sitting Shiva with the Synagogue Ladies

by Rebecca Linz

I was at a Weight Watchers meeting the first time I ever heard someone use the expression “sitting shiva.” A middle-aged Jewish woman announced with a loud voice and a strong Long Island accent that it had been a hard week for her weight loss efforts: “I was so bad.  We were sittin’ shiva for my dear aunt Shoshanna and let me tell you, it was a week of tuna salad, chicken salad, egg salad, bagels, kugel and knishes!” She sighed dramatically, as others in the room offered advice and sympathy.

A few months later, I found myself “sittin’ shiva” for my own mother in Michigan. I had found out my mother had cancer through a text message from my twin sister Sarah.  “Mom is stage 4 lymphoma and will start chemo ASAP,” she bluntly wrote. Sarah had ended her 5-year relationship, quit her job, and moved from Massachusetts back to Michigan to live with and care for our ailing parents, so I couldn’t exactly get mad at her for delivering this news via a text message. Our father’s Parkinson’s disease had forced him into early retirement, but it was a shock to us all when our normally robust mother fell suddenly and seriously ill at the relatively young age of 57.

Within six months of her diagnosis, my mother had lost 100 pounds and the ability to stand or even sit up on her own. Frail and extremely ill, she passed away a few days after my wife, two kids and I had gone to Michigan from New York for what we knew would be our last Thanksgiving with my mother.

My mother and I were not particularly close. She and I often went for months without speaking to each other, either out of anger or just avoidance. Our biggest fight occurred after the birth of my older son, Avery. He was just a few days old, my wife Carolyn and I were sleep deprived, and I was a hormonal mess. My mother criticized me for struggling with breastfeeding, and worse, she said he was “just a sperm donor baby,” and suggested that we were not a legitimate family. When she left for the airport, I was sobbing and vowed that I would never speak to her again. She apologized a few weeks later in an e-mail, and eventually we returned to our infrequent and formal communications.

The semester my mother died was rough. I was working full-time as well as teaching an evening class twice a week, on top of trying to make progress on my dissertation. Carolyn gave birth to our son Caleb in October, but she had to go back into the hospital for several days due to an infection and then carry around a “wound vac” which was about as gross as it sounds. Avery was three years old and was being evaluated for autism and other developmental delays. Our dog died. And then my mother passed away.

My parents had converted to Judaism several years previously, but I had not been brought up in the Jewish faith (or any faith for that matter). The last time my parents had come to New York, I had been surprised that instead of Broadway shows and Chinatown, they wanted to go to Judaica stores and visit the Museum of Jewish Heritage. The day my mother died, my three sisters and I sat around drinking wine, looking at photos of our mother, and telling stories about her. A rabbi came over to help plan the funeral ceremony.  He explained to us the Jewish custom of shiva, where mourners would come to the home of the deceased to grieve their loss. I thought that was bullshit. I didn’t want to make small talk with people I didn’t know and worry about whether or not there was fresh coffee made and toilet paper in clean bathrooms. Instead of the traditional seven-day period, we agreed to reduce it to two. My father asked about covering the mirrors, and my sisters and I looked at each other blankly. The rabbi gently said that that would not be necessary.

During the next couple of days before the funeral, my parents’ phone rang constantly. A steady stream of women, whom I dubbed “the synagogue ladies,” as I couldn’t tell them apart yet, were anxiously checking on my dad to see how he was coping. Sometimes they just showed up without any warning. This made me resentful; I wanted to spend time with my family and not deal with all of these people who were strangers to me.  But my father always seemed happy to hear from them, so I remained silent. The synagogue ladies brought food when they visited, and I recalled the woman from the Weight Watchers meeting and did my best imitation of her to make my sisters laugh. But to walk into my parents’ kitchen and see trays of food was both touching and practical during the next couple of days of constant visitors.

After the ceremony and burial, I asked Carolyn to bring the boys for the meal of consolation (another surprising ritual for me) held at the synagogue. Caleb was just six weeks old, and Avery was having a bad day. Due to sensory issues, he only wears short-sleeved tee shirts, and that day he had chosen to wear his favorite tee shirt featuring a frying pan smiley face: sunny side up eggs for eyes and a bacon smile. Even I knew that that wasn’t good: “He’s wearing a bacon shirt to his Jewish grandmother’s funeral?!” I hissed at Carolyn. Worse though, was his tantrum. He simply refused to enter the synagogue. “I don’t want no sinny-gog! I don’t want no sinny-gog!” he screamed and kicked as we stood there, mortified. The rabbi walked by and smiled. “Don’t worry, lots of adults feel the same way,” he assured us.

Back at the house, the rooms filled with synagogue congregants. Again, I felt suffocated by the presence of all of these people. I was pouring wine for my sisters and myself when one of the synagogue ladies admonished me, “You can’t have alcohol during shiva!” It was one admonishment too many for me. No one seemed to understand that not only was I unfamiliar with the customs of this religion, I was beginning to resent the feeling that my mother’s death was the opportunity to be “taught” something about the faith. This was the time for me to mourn the loss of my own mother, on my own terms. I asked the rabbi about the wine, and he assured me that I was not being disrespectful. I suspect he also spoke to the synagogue ladies as the informal crash course in Jewish Funeral Customs came to a close.

The rabbi said prayers in Hebrew in my parents’ crowded living room, and I tried to appear attentive. Caleb was passed around from one synagogue lady to another, and they each cooed over his red curly hair.

One of the synagogue ladies pulled me aside. “You know, your mother really loved you and your children so much. After you lost your baby, she was just so sorry and so sad for you.  We all prayed for you and your family,” she said, rocking Caleb in her arms.

Her kind words prompted me to burst into tears. I grabbed Caleb, held him tightly against my chest, and ran up to my parent’s bedroom. Carolyn followed.  I sobbed – really sobbed – for the first time since my mother died. Before Carolyn was pregnant with Caleb, she had been pregnant with another baby boy, whom we named Kevin.  Kevin had a fatal fetal anomaly, and we did everything we could, including fetal surgery, to save him. The surgery was unsuccessful, and the specialist advised us to terminate the pregnancy. It was a late-term abortion; Carolyn could feel Kevin’s kicks and the procedure was a devastating choice. After we lost Kevin, Carolyn and I mourned the son we would never meet and Carolyn remained depressed for a long time.

Although my mother had come to visit and help after we lost Kevin (and it was by far one of the most pleasant visits we had ever experienced with her), I had no idea how much she had been impacted by our loss. I certainly had no idea that she cared enough to share her feelings and tell our story to the other congregants.  After I was able to dry my tears and calm down, we headed back downstairs, where I took closer note of the synagogue ladies (and men) present.  Many of them had tears in their eyes or were actively crying. A group of them were gathered around my feeble father, helping him to sit or stand as needed, and handing him tissues, food and drink. They were hugging him, rubbing his back and listening to him talk with more patience than my sisters or I could ever muster. I started to realize that the synagogue had been a tremendous resource for my parents during the last few years of my mother’s life. While my sisters and I had spread out around the country dealing with our own young adult lives, trying to figure out how to be grown ups, my parents had found community and support. The synagogue ladies knew my mother better than I did, and they were blessed to know a side of her that I never got to experience.

I made a decision that evening. I determined to always tell my sons that I loved them and that I was proud of them. To tell them that their joys were my joys and their sorrows my sorrows. While I want my sons to be independent, I want them to know that I will always be there when they need a parent.  I don’t want them to attend my funeral and realize that they never really knew me.  Soon after my mother’s death, Carolyn gave me a pendant shaped like the figures of a woman and a child, linked together with a diamond. Carolyn told me that it represents my mother and Kevin together.  I don’t believe in God. I don’t believe in Heaven. But there is something intensely comforting about the idea of this connection. These losses are part of our family’s history.  I mourn the loss of Kevin, the loss of my mother, and the lost opportunity to have a loving and emotionally close mother-daughter relationship.

Rebecca Linz works in the Office of Graduate Studies at Sarah Lawrence College where she also teaches French through their Continuing Education program.  She recently defended her dissertation, entitled “Maternités et Identités: Representations of Motherhood and National Identity in Literary Texts of Quebec” at CUNY’s Graduate Center, and in February 2013, she’ll officially be “Dr. Linz.”  She is the proud mom of two young boys.