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Motherhood and the development of the nation-state

Most women in the world become mothers, but motherhood is not regarded in academia as a core issue relating to society and the nation-state, according to two scholars at the Institute for Research on Women and Gender (IRWG).

Karen Offen and Marilyn Boxer, pioneers in women's history, want to change that.

The two historians aim to advance the debate on a fundamental issue facing modern industrial society -- how to combine work and family, production and reproduction. "This is a perennial question that society has to answer," said Boxer. "Part of our goal is by studying history and looking at what has happened and what the issues are, people will move forward with better decisions" concerning family and work.

For the past six weeks, Boxer and Offen have helped to further that discussion. With support from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the two academics jointly directed a first-ever summer seminar for college professors titled, "Motherhood and the Nation-State in Western Societies: Modern Times."

Boxer, a history professor at San Francisco State University and its former vice president for academic affairs, chaired the nation's first department of women's studies at San Diego State University during the 1970s. She has written several books, including Connecting Spheres: European Women in a Globalizing World, 1500 to the Present in 2000. Offen is a senior scholar at IRWG who has taught at several universities abroad and has organized four previous NEH summer seminars on "the woman question in Western thought." In 1984, she wrote "Depopulation, Nationalism and Feminisim in Fin-de-siecle France," which was published in the first issue of the American Historical Review devoted exclusively to women's history. "This landmark issue showed that women's history was not just a new form of social history, which tended to be dismissed as the history of trivial things, such as how people dressed or furnished their houses," Boxer said. "This showed that it was ... political history fundamental to the major issues with which historians traditionally have been concerned." Offen also is the author of European Feminisms 1700-1950: A Political History, published in 2000.


Integrating experiences of motherhood

In an official description of the NEH seminar, Boxer and Offen wrote: "As scholars and teachers, we have strongly advocated attempts to integrate the history of women into the standard chronology of political, intellectual and cultural history, while at the same time pressing for its reconceptualization. It is now our objective to integrate experiences of motherhood into the historical narrative as well. Our experience suggests that there is no substitute for a comparative, cross-national and textually based approach to history as a means of enhancing humanistic understanding. At the same time, we think all women's studies should be firmly grounded in historical context."

The summer seminar, held on campus, included 15 scholars -- all women -- from small colleges across the United States and Switzerland. The group consisted mostly of historians, although a filmmaker, a sociologist, a philosopher, two political scientists and two literature professors also participated. Each scholar was expected to contribute to the field by pursuing a research project related to an aspect of the seminar and presenting her work.

Offen said participants from smaller institutions were encouraged to attend because the NEH wanted to give them an opportunity to use Stanford's extensive research resources. Offen and Boxer also wanted to facilitate discussion among academics near the start of their careers to spur development of "motherhood and the nation-state" into a new area of study.

"This is political history, this has as much right to [be studied] as the traditional subjects," Offen said. "We are changing the history of war by looking at issues like rape or what women were doing at the home front. We're changing the history of government by looking at how governments have dealt with issues affecting women, [such as] the issue of depopulation leading to constraints on reproductive control."

Although some universities, such as York University in Ontario, Canada, are beginning to study motherhood as an academic discipline, much of the research looks at its psychological and sociological aspects. "Very little of it focuses on history," Boxer said. "If you begin to think of motherhood as a historical experience, it become really clear that it is shaped not just by personal experiences and desires but by public policy in which the nation-state plays a significant role."


Six topical themes

The seminar was organized around topical themes that followed developments from the 18th through the 20th centuries. They included:

c Motherhood seen as women's natural vocation in modern Western societies;

c Structuring practices of motherhood: fathers' authority and mothers' rights;

c The mother as citizen: schooling girls to be mother-educators;

c The family economy and mothers' work;

c The population question, nationalism and the politics of maternal patriotism;

c Social motherhood: maternity as moral foundation for social reform and peace-making.

Each week, participants received readings that included primary source documents and secondary literature available in English. During the second week, for example, participants learned that in Prussia in 1794 healthy women were required by law to breastfeed their children. Article 68 of the code stated, "It is, however, the father's right to decide on the length of time she shall give her breast to the child."

During the fifth week of the seminar, the group read that President Theodore Roosevelt, concerned about dropping birth rates, expressed his fears in the March 1903 issue of The Malthusian that "race suicide" was being committed by educated white women, along with men who did not want to marry and father large families:

"If a man or woman, through no fault of his or hers, goes throughout life denied those highest of all joys which spring only from home life, from the having and bringing up of many healthy children, I feel for them a deep and respectful sympathy, the sympathy one extends to a gallant fellow killed at the beginning of a campaign, or the man who toils hard, and is brought to ruin by the fault of others. But the man or woman who deliberately avoids marriage and has a heart so cold as to know no passion, and a brain so shallow and selfish as to dislike having children, is in effect a criminal against the race, and should be the object of contemptuous abhorrence by all healthy people."

Susan B. Anthony, the grand dame of American women's suffrage, wrote a response that was published posthumously in The Socialist Woman in 1908:

"[President Roosevelt's] ideas on race suicide are those of a soldier, who looks upon human beings either as possible soldiers or possible mothers of soldiers. ... There is not the slightest danger of the race dying out." In the article, Anthony described how the Enlightenment and industrialization enabled women to become more independent: "Gradually women came to see that the self-supporting working woman was better off than the household drudge, who was prone to be the slave of the caprices and passions of the husband and father."

In 1934, Adolf Hitler compared women and childbirth to men on the battlefield. "Whatever sacrifices man makes in the struggle for the People, woman offers an equal amount in the struggle to preserve the individuals of the nation," he wrote. "Whatever man offers in the way of heroic courage on the battlefield, woman offers in ever-patient service and ever-patient pain and suffering. Every time a woman gives birth she fights a battle for the existence or disappearance of her people."

Marsha Marotta, an assistant professor of political science at Westfield State College in Massachusetts, said she appreciated the historical perspective provided by the seminar: "I teach at a state college with a full teaching load. I don't have time to devote to going through material outside my area. People have brought in all kinds of perspectives. It's so useful; you wouldn't get it any other way."

Offen and Boxer would like to make the emerging field more accessible to teachers. For the seminar, the colleagues spent weeks assembling the readings from scratch. "There's been a lot of research, but it's not taught," Boxer said. "One way to get it taught is to produce material that will make it easy for the classroom teacher." With that in mind, she said, one outcome of the seminar may be a new reader on the subject.

Another goal is to include the study of motherhood as a mainstream subject in colleges. "We're hoping that 15 people will go out of here and be able to incorporate parts of this seminar into their teaching," said Offen. "I think this will be a formative experience for some of them," Boxer added.


By Lisa Trei

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