The Education of Mothers

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The Education of Mothers

Magazine article

By: Mary B. Willard

Date: June 1871

Source: Willard, Mary B. "The Education of Mothers." The Ladies' Repository 7 (June 1871): 448-451.

About the Author: Mary B. Willard wrote for The Ladies' Repository, a monthly periodical devoted to literature, art, and religion that was in publication from 1841 to 1876.


Motherhood involves much more than simply bearing a child. Throughout American history, the meaning of motherhood has been debated as expectations have changed. In the nineteenth century, mothers gained political responsibilities as they became responsible for raising virtuous citizens.

At the start of the nineteenth century, Americans wondered how to produce a virtuous republic. To most people, a perfect nation required the production of moral and intelligent adults. Along with tending to the physical care of children, mothers were expected to assume more responsibility for discipline and socialization. The change diminished the role of fathers as it made mothering more intensive and the principal duty of women in the household. To fulfill their new responsibilities, mothers needed to be educated. Magazine publishers fed mothers a seemingly endless supply of stories about maternal self-sacrifice and the power of motherhood as well as advice on child-rearing.

For some women, the demands of motherhood justified their entry into male realms. There were calls for women to train as public school teachers and to graduate from medical schools. Presumably, women would use their maternal instinct to be better child-raisers and physicians than men. By the 1870s, the first generation of women's rights advocates were using motherhood to call for women to get the vote. Suffragists claimed that motherhood enabled women to make special and unique contributions to American life. As public housekeepers, women would provide for the health and safety of young children, accept responsibility for the cleanliness and comfort of other people, and clean up corruption in government. Opponents of women's rights argued that women who entered public life were attempting to overthrow the natural order in which women cared for children in the home and men provided for their families.


The scornful war-cry of the Suffragists is echoing over the land, "Woman's chief end is to get married." How horrible! To the rescue at once, "gentle Anna," and irrepressible, invincible, "Susan B." But what of motherly, silver-headed Mrs. Stanton, and deliberate, judicious Mrs. Livering and dressing into the realm of high culture and high art, I think, is Mr. Ruskins' idea, recognizing in the ministrations of food and dress fit subjects for a better education.

The woman who enters the second step of the career, wifehood, who takes a place as the joint head of the household, takes also a position in society, but at a great disadvantage when the definitions of the position have been vaguely taught her, and oftener not at all.

We come to be known as the pretty, simple-minded women, the "real good women" the Dorcases, the fine housekeepers, the women of intelligence, the brilliant, showy women, the intellectual and the versatile women, and so on, till the category is exhausted. What requires more special preparation and equipment than this filing one's place in society? The uneducated, even illiterate man often ranks higher than his more intelligent wife, and why? Because he gets by contact with business and intelligence, and what a learned Professor calls "intellectual grazing," that which now lies out of her reach and range.

Women, in this domestic sphere, have vital interest in the social and, no doubt, the political questions agitating society; and yet how trifling are they educated with reference to them! If universal suffrage ever obtains favor with a large number of women, it will be simply owing to the sense of the influence which they should exert against the existing evils of the day.

Time would fail us to tell of the many minor necessities for the particular education of women; of proper drawing out of those womanly instincts which, rightly directed and used, so greatly benefit society; of the giving of great facility in the forms, and amenities, and embellishments of life which, in such large degree, contribute to a high civilization.

Except in those schools which, to plain, sensible people, lie under the ban of fashionable schools, how seldom does one find any attention or training given to the forms and usages of polite society; and how frequently is one embarrassed and at a loss, and the whole social machinery retarded by the friction occasioned by this lack of attention!

All these are necessities which plead equally for the special education of daughter and wife. When to these are added the claims of motherhood, who shall correctly portray the need, or sufficiently forcibly illustrate the lack of preparation and discipline? When for baking and brew-ing one must needs draw upon Medea and Circe, Calypso and Helen, Rebeckah and the Queen of Sheba, what fountain of inspiration shall be deep and exhaust-less enough to satisfy the mother's needs? Motherhood means the learning of Arete and philosophy of Hypatia, the accomplishments of Cornelia, the tenderness of Cydippe, the practical wisdom and prudence of Terentia, and the pride and ambition of Zenobia. For her emergencies she must pry out the secrets of Easculapius; she must theorize with Plato in bring out of chaos her little republic; all history must be subject to her draft for example and precedent; Bacon and Locke must teach her concerning that human understanding on which she is so skillfully to play; all poets must drop their silver speech into her ear, and Madonnas of Raphael and Correggio must breathe upon her their almost infinite tenderness.

She must be to her boys and girls now their encyclopedia, then their Mother Goose; here their improvisalrice and dreamer of dreams, there their manufacturer of baby-houses and kites. She must be such embodiment of wisdom and intelligence as to challenge all their ideals. She must be the ministering spirit at their sick-beds, and rival in nursing and skill, the well-read physician. She must be lawgiver, and judge, and advocate in one.

How shall I present to a gainsaying public the arguments for a more thorough and specific training? Arguments, however, are each day becoming less necessary. The planting and watering of public sentiment has, to a great extent, been done, and mine eyes have almost seen the lorry of an institution grounded upon these universal needs in a woman's education, and which has for its aim the specific and complete outfitting for a woman's work.


For much of American history, mothers have been regarded as the main providers of child care. Accordingly, there is a lot of literature that addresses the importance of mothers and what mothers need to know to produce healthy children. In the twentieth century, medical and psychological guides to child rearing appeared in bookstores everywhere. Dr. Benjamin Spock's 1946 Baby and Child Care became the best known of hundreds of books promising to guide mothers through the potential pitfalls of motherhood.

By the end of the twentieth century, the working mother faced a strong and organized backlash. This often came from the camps of Christian fundamentalists who grounded their demands for the separate and complementary roles of mothers and fathers in the teachings of religion. Sometimes the opposition came from women threatened by the feminist promise of an egalitarian social order. Often with fewer educational credentials (and fewer economic opportunities) than feminist professional women, these mothers did not see freedom and equality in the work world. For them, work represented demeaning drudgery and stay-at-home motherhood was a far more appealing alternative.

Motherhood at the start of the twenty-first century remains an institution under stress. Single parenthood, the strain involved in efforts to balance motherhood and work, and the needs of women for independence and identity separate from biology are the issues that consume contemporary debate.



Mintz, Steven and Susan Kellogg. Domestic Revolutions: A Social History of American Family Life. New York: The Free Press, 1988.

Mothers and Motherhood: Readings in American History, edited by Rima D. Apple and Janet Golden. Columbus, Ohio: The Ohio State University Press, 1997.

Weiner, Lynn Y. From Working Girl to Working Mother: The Female Labor Force in the United States, 1820–1980. Chapel Hill, N.C.: University of North Carolina Press, 1985.

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