A division between public and private spheres, with women confined to the latter and men freely dominating the former, is a Victorian myth that feminists have analyzed as well as debunked. This issue of Feminist Studies, focusing on "Activists and/as Mothers," not only shows that women globally are active in the public spheres of national policy and state formation but also explores the political dimensions of motherhood and maternalism, of women's decisions to have or not to have children in specific national and social locations, and of the rhetoric of motherhood as a political tool. In so doing, its essays advance theoretical debates within feminism about individual and social agency and about the formation and gendering of national and racial identities.
Two articles address the history of "maternalism" in the United States in the early twentieth century. In his comprehensive review, "The Selfless and the Helpless: Maternalist Origins of the U.S. Welfare State," Patrick Wilkinson recontextualizes debates on agency and structure that have divided feminist scholars. He shows how middle-class women's activism on behalf of poor women was shaped by contemporary discourses of gender and how it in turn shaped the emergent welfare state. Wilkinson demonstrates "just how constrained even 'history makers' may be by the history that is, in turn, making them." He analyzes the ways that institutional factors, ranging from political parties and state structures to forces of professionalization, contributed to maternalism's success. Defining themselves as mothers who extended their nurturing roles to the poor, middle-class women activists achieved meaningful professional identities for themselves and found a socially acceptable role by contributing to images of poor women as passive and dependent. They thereby minimized the importance of poor women's actions on their own behalf. Yet, whereas recent scholarship has argued "that women activists were the key agents in the transmission of nineteenth-century gender biases into twentieth-century welfare policy" so that "gender bias was the very essence" of maternalist politics, Wilkinson claims that the reformers had to depict themselves as "selfless" in order to be allowed a public voice, while they, in turn, portrayed poor women as abjectly helpless not only because this type of victimization was believable to male policy makers but also because it created an opening through which "impersonal or structural explanations of poverty could be advanced" and "structural solutions proposed as remedies." These poor women were seen as so "extraordinarily helpless and victimized that they, uniquely, might warrant the intervention of the state." Hence "maternalism" was born of the paradoxes implicit in "a politics of the selfless helping the helpless," one group of women's perceived helplessness provoking and making sense of the collective agency of another.
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Kathleen A. Brown
The "Savagely Fathered and Un-Mothered World" of the Communist Party, U.S.A.: Feminism, Maternalism,
and "Mother Bloor"
The Selfless and the Helpless: Maternalist Origins of the U.S. Welfare State (Review Essay)
Monument Near Luzy (Poetry)
National Politics/Local Identities: Abortion Rights Activism
in Post-Wall Berlin
Organizing for Change: Women's Grassroots Activism in Japan
Georgette Chen (Art Essay)
Murder and Meanings in U.S. Historiography (Review Essay)
Reading Little Women, Reading Motherhood in Japan
Gayle Letherby and Catherine Williams
Non-Motherhood: Ambivalent Autobiographies (Commentary)
France Winddance Twine
Transracial Mothering and Antiracism:
The Case of White Birth Mothers of "Black" Children in Britain