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The Working Mother in 1926 Was a Lot Like a Working Mom Today

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In the 1920s, less than a decade after the end of World War I, more women than ever before were participating in the American workforce. The new wave of both blue- and white-collar women in the labor pool brought with it a string of now-familiar challenges and concerns. How would women balance their new careers with family obligations? Was it better for a working woman to have children in her 20s or 30s? How did one deal with the guilt, however irrational, of entrusting the care of your child to another person? And was this new trend of leaving your toddler in "group care" during the work week really such a good idea?

"In college, when we discussed our 'careers' we had the whole thing neatly worked out," wrote Helen Glenn Tyson, a family and child welfare activist, in a 1926 article in The new Republic entitled "The Professional Woman's Baby." But their plans were unravelling; the "pre-school child" was being recognized as a life stage with distinct needs for the first time, just as fewer women were choosing to enter the nanny profession.  The solution, Tyson put forth, was to create a more flexible work culture in which part-time work was de-stigmatized and movement between office and home for women was more free (men's work-life balance hadn't yet entered the converation).  It's a vision we still struggle to realize today.

This article originally appeared in THE NEW REPUBLIC on April 7, 1926.

If the total number of gainfully employed women in the United States continues to increase at the rate indicated by the last Census, in a few years one worker in ever four will be a woman, and one woman in every four a worker. The great bulk of the eight and a half million employed women are in industry, of course, but the group about which most discussion has raged—the women in the professions—shows an increase of almost 40 percent; their total number has jumped from 734,000 in 1910 to more than a million.

During recent years the popular magazines have been filled with articles about this professional group. Women have talked of their “careers” as if they were of vital moment to society—(Do men have “careers” or is that a purely feminine prerogative?) Childless wives have described breezily how they do their daily housework in an hour; many pages have been given to the husbands’ reactions—how do they really feel about the solemn problem of “letting their wives work?”

Yet, with all the irrelevancies that have been aired, there is still great need for a sober consideration of the handicaps that professional women must meet. These handicaps are cumulative, like the domestic responsibilities that women themselves face. The problem of the single woman is simple; it is largely economic, and its solution is in sight; that of the childless married woman is geographic as well—that is, it is related to the place of her husband’s work. It will never be completely overcome, but it has relatively slight social significance. The problem of the mother in professional work is psychological and social, and is increasing in perplexity and importance.

American feminists, in contrast with their more realistic European sisters, have overcompensated in their efforts to extricate themselves from the tangles of domesticity. Such naïve proposals as the “Equal Rights Amendment” show a bland disregard of the realities of child-bearing and rearing. After all, as Galsworthy remarks about maternity in The White Monkey, “The process is behind the times!” Nor will it easily be modernized. Nature has no regard for the opinions of the individual. I notice that my friends, who climbed gaily into sleeping-car berths, or stayed at the office “until the last minute” before their first child was born, have become singularly conservative with their later children. Through various physiological distresses they have discovered that Nature inexorably takes her toll for overexertion and fatigue.

Certainly the limited environment and mental integration of the mothers of the old days, even with the high birth and death rate, must have resulted in a real peace of mind. Motherhood was simple then—when babies were “accidental” and not “voluntary”; when a mother could lose one or two and have a lot left! When the Lord gave and the Lord took away, and we did not blame a poor milk supply, or some stupid blunder in our own technique of care. With the widespread practice of family limitation and the new developments in child hygiene motherhood has taken on a new self-consciousness and a new anxiety.

Baby care has become a sequence of semi-scientific details. Most of them cannot be entrusted to the ignorant and unskilled; all of them are time-consuming and exhausting. There are few “labor saving devices” in child care. And, while baby hygiene is only two decades old, child psychology is even younger. Like all young things it grows out of its old clothes at an alarming rate! One needs real brains, these days, to keep up with the styles in discipline. Modern methods of child training are tentative and changing, yet we are continually warned by psychologists that mistakes made by parents, especially with that newly recognized individual, the ‘pre-school child,” may embitter and handicap an individual his whole life.

In college, when we discussed our “careers” we had the whole thing neatly worked out. The daytime care of the child, I remember, was to be delegated to “experts,” skilled in that particular task. Alas! Where are those “experts?” The devoted female relative is of course extinct; even if she were not, the modern mother would no longer be satisfied with the care Aunt Minnie could render. The real experts are to be found only at work in the new educational experiments in the group care of little children. Certainly a consideration of the limitations of this latter type of child care, in its relation to the mother’s dilemma, does not underrate its educational achievements. Some of us have come to realize, through experience, that group care can never be more than supplementary to the more basic “individual” care.

To be sure, the orphan asylum has taught social workers that; but we had much to learn for ourselves. Many children, delicate, shy, or supersensitive, cannot adjust to group care at all, or for only a very limited period of the day. The child who needs special rest or special diet, freedom from strain or over-stimulation, the home-loving child, who longs for his own things, his own mother—all of these may be periodic or even permanent misfits in any form of group activity. Then the mechanical difficulties involved in group care—transportation from home, bad weather, quarantines—all help to render group care a weak reed for the mother engaged in professional work to lean upon. Even the industrial mother, under the pressure of poverty, is wary of the best day nursery care because of certain of these inherent difficulties.

On the “domestic service” angle of the problem, some of us are so humbled by personal experience that we get a certain melancholy satisfaction from the dark picture recent government reports pain. There is the Baltimore study, for example, made in 1924 by the Federal Women’s Bureau. More than half of the two thousand “home workers” reported on for length of service had stayed in one position for less than a year; more than two-thirds, for less than two years. And the Census figures are graphic: an increase of as much as 200 percent on some of the occupations employing women, but in the “general servants” group, a decrease of more than 23 percent! We are rapidly fulfilling Bernard Shaw’s ideal, “a nation without servants.”

Even the good homeworker, rare as she is, has limitations. As one of my friends laughingly expresses it—“my household can run on its own momentum for about four hours; after that, everything, from the baby to the vacuum cleaner, sits down to await my return.” Here, too, the new psychology, with its emphasis on independence and self-expression, does not simplify things. “You are not my mother,” says the haughty five-year-old to the maid to whom she has been “Delegated,” and who attempts to correct her for some bit of mischief. To which the obvious answer is a new version of the old threat: “Just wait till your mother comes home!” And she must come! All the weary straightening out of domestic difficulties that awaits the return of the mother helps to complicate the professional woman’s problem.

Then, even more basic is the fact that the mother in professional work must face a mental conflict of her own.  Her mind is a house divided against itself. Her convictions and interests are intellectual; they are based on fact and reason. But by how many thousands of years did the feelings precede the development of intelligence? Children establish their own value with terrifying force; the world is full of work, but no job, however satisfying, could possibly atone of the loss of a child through some negligence in personal care. Mothers will confess this, in their candid moments. “I am never free from fear,” said one friend recently. “I tremble at the thought of the school bus in a smash, or the boy in a sudden fever—and no one able to reach me. The worst of it is, all my relatives—perhaps even my husband—would blame me if anything happened. And I have a terrible misgiving that I might agree with them.”

And to fear is added another feeling—one which theorists scorn, but one which plays a very real part in the mental conflict of the mother.  Professional women are apt to marry late, and to some of them motherhood comes as a kind of special dispensation, a gift of the gods which to the woman of thirty carries with it a value unknown to her younger sister. And with the sense of the wonder of childhood comes the knowledge that its fleeting years are as evanescent as a perfume. The rapidity of development in the very little child is amazing. “I have already lost a thousand sons,” said the mother in the old fable, when told of the death of her only son in battle. The crowded days carry our children to maturity with a speed that creates a wistful resentment in us for every hour we “lose” away from them.

In the face of this emotional conflict a silence has fallen on some of my older friends.  They hold on grimly, but they are not so sure of their success in professional work or at child-rearing. A fresh crop of youthful enthusiasts is constantly needed to keep the discussion going. Those of us who live in the provinces look a little enviously at New York women. They seem to combine the job and the baby so easily and talk about it so triumphantly! Not that we would live in New York for worlds—we prefer open spaces and simpler communities for our daily living. Although the net work of “new” schools, mothers’ helpers, enlightened husbands, and diverse professional opportunities cannot but make us feel more inadequate; New York, we remember, is not America!

There is, to the realist, something ironic in the tremendous amount of attention that has been paid to the few thousands of “professional” mothers, while the half million “Industrial” mothers have gone their weary way, harassed by poverty, burdened to a far greater extent than their more fortunate sisters. Yet the problem differs chiefly in degree—and professional women, too, feel the pressure of economic need. Certainly, in a country where almost nine-tenths of the workers earn less than $2,000 a year, and where the price level has climbed steadily since the War to encroach upon the standard of living of the middle class, most families are keenly in need of the professional woman’s earnings.

This, then, is the dilemma of the modern mother, stated so often, in one way or another, and as often left unsolved: on the one hand, a keen interest in her professional work, a real need of income, the fear of mental stagnation, and the restlessness that comes from filling all her day with petty things; on the other hand, new demands in child care that were unknown even a decade ago; a supply of domestic helpers that is fast diminishing both in quality and quantity; and, like a cloud over all her activities, her own emotional conflict that is rooted deep in her maternity. Nor is her peace of mind restored by the success of her childless sister. The feeling that the world is organized to her disadvantage alone is not conducive to resignation.

The only possible answer to the dilemma of the educated mother lies in the development of the part-time unit in professional work. And these new opportunities must indeed be “developed”; they are not now recognized, they do not now exist. In many diverse fields—social work, dentistry, teaching, laboratory work—the time-unit could be reduced with no loss of quality. But the masculine prejudice against all women workers, which crippled them in every field for so many years, is today concentrated on mothers, and strangely enough, is shared by other women as well. It is ironical that at the same time the question is being raised in certain quarters as to whether technical training for women should not be limited after all, since it is so often discarded later by the women themselves. Already certain changes in curriculum have been suggested, guiding women back toward their “real” work in the home.

The battle for the higher education of women is yet to be won, not, in an academic sense, in the colleges and universities alone, but in a more real sense, in life itself. Its outcome depends on that group of women who are willing to demand this new adjustment—persistently, aggressively, if necessary, with a clear realization of the loss to themselves and to the community if it is not made.