Historical essay
Mommy Wars of Yore: Classism and its Casualties

Mommy Wars of Yore: Classism and its Casualties

Most of us are familiar with the Mommy Wars. The Internet is the battlefield, and woman is pitted against woman in a ruthless competition to out-mother each other by breastfeeding longer, Pinteresting better, and home birthing harder. Critics point out that mothers are feeling more pressure than ever before to be certain kinds of mothers, and that this competitive environment is good for neither mothers nor their children in the long run. I agree, and as a historian and reformed mommy warrior, I’m here to tell you that this has happened before. Let’s travel back a few hundred years to a world I spend most of my days trying to figure out: eighteenth-century Europe and its colonies.

This may come as a shock, but at this time, the dominant perception of motherhood came from a man [imagine sarcastic scoff here]. The Enlightenment philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau had some strong ideas about women and their purpose in life, which according to him, was to birth, nurse, and educate France’s next generation of citizens. At a time when sentimentality and affection captured the popular imagination through the explosion of literary novels, Rousseau entranced his readers with passages such as the following:

[gblockquote]”It is to you I address myself, tender and foresighted mother… Cultivate and water the young plant before it dies… Form an enclosure around your child’s soul at an early date. Someone else can draw its circumference, but you alone must build the fence.”1[/gblockquote]

He suggested that a mother could achieve this goal by nursing her own children rather than relying on a wet-nurse, and by repressing all of her own desires in favor of those of her children. Sound familiar?

This very precious approach to mothering, which came to be known as the Cult of Motherhood, was employed by European and American elites, but the extent to which women actually internalized these values is unclear. Historians have documented that the wet-nursing profession went into decline in this period, so it’s probably correct that women tried harder than before to breastfeed their own children. Rousseau himself was suspicious of women who failed to do so: “I have sometimes seen the little trick of young women who feign to want to nurse their children. They know how to have pressure put on them to give up this whim.”2 The sexism here is maddening, but it suggests that women were not always keen to fulfill every tenet of the Cult of Motherhood. And why should they have been? It required that they sacrifice their bodies and their freedom in ways that their own mothers were never required to do. Sending infants out to nurse had been the norm for generations in western Europe so the positive impact that maternal nursing had on infants was misunderstood by most. 3

Marguerite Gérard, "The Beloved Child (L'Enfant chéri)," ca. 1790. Oil on Canvas. (Hillwood Estate, Museum & Gardens)
Marguerite Gérard, “The Beloved Child (L’Enfant chéri),” ca. 1790. Oil on Canvas. (Hillwood Estate, Museum & Gardens)

Mothers were expected to breastfeed their own children whether they wanted to or not, despite having a husband to support, a household to run (many elite women were administers of entire estates, which was a respected, high-power position), and older children to educate. In both America and France, mothers were told that the fate of the republic lay squarely on their shoulders and on their ability to parent their children according to Enlightenment ideals. We can all agree that such pressure and scrutiny may have been difficult to endure. The similarities to today’s mommy warriors are clear enough. But what about plebeian women?

It won’t come as a surprise to you that the elites I discussed above comprised a tiny minority of the population in eighteenth-century Europe and America. Plebeian women may not have suffered the cruel scrutiny of high society but they were criticized at every turn within a system that sought to differentiate between the deserving poor and worthless malingerers. Fitting some maternal archetype was the least of their worries yet it was put to them nonetheless. Poor and working-class women were encouraged to have fewer children, accept minimal assistance, and to raise high quality citizens like their elite counterparts, but without any of the resources enjoyed by the upper crust. Due to economic displacement and broken betrothals, illegitimacy rates exploded after 1750. This resulted in an abundance of single mothers tasked with sustaining themselves and their children without skills or support networks. Many families suffered chronic, abject poverty, unemployment, and malnourishment. Rates of child abandonment increased, and foundling hospitals and almshouses were established in order to care for this growing population of destitute families and deserted children.

Because it was less of a strain on tax-payers (who were those same elites exulting in the Cult of Motherhood), almshouses took poor children away from their loving mothers, apprenticed them out and sent mothers to the workhouse to earn their keep. So while elite families occupied themselves with the Mommy Wars of yore, plebeian families were torn apart by this agenda. You see, in their competition to have the happiest marriages, the most sentimental parents, the cheeriest breastfed baby, and the most highly educated, properly adjusted children-turned-citizens, elite families failed to realize the privileges they enjoyed. The Mommy Wars of yore refocused the attention of contemporaries (and of the historians who would later study them) on what we would now call “first world problems,” while plebeian families suffered at the hands of their cruel policies. Can we learn from this?

Though modern American families fare much better than their eighteenth-century counterparts, nearly 15% live in poverty and 14% suffer from food insecurity. The number of children living in poverty is over 20%, and households with children report higher levels of food insecurity than those without children.4 From these numbers we can surmise that many of today’s American mothers have more to worry about than their standing in the Mommy Wars. Just like in an earlier era, the odds are stacked against them.

Poster by the Indiana WIC program encouraging breastfeeding with the line, "Breast Fed Is Best Fed." (Indiana State Board of Health/National Library of Medicine)
Poster by the Indiana WIC program encouraging breastfeeding with the line, “Breast Fed Is Best Fed.” (Indiana State Board of Health/National Library of Medicine)

In the arena of breastfeeding success, poor women are the underdogs. It has become clear in the last half-century that breastfeeding has innumerable benefits to mom and baby. This is beyond question. On the face of it, breastfeeding is cheaper than bottle-feeding formula, but breastfeeding outcomes also vary drastically according to race and class.

Quality breastfeeding support is hard to come by, and when it’s available, it’s expensive — $100-$300 per session in some areas of the country. Breastfeeding moms are also encouraged to collect breastfeeding paraphernalia such as breast pumps, milk savers, latch-assists, nipple shields, ointments, special breast-like baby bottles, and nursing pillows and stools. Working moms are required to invest in many of these things if they plan to make breastfeeding work at all since the United States is not one of those civilized countries that values paid parental leave (don’t get me started). Formula companies have found a way to make back the money they lost to increased breastfeeding rates — by marketing breastfeeding paraphernalia to new moms who don’t know any different or to working moms who can’t breastfeed their children at home. These realities disadvantage many mothers, but low-income women and minorities take the biggest hit.

Birth outcomes are also influenced by class. Low-income families are more likely to experience traumatic births and other negative birth outcomes. Celebrities like Ricki Lake and Jessica Alba and other natural birth advocates argue (rightfully so) that obstetrics is broken in the United States, resulting in alarming cesarean rates and maternal mortality rates higher than in every other first-world country. Enter birthing centers, home birth, water birth, lotus birth, hypnobirthing, orgasmic birth even (yes, it’s a thing), etc. Mommy warriors twist this movement for better birth outcomes, which is vital for the health of American mothers and babies, into a chance to one-up each other over whose birth was the most natural, who endured pain most commendably, who used which essential oils, what doula did who use and puuuhhhleeeeease tell us you encapsulated your placenta?!? (By the way, I’m allowed to make fun of these things because I did all of them.) Low-income mothers, in contrast, are less likely to receive quality care. They are also shamed for daring to conceive kids that they will struggle to support.

One proven way to lower the cesarean rate, and therefore the maternal mortality rate, is to encourage the use of midwifery in low-risk births. Medicaid, however, is either vague or exclusionary about its coverage of alternative birth services, such as those provided by a midwife, at a birthing center, or at home. Arizona is the only state whose Medicaid plan explicitly covers birthing center births, and Connecticut explicitly excludes home births from coverage. Before someone suggests that women seeking alternative birthing arrangements should pay for their own insurance, I should add that many private health insurance policies also fail to cover out-of-hospital births or births attended only by midwives. Employing a doula is another way to improve birth outcomes, but doulas are rarely if ever covered by medical insurance and can be extraordinarily expensive for struggling families. Quality birth support is invaluable but in the absence of financial assistance to offset the cost, it is largely unattainable for low-income mothers.

These are just two examples of the socioeconomic aspect of the Mommy Wars that deserves more attention. The list, however, goes on. Car seats with extended rear-facing options are astronomically expensive. So is organic, non-GMO food, and the opulent baby-carriers that Pinteresting parents lust over. What it comes down to is this: wealthy and middle-class moms argue viciously over the optimal breastfeeding duration, the finer points of milk/soy protein-intolerance, and everyone’s and their mother’s sleeping arrangements, which are, in one sense, worthwhile discussions to be had. But the competitive nature of these battles masks the privileged positions of most of the participants. Even more importantly, it redirects the conversation and momentum from what should be the most important struggle: access to reproductive justice, quality support, and health care for mothers and babies who are underrepresented in the throng of mommy warriors.

Readers will likely point out that breastfeeding does not need to be expensive, and that desired birth outcomes need not always require affluence. To be sure, there are plenty of programs and support networks out there if struggling parents know where to look. But eighteenth-century elites also argued that warmth and sentiment cost nothing, and that plebeian moms could raise better citizens too if only they made the necessary sacrifices and exercised some self-control. Moreover, today’s social services are not known for separating families who ask for help. But like our eighteenth-century counterparts, today’s struggling mothers are living in a society that demands that they prove their worthiness of assistance, that they justify their decisions to reproduce, and that they be held to the same standards of motherhood as their more privileged counterparts, but without the same resources to achieve them. They are the real casualties of the Mommy Wars. So many things have changed since the 18th century; infant mortality rates have plummeted, all kinds of helpful parenting hacks and gadgets improve daily life, but it’s clear that we still struggle to make mothers a priority. If mothers aren’t even making mothers a priority, then we have more work to do. Let’s just hope it doesn’t take three centuries.


  1. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Emile: Or, On Education (New York: Basic Books, 1979), 37-38. Return to text.
  2. Rousseau, Emile, 45. Return to text.
  3. Michele Hinton Riley, “France” in Encyclopedia of Motherhood, ed. Andrea O’Reilly (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 2010), 425-428. Return to text.
  4. Hunger and Poverty Facts,” Feeding America, accessed on January 14, 2016.Return to text.

Featured image caption: Mother’s Day stamps. (wackystuff/Flickr | CC BY-NC)

Marissa is a PhD candidate in History and teaching assistant at the University at Buffalo. Her dissertation focuses on wet-nursing in 18th-century London and Philadelphia. She is also a wife and mother of two. She is an active member and admin of the Holistic Parenting Network of Western New York and is addicted to history and true crime podcasts.