A Review of The Politics of Motherhood

The following appeared in The East-Central Intelligencer: The Newsletter of the East-central/American Society for Eighteenth Century Studies, N.S. 10 (Sept. 1996), 19-21. See also Heidi Thomson, "A Review of The Politics of Motherhood: British Writing and Culture, 1680-1760, in Eighteenth-Century Women: Studies in Their Lives, Work and Culture, ed. Linda V. Troost. Volume 2. New York: AMS Press, 2002, pp. 295-98.

Bowers, Toni. The Politics of Motherhood: British writing and culture, 1680-1760. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996. Pp. xvi + 262; illustrated.

Anna has not a chance of escape; her husband called here the other day, & said she was pretty well but not equal to "so long a walk; she must come in her "Donkey Carriage."--Poor Animal, she will be worn out before she is thirty.---I am very sorry for her.--Mrs Clement too is in that way again. I am quite tired of so many Children.--Mrs Benn has a 13th... (Jane Austen's Letters, ed. Le Faye 336, Letter dated Sunday 23- Tuesday 25 March 1817

In The Politics of Motherhood Toni Bowers argues that in early 18th century England motherhood was used as a weapon to make women submit to men. She analyses a variety of public documents, pictures, coins, novels and conduct books to show how motherhood can become a means to limit the power of women in every area of life. Motherhood emerges from this book as an endlessly variable and effective instrument whereby early 18th century society could punish women who were poverty-stricken, who had to work outside the home to survive, or who defied conventional norms of behavior.

This topic is important and timely. Bowers's story of how desperately poor women were driven to hand their younger children over to the London Foundling Hospital to save them from starvation or an enforced neglect parallels the recent Welfare Bill passed in the US which will deny poor women any monetary or other help from the government after five years if they do not "get a job;" then and now destitute women are castigated as bad mothers, barbarous, cruel, or unnatural "Monsters of Inhumanity" (5-6).

Bowers argues that a single image of motherhood emerged in the new popular media at the close of the 18th century, that of the woman who stays at home with her children, caring for them herself, mothering them through continual close physical, moral, and emotional contact; Bowers seeks to persuade the reader that this is not the only valid way of mothering by herself uncovering in her chosen texts other ways of mothering which she thinks many mothers need or want today. She shows us ways of mothering through "surrogates" (mothering without being there with the child most of the time), mothers who are wholly independent of and don't need men; Defoe's heroines (two of Bowers' examples) can be mothers while spending most of their time in a public place where their goals and interests remain wholly apart from those of their children.

Bowers wants to present "the revolutionary notion that maternal virtue and authority take on a multitude of forms, and can even inhabit absence, abdication, and transgression" (33), "a vision of a powerful, enabling, and independent motherhood," and a "new, matriarchal family" (128, 146). She becomes particularly urgent when she finds her women "failing" to see that motherhood need not "entail a loss of position, voice and participation in the (male) public world" (89). Bowers means her book to demonstrate the moral rightness of ways of mothering far different from that of "constant physical presence, breast-feeding, personal instruction, withdrawal to domesticity;" in her final sentence she uses the example of Lady Sarah Pennington to "encourage" her envisaged modern female reader "to take heart" and not "compromise her integrity," "abdicate ... responsibility," to "make her own choices, speak in her own voice, define her own sexuality, and deploy her own representations" (232-3).

The book has some serious flaws. Bowers focuses on the first half of the 18th century, and her materials are public documents about Queen Anne, 18th century novels like Defoe's Moll Flanders and Roxana and Richardson's Pamela II and a few of Eliza Haywood's novellas. Certainly Defoe's texts reveal how vulnerable women became once they became mothers and had a child depending upon them; it is Richardson's purpose to show us the agony of a young woman who wants to breast-feed her child but is driven by her husband to obey his injunction not to. The problem here is these novels by Defoe are about a woman's economic survival on the streets and through a man's bed. Richardson's Pamela's struggles with Mr B over their relationship; Richardson's Mrs Harlowe failed herself more than her daughter; what she must face is that her need "to avoid unpleasantness" was a selfish complicity in evil. Neither Defoe or Richardson is interested in depicting any intimate relation between a mother and a child; we get no sense of a child's continuous presence and dependence upon a care-giver, nothing of what constitutes a woman's Achilles' heel.

Bowers's weakest materials are Haywood's novellas. She talks of these books as if they present complex characters with all the disquiet and ambivalence of real life; they are stories which are filled with ostentatious and therefore spurious or excessive emotion; their scenes are thin and unrealistic. Her argument here is sentimental: she rejoices when Haywood's female characters come to depend upon other females, but why Bowers thinks that women are altruistic in their relationships with one another is not explained. The language in this section of the book is the most strained in the book, as when she claims Haywood envisions women who are free of men and have real power over their children as "autonomous maternal authority, practiced cooperatively in all-female spaces" (135). But the most telling detail in all this is the lack of any text where we see a mother in direct genuine interaction with her child. There is but one picture, Highmore's illustration for Pamela II (Pamela and Her Children, illus. 12), and its icons remain unexplored.

Of course one does not expect to find in public documents or in novels of this period a depiction of the hardship and experiences of pregnancy after pregnancy which was the lot of the average woman once she married or went to live with a man. This was motherhood, and upon it rested the vulnerability and passivity of women. Bowers is aware her texts omit this reality; she asserts she is not interested in "actual maternal behaviors," but only "particular ideals" (20). But how then can she argue for new behaviors? or that old behaviors included ways of mothering women have come to and should follow in 1996? Further, if we look at her analyses, we find she does assume her materials reflect actual mothering and real physical misery and grief. Her story of Queen Anne draws its poignancy from the endless pregnancies, stillbirths, and ruination of that woman's body. Bowers's discussion of Mrs Charlotte Harlowe is moving because we take Mrs Harlowe's traumatic despair seriously, as a mirror of what a real women could and did know. Bowers also simply denies that "children's competing needs" with those of the mother lies at the heart of women's vulnerability; she simply asserts "it is patriarchical authority and economic independence... that make motherhood and personal autonomy seem mutually exclusive" (30). A brief citation of mortality statistics (27) does not convey how the average woman dreaded death in childbed and a dead or stillborn baby, how it was (and for some of the world today still is) the inevitable result of sexual experience for women, and thus colored their ideas about sex and children. Nowhere does Bowers concede the reality of a helpless infant, or present its long years of dependent childhood.

Still the argument of this book is apposite because its groundwork is how motherhood has been and can be exploited to abuse or to dismiss a woman if the label bad mother is pinned on her. Bowers's opening pages on William Hogarth's Gin Lane are startling because she makes us see the famous print is as much about what constitutes a bad mother as much as it is about the ravages of alcoholism. Bowers is struck that "the crucial importance Gin Lane places on criminal, absent or helpess mothers and their tragically misused children has gained very little special notice" (3). Bowers wants us to care about women, to pay attention to them. Again there is a modern analogue: in 1990 a young girl named Gina Grant was acquitted for murdering her mother because she said her mother was an alcoholic; the case achieved notoriety because Harvard University accepted Gina Grant for admission a few years later, and then upon learning of the murder, rescinded its admission; articles about this case dwell on everything but the mother; very few reveal the evidence for this alcoholism was the girl's testimony, and the record of the case in The New York Times failed even to cite the bad mother's name.

Ellen Moody
George Mason University

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