Employment or Endowment? The Dilemma of Motherhood, 1890–1914

  • Ann Taylor Allen


Legal equality was an important goal, but it meant little without economic independence. Mothers who depended on their male partners for their own subsistence and that of their children could hardly develop into autonomous individuals or responsible parents. Though women’s dependence and domestic servitude were age-old problems, the new century brought the hope of new solutions. In the mid-nineteenth century, when families were large, births were spaced throughout the woman’s reproductive period, and average female life expectancy was less than fifty years, motherhood might well be a lifetime task that excluded any other occupation. But at the turn of the twentieth century, changes in women’s lives called this traditional pattern into question. Must motherhood consume an entire life? Or was it a limited commitment that could coexist with other forms of work, including paid employment? For some, this latter possibility seemed to point the way to a more fully human existence, in which work might confer not only economic independence but also self-esteem. “What women who have fully thought out the position want, is not this forced alternative between activity in the human world, and control of their own economic position on the one hand, and marriage and children on the other, but both,” wrote the British socialist Mabel Atkinson in 1914. “Women do not want either love or work, but both, and the full meaning of the feminist movement will not develop until this demand becomes conscious and articulate among the rank and file of the movement.”1 This ideal of emancipation through a combination of family life and paid work would engage successive generations of feminists throughout the twentieth century and into the twenty-first.


Married Woman Maternity Leave Maternal Employment Economic Independence Maternal Role 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.


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