Best Interests: Feminists, Social Science, and the Revaluing of Working Mothers in Modern America

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Best Interests: Feminists, Social Science, and the Revaluing of Working Mothers in Modern America

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Title: Best Interests: Feminists, Social Science, and the Revaluing of Working Mothers in Modern America
Author: More, Elizabeth Singer
Citation: More, Elizabeth Singer. 2012. Best Interests: Feminists, Social Science, and the Revaluing of Working Mothers in Modern America. Doctoral dissertation, Harvard University.
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Abstract: This dissertation traces the formation, development, and deployment of arguments in favor of maternal employment from the years before World War II through the mid-1990s. Drawing on academic journals, popular periodicals, government documents, feminist writings, and the personal papers of researchers, policy makers, and activists, I argue that defenses of maternal employment have taken two main forms: economic and psychosocial. Although both types appeared throughout this period, the relative influence of each waxed and waned. As a result of the legacy of depression and war mobilization, economic arguments predominated in the immediate postwar years. After a decade of sustained national growth and the rising influence of psychology and sociology, however, arguments that stressed the psychological and social benefits of working mothers became increasingly prominent. The trend reversed again in the 1970s as the economy stagnated and hostility toward the welfare state mounted. The content of these two types of arguments also changed over time. Defenses of maternal employment that were rooted in and justified by the concept of shared national good in postwar America were reframed, by the 1990s, in terms of the economic self-interest of individual taxpayers and employers. During the 1940s and 1950s, proponents of maternal employment suggested that it helped expand the middle class and foster children’s independence. Feminists in the early 1960s drew on these claims to challenge hostility toward mothers in the labor force. By the early 1970s, they hoped that working mothers, by undermining traditional sex role socialization, would help remake, rather than preserve, society. At the same time, a new set of economic claims about working mothers, based in free market economic thought, began to gain strength. Politicians attacked welfare policies that enabled poor mothers to be full-time homemakers, while some feminists tried to persuade corporations that they had financial, rather than moral, incentives for hiring and retaining mothers. The vision of the broader social good that had characterized earlier arguments for maternal employment was gone. This helps explain why, even as rates of maternal employment skyrocketed, national work/family policies in the United States have remained the weakest in the developed world.
Citable link to this page: http://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:HUL.InstRepos:10370572
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