Conceiving the Future: Pronatalism, Reproduction, and the Family in the United States, 1890-1938 / Edition 1

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Through nostalgic idealizations of motherhood, family, and the home, influential leaders in early twentieth-century America constructed and legitimated a range of reforms that promoted human reproduction. Their pronatalism emerged from a modernist conviction that reproduction and population could be regulated. European countries sought to regulate or encourage reproduction through legislation; America, by contrast, fostered ideological and cultural ideas of pronatalism through what Laura Lovett calls "nostalgic modernism," which romanticized agrarianism and promoted scientific racism and eugenics.

Lovett looks closely at the ideologies of five influential American figures: Mary Lease's maternalist agenda, Florence Sherbon's eugenic "fitter families" campaign, George Maxwell's "homecroft" movement of land reclamation and home building, Theodore Roosevelt's campaign for conservation and country life, and Edward Ross's sociological theory of race suicide and social control. Demonstrating the historical circumstances that linked agrarianism, racism, and pronatalism, Lovett shows how reproductive conformity was manufactured, how it was promoted, and why it was coercive. In addition to contributing to scholarship in American history, gender studies, rural studies, and environmental history, Lovett's study sheds light on the rhetoric of "family values" that has regained currency in recent years.

About the Author:
Laura Lovett is assistant professor of history at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
Lovett offers incisive intellectual portraits and a challenging analysis of how gender and race informed the dynamic of residual agrarianism and emergent scientific and governmental regulation in the Populist and Progressive eras.—H-Net Reviews

A useful complement to recent studies. . . . Contributes significantly to the further unraveling of . . . tenuous and slippery connections.—The Journal of American History

A thoughtful and original approach to understanding the power of pronatalism in late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century American culture.—Journal of Social History

A richly detailed, well-organized, and thoroughly researched narrative analyzing how perceptions about rural America, gender, race, and the family shaped pronatalist public policy around the turn of the twentieth century.—New England Quarterly

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780807858035
  • Publisher: The University of North Carolina Press
  • Publication date: 4/23/2007
  • Series: Gender and American Culture Series
  • Edition description: 1
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 248
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.40 (h) x 0.70 (d)

Meet the Author

Laura Lovett is assistant professor of history at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst.

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Read an Excerpt

Conceiving the Future


The University of North Carolina Press

Copyright © 2007 The University of North Carolina Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8078-3107-6

Chapter One


To study the American family is to conduct a rescue mission into the dreamland of our national self-concept. No subject is more closely bound up with our sense of a difficult present-and our nostalgia for a happier past. JOHN DEMOS, "Myths and Realities in the History of the American Family," 1976

The United States invested heavily in the reproduction of its citizenry during the early twentieth century. However, these investments did not take the form of legislated child allowances or baby bonuses. Instead, national campaigns for reclamation, conservation, country life, and eugenics became prominent expressions of American pronatalism. Recognizing them as such is not a matter of understanding how they altered the birthrate but a matter of understanding how reproduction was associated in each campaign with nostalgic ideals of the family, motherhood, or the home. In the United States, reproduction was regulated asmuch by social pressure and created conventions as by actual legislation.

Feminist scholars grasped the importance of recognizing pronatalism in the early 1970s as they spoke out against the social pressure to bear children. Motivated by concerns regarding overpopulation and individual reproductive freedom, scholars such as Judith Blake argued that a new population policy could not be created until the existing pronatalist policy was recognized. Social and cultural messages regarding sex roles, family norms, and even feminism, Blake argued, carried implicit and explicit endorsements of women's purported responsibility to reproduce. The relentless and pervasive nature of these messages led Blake to argue that American pronatalism was coercive, not because women were forced to act against their will, but because the decision to not reproduce was not presented to them as a reasonable alternative. As such, she saw pronatalism as a "barrier to self-determination for women."

Blake was reacting to cultural messages presented to women in the 1970s. Like Blake, I have found pronatalism in a set of cultural messages, but these messages were associated with an earlier array of Populist and Progressive efforts. In the early twentieth century, coercive means of reproductive regulation as social control were created, articulated, and woven into cultural constructions such as the "home on the land" or the "fitter family." These constructed ideals helped create social pressure by enrolling the cultural force of tradition and nostalgia to justify intrusions into what had been private deliberations concerning reproduction.

In contrast to the United States, pronatalism in countries such as France and Germany has been much more overt. With state-sponsored programs, subsidies, and even medals for mothers, countries such as Nazi Germany articulated their interest in promoting the reproduction of its citizenry explicitly and directly. Historians regard the United States as much more reserved in its policies, if indeed any such policies are recognized at all. The U.S. government did not provide subsidies for large families; instead, reformers and politicians promoted pronatalism indirectly as part of public campaigns for land reclamation, playgrounds, or suburban development. These reformers knowingly promoted families, but their efforts were not always explicitly framed in terms of reproduction -they promoted reproduction indirectly.

The challenge for the historian of American pronatalism is to detect the often-indirect campaigns that promoted reproduction. Contemporary analysts of population policy recognize pronatalism in a range of efforts including loans to start families; child allowances; child tax exemptions; guaranteed income for care-givers; parental leave and flex time; subsidized housing, child care, and playgrounds; restricted access to birth control and abortion; and the creation family-friendly civic environments, as well as pronatalist educational and propaganda campaigns. Within the United States, reformers embraced some of these policies, but their implications for reproduction were seldom given voice.

Rather than focus on individual decisions to have children on not, in this book, I focus on how ideological and cultural ideals influenced and shaped pronatalist policies and reform efforts in the United States. I claim that from 1890 to the 1930s nostalgic idealizations of motherhood, the family, and home were used to construct and legitimate political agendas and social policies concerning reproduction. Ideologically, motherhood and childbearing in general have been understood as bearing on issues of nationalism, individualism, and feminism. In the United States, pronatalism continued these associations even as it drew on particularly American ideas of agrarianism and scientific racism.

By focusing on nostalgic idealizations of motherhood, the family, and the home, I have recovered American pronatalism in some unlikely places, such as George Maxwell's national irrigation campaign, as well as some more-expected places, such as Florence Sherbon's eugenics efforts. In this book, I consider the ideologies and practices of American pronatalism by contrasting five significant historical figures and their signature social agendas or policies. These five figures do not exhaust the range of American pronatalism nor the uses of nostalgia by reformers. Instead, they represent a sample of contrasting cases that address key differences concerning the indirect nature of American pronatalism, its implications for women's agency, and its exclusionary and racist presumptions. Beginning with Mary Elizabeth Lease's Populist agenda and ending with Florence Sherbon's eugenic campaign for fitter families, I examine how the ideology of the rural family facilitated women's public leadership in a popular political movement on the one hand and within governmental and educational bureaucracies on the other. In contrast, George Maxwell assumed women's subordination when he promoted land reclamation and irrigation as a means to reconstruct society through home building. Theodore Roosevelt's campaign for conservation and country life and Edward Ross's sociological theory of social control made race an explicit part of the ideal of the family and the rural home. For Ross and Roosevelt, controlling and directing a changing social order by employing an ideal of the family was a means of reasserting their perception of racial order.


At the turn of the century, the place and status of women was undergoing tremendous change. Victorian doctrines of separate spheres had assigned women moral authority over the private sphere of familial life and assigned men to the competitive world of the public sphere. In the Populist and Progressive Eras, women challenged this division as more and more of them sought higher education, careers, and divorces. Many women who found a greater say in public politics argued that their responsibility as mothers extended well beyond the private sphere. For women in the Progressive Era, domesticity bound them to the home while paradoxically justifying their growing public agency.

Muckraking journalist and Heterodoxy Club member Rheta Childe Dorr exemplified this trend when in 1910 she wrote: "Woman's place is Home.... But Home is not contained within the four walls of an individual home. Home is the community. The city full of people is the Family. The public school is the real Nursery. And badly do the Home and the Family and the Nursery need their mother." This declaration justified the efforts of female reformers engaged in "municipal housekeeping" both in terms of the reformers and the working-class, immigrant recipients of this reform. But Dorr's maternalist manifesto does not end with simply moving the mother into the city as home, it concludes with a biological and, at the time, scientific explanation of why reform must take place. As Dorr continues: "For woman's work is race preservation, race improvement, and who opposes her, or interferes with her, simply fights nature, and nature never loses her battles."

Dorr's manifesto suggests two interpretive strands within maternalist thought: one emphasizing the reformulation of women's roles in public policy in terms of the wider application of maternal values of care and nurture, and another emphasizing the reformulation of women's roles in public policy in terms of the biology of motherhood and a eugenic ideal of family and race betterment. Although this second strand cannot be completely divorced from the first, it is the second interpretative thread that makes the "maternalist moment" unique to the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Maternalism at the turn of the century addressed women's biological roles as mothers and the interest of elite reformers and the state in maintaining that role.

Many scholars interpret the reformulation of women's roles in public policy in terms of the wider application of maternal values of care and nurture as a form of maternalism. In her analysis of the development of welfare in the United States, Linda Gordon identifies three tenets that characterized most expressions of maternalism. First, maternalists regarded domestic and family responsibilities and identities as essential to the vast majority of women and to the social order; they strongly associated women's interests with those of children. Second, maternalists imagined themselves in a motherly role toward the poor. Lastly, maternalists believed that it was their work, experience, and/or socialization as mothers that both made them uniquely able to lead certain kinds of reform campaigns and made others deserving of help. Maternalist agendas were thus limited to those domains where women could claim that their role as mothers gave them special insight. The creation of the welfare system is perhaps the most widely recognized impact of maternalism's ideology of motherhood in the United States.

Welfare programs in the United States have typically assumed and reinforced an ideal of the family with a "father/breadwinner who works for a wage and a mother/wife who provides unpaid domestic work." Whether one emphasizes ideologies of the family wage or ideologies of motherhood, this ideal of the family or "family ethic" is understood to have structured the origins and development of welfare in the United States. This "industrial family ethic" became institutionalized and refined during the nineteenth century, with the result that women became increasing excluded from economically productive labor, while their reproductive and homemaking roles expanded. The family ethic contributed to the image of men as "providers" and to the ideology of the family wage, which asserted that industry provided wages sufficient to support an entire family. Protective labor legislation, child labor laws, mother's pensions, and compulsory education further reinforced this ideal of the family and the family wage, as did tenement and housing reforms, insofar as they permitted "mothers to fulfill their duties in safe, clean domestic environments." As the state gained greater authority to regulate aspects of public and private life, the industrial family ethic ensured that a set of hierarchical power relationships based on who did the wage earnings would be maintained within the family.

Regardless of the family ethic invoked, welfare policies that bear on women, children, and the family were either directly or indirectly pronatalist. While histories of welfare and maternalism rightly have emphasized these policies as struggles for women's agency and authority, they were also sites where reforms with indirect effects on reproduction and population were articulated. Maternalism builds on and makes use of an essentializing image of women as reproducers and thereby limits their political activity to issues directly relevant to their status as reproducers. As women, Mary Elizabeth Lease and Florence Sherbon had a responsibility toward their families and the maintenance of order in private life. If their political or scientific work in the public realm could be closely associated with the family or motherhood, their activity could be justified as extensions of their culturally sanctioned duties in private life. As we shall see in Lease's case, it was possible to make a wide variety of economic issues relevant to motherhood during the Populist movement.

Mary Lease and other Populist women justified their political involvement by arguing that political decisions had effects on the daily lives of women and children. In effect, Lease articulated the connection of the home to politics. As the nostalgic image of the home or the family continued to be used by reformers and politicians, the connections between family life and political issues invited increasing government management of private life. Theodore Roosevelt's concern over the possibility of race suicide, for instance, led him to see motherhood as women's duty to the state. Although he did not dictate that women reproduce, his concerns with regulating reproduction were embodied in the Children's Bureau and their campaign against infant mortality. In this context, nostalgic images of the family helped legitimate the increasing regulation of reproduction and family life by government experts.

In the decades surrounding the beginning of the twentieth century, the American family was widely perceived to be in a state of crisis. By 1889, the United States had the highest divorce rate in the world. Coupled with falling birthrates among "native-born" Americans, the divorce rate raised doubts about the survival of the family and the "American race." By "the race" or "the American race," reformers, politicians, and social commentators meant the white population of the United States, usually of Northern European or Anglo-Saxon descent. Anxieties concerning race and divorce were associated with the changing roles of women. In general, white women were working more outside the home, obtaining more higher education, and increasing their public activity in a variety of civic clubs ad organizations. Motherhood and family seemed to be endangered as women's morals, dress, and behavior changed in the early twentieth century.

Increasing immigration and urbanization compounded anxiety over shifting women's roles. New immigrants from Asia and Southern Europe fueled fears among many elite reformers that "American values" and traditions were slipping away as these new immigrants failed to adopt American traditions as their own. At the same time, the nation's population was becoming more concentrated in the cities. In 1900, two out of every five people in the United States farmed. Three out of every five lived in a rural community. In the first decades of the twentieth century, the numbers of farmers and rural inhabitants slowly declined, lowering the percentages of land ownership and increasing the amount of land tenancy. Demographically, fewer rural families contributed to declining birthrates, since the rural family was on average larger than its urban counterpart. The confluence of these trends contributed to a growing sense of crisis that many modernist reformers believed they could resolve. They made their new and invasive proposals to regulate reproduction more palatable by presenting them behind a facade of motherhood, the farmer, the home, and the "traditional" family.

When Theodore Roosevelt or Edward Ross appealed to the "American family," they appealed to a nostalgic image of the rural, white family. In effect they recast Jeffersonian agrarianism in racial terms. Jefferson held that yeoman farmers were "the most vigorous, the most independent, the most virtuous citizens." Roosevelt, Ross, and others naturalized the alleged characteristics of the farmer by arguing that they were produced in response to the farmer's struggle to survive in the frontier environment. These characteristics acquired through the frontier experience were passed on to succeeding generations or acquired anew as successive generations pushed the frontier west. This natural process produced what Ross called the "American racial character" or the "American type." The crucial point here is that the ideal of the rural family was a white racial ideal. When Roosevelt and others referred to the race or the rural family, they made specific racial associations.


Excerpted from Conceiving the Future by LAURA L. LOVETT Copyright © 2007 by The University of North Carolina Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments     vii
Nostalgia, Modernism, and the Family Ideal     1
New Occasions Teach New Duties: Mary Elizabeth Lease's Maternalist Agenda     17
Reclaiming the Home: George H. Maxwell and the Homecroft Movement     45
The Political Economy of Sex: Edward A. Ross and Race Suicide     77
Men As Trees Walking: Theodore Roosevelt and the Conservation of the Race     109
Fitter Families for Future Firesides: Florence Sherbon and Popular Eugenics     131
American Pronatalism     163
Notes     173
Bibliography     207
Index     229
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