When I first came across Modern Motherhood: Women and Family in England, 1945-2000 (2012) by Angela Davis, I couldn’t wait to get my hands on it. I eyed it for a few weeks, and then I broke down and ordered it. As soon as it arrived, I was so excited to read it. I even posted a picture of it on Instagram. Isn’t it lovely?
Well, now I’ve read it. And I was underwhelmed. I expected more depth and meat about what it meant to be a mother during this time period and how culture and society shaped those conceptions. However, what I got instead was what seemed to be a compilation of dissertation chapters on different themes the author found among the women she interviewed. She conducted oral histories for the qualitative data, which is awesome, but the way the data was presented turned out to be dry, uninformative, and lacking in analysis.
I know, you’re thinking that if you picked up a dissertation-made-book that wasn’t dry, had good information, and contained expert analysis, you still wouldn’t want to read it. I really wanted to read it, given my love for the culture and politics of motherhood class I took several years ago. This seemed like it could be complementary to those readings, and that it would inform some of my historical research on women in the workplace and motherhood as a profession. This book did not.
Davis made a great argument for the legitimacy of oral history as a research method. She argued that it allowed the women to be the central figures of the book, and their experiences came first. Not only do we learn about their lives, but we learn about their reactions, thoughts, and feelings. I appreciated this part of the book, in case I ever decide to conduct oral histories as a research method, but I also liked that she placed her research firmly within the feminist goal of filling gaps and silences in history.
One chapter did enlighten me on the meaning behind play groups. I started a neighborhood play group years ago. It was a great way to meet friends, get out of the house, and socialize our children. I don’t participate much any more, but occasionally somebody will resurrect it for the summer time months. Davis noted that play groups have been categorized as “middle class,” as voluntarily organizing a function and then volunteering time and effort to make sure it goes is a middle class phenomenon. While some scholars have argued that play groups reinforce or operate within the model of patriarchy with men at work and women at home, Davis did recognize the positive aspects of play groups from the interviews she did with women. They are an “opportunity for social contacts, work outside the home and a break from their children” (p. 38). She must be referring to the model of play group in which everybody dumps their children off at somebody else’s house for an hour or two. That isn’t the kind we had.
Another section explores the education of mothers. I was particularly struck by the fact that many women did not know anything about menstruation or child birth until it happened to them. This echoes what Brumberg found in her historical study of girlhood and diaries, that girls often were not given information about their bodies from trusted adults. They were instead surprised by maturation events or read about them in books. Davis suggested, “The lack of communication that occurred within many families throughout the second half of the twentieth century also accounts for why some commentators believed it was so important for women to be educated for motherhood outside the home” (p. 65). This suggested another reason for the rise of the sanitation movement and domestic science movement during this time.
Overall, there were moments of this book that I liked and parts that I found useful. Overall, I wouldn’t recommend this, unless you are specifically focused on the oral histories of women in England during this time period. It could have been more interesting than it was.