Often when I’m doing research about my great grandmothers, I wonder what they were thinking and feeling about their experiences as they went through them. Time seems to dampen the drama of the story, just like reading the ending of a story sometimes ruins the excitement of seeing it unfold. I wonder if they felt the same fear and excitement as I do when they were pregnant the first time. I wonder if they watched historical changes with the same recognition of significance or if they had better things to worry about than political and social change. I wonder if they worried about the future of their children and their ability to take on such a big, expensive challenge as children.
This week, I thought I’d do some cursory research about work and women and the history of prenatal care, to get a better idea of what it might have been like for my great grandmas. I fell down a big rabbit hole, so brace yourselves.
At the turn of the century, there were no legal protections for women; they were completely under the jurisdiction of their husbands. A woman with money or property legally handed everything she owned over to her husband. A woman who wanted to leave her husband would almost surely lose legal custody and access to her children, leaving her to choose to stay in an unhappy or even abusive marriage or lose her children. Women were allowed to work but typically were paid half of what male workers would be paid to work the same job. And if you wanted a leadership position? Forget it – women were actively and legally restricted from careers such as medicine and law. (In 1873, the US Supreme Court decided that “states may statutorily deny women the right to practice law” because brutal cases would not be appropriate for a women to handle and they were concerned about the effect a woman would have in an administrative office 1. Because those things are central points of our constitution…)
Ever wonder why women were so involved in advocating for Prohibition? I went to a lecture at the Alexander Ramsey House on the history of cocktails and the lecturer joked that it was because those women just didn’t want to have any fun. But if you look back to their rhetoric from the time, you’ll see the issue wasn’t so much alcohol use as it was alcohol abuse and the subsequent domestic abuse that followed. Women had no political voice or authority to advocate for legal protection against domestic abuse. So they used their moral authority to condemn alcohol instead.
The fact is that women’s suffrage in 1920 wasn’t the last hurdle for women to gain legal protection under the law – it was the first. By using their vote to influence the outcome of elections, representatives were now beholden to address their interests. Many suffrage advocates had argued that without the vote, none of the other issues women cared about – families, healthcare, municipal sanitation, temperance, employment, domestic abuse, demilitarization and peace – none of these would be on the shortlist of lawmakers without the vote. Petition all you want.
Usually when we imagine early 20th century female workers, we imagine young, single women. Women working before they get married, when they would inevitably quit to raise a family. But many working-class mothers worked too. They couldn’t afford not to. Between the depressed wages of their husbands, the insecurity and risk of the unregulated working conditions, and the threat of accident or disease, working class women would be naive to trust that their husband’s work would be enough to support the family. Mothers supported their families in the following ways:
- Some joined the formal workforce and worked in factories, stores, offices, or other people’s homes.
- Others brought work home with them, doing sewing or laundry for cash.
- Still others worked very informally, selling homemade goods or providing in-home services like cooking and cleaning to boarders. 2
In her essay “Family Wages,” Ileen DeVault reports that, “While married women made up no more than a quarter of the female workforce between 1880 and 1930, ever-married [married, widowed, or divorced] women represented between 30% and 47% of the female labor force.” Further, the number of married women living with their husbands in the workforce doubled from 4.6% in 1880 to 9.9% in 1930. 3
When Jane Addams opened the Hull House in Chicago’s Near West Side in 1889, the first successful program they implemented was child care for the working class mothers of the teeming immigrant population housed in tenements all around the area. That program would not have been a success if it was unusual for mothers to work. The guide at the Hull House museum mentioned one story of an infant whose soft skull had indentations in it from the chair legs his mother had previously tied him to, her only safeguard to ensure the child’s safety while she went to work. When faced with the choice between work and feed your baby or stay home and starve him, what would you do? 4
My great-grandmothers were, by and large, working-class women. However, they all lived either in Duluth, Minnesota or in the Black Hills of South Dakota, so they were not struggling to survive in the most densely populated cities. Just in terms of sanitation and disease, Duluth was cleaner, safer, and less crowded than places like Chicago or New York City. Additionally, none of my great-grandmas were members of groups that were targeted or discriminated against during the early 20th century – groups like African Americans, American Indians, Hispanic immigrants, immigrants from South and Eastern Europe, German immigrants, etc.
- Great Grandma Redding was 29 when her first child, my grandfather, was born in 1917. She had attended school up to age 16 and had two years of high school under her belt when she left. Before she married, she worked in many places – her family farm, a boarding house when she was 12, and a ranch nursing a woman who’d had a complicated birth. She did hand-sewing and worked in a laundry for a while too before setting off to homestead with Mrs. Miller. In Montana, she worked on another ranch and that is where she met my great-granddad, Victor Thorne. He was a cowboy and would travel to work wherever he could find it. He was also a heavy drinker and while I can’t confirm with documents, I have heard stories that it lead him down the path of The Bottle illustration I shared above. Irene divorced him sometime between 1922 and 1927. After she remarried, she helped her new husband, Bill Frink, run his gas station and general store. in the 1930 census, she is listed as proprietess of their restaurant.
- Great Grandma Olson was 23 when her first child was born. She’d arrived in America when she was 18 and had married shortly after. I have no record of her working ever. She’d been educated in Sweden up to the 8th grade level and I’m not sure how much English she had when she arrived, which could have contributed to her ability to work. Her husband was a janitor and worked steadily in that job throughout the years. The census records have GG Olson consistently marked as a homemaker.
- Great Grandma Loney was 25 when she had her first child. She had worked prior to her marriage at a 5 and Dime and had achieved a high school diploma, completing all four years. Her husband, Jim, was from a solidly middle-class family and his father was an entrepreneur, starting businesses around Duluth (I believe he had gas stations). Jim was a driver for loggers and would bring them back and forth from the logging camps farther north. It is also rumored that he ran rum from Canada. GG Loney has no record of working after her marriage and is marked as a homemaker throughout the census records. She did help Jim run a resort on Lake Superior when their children were grown.
- Great Grandma Kingsley was 21 when she had her first child in 1923. She had achieved 8th grade before dropping out of school, perhaps in part because she was orphaned at age 9 and moved in with her grandparents. (Her mother died of diptheria and her father died a year later from being hit by a train. No kidding.) By 1920, she was 18 and working as a servant for the Johnson family. In 1930, she was listed as a homemaker and her husband was working at the Iron Works, but shortly after that he was laid off. It wasn’t until 1933 with the implementation of the WPA that Crawford was able to find work again. Throughout that time, they lived off their garden and Crawford’s odd jobs. GG Kingsley worked as a cook for a long time, starting once her oldest daughter was a teenager. (Seems to me she got back to work as soon as she had childcare secured for the rest of her children.) She worked as a cook at the Radio Grill by 1946 and her last job was cooking for a country club in Cloquet. Of all my great-grandmas, GG Kingsley was the only one to work while having young children.
Prenatal Care for Expectant Mothers c. 1920
Around 1900, most expectant mothers did not have contact with a doctor throughout their pregnancies. In fact, the lower the income and the more rural her location, the less likely that a woman would see a doctor prior to or even during delivery. 5 In some cities, the infant mortality rate was up to 30%, with 3 in 10 babies dying within their first year of life. Lack of sanitation, especially in the big city, lack of access to education and healthcare, and a lack of regulation of foodstuffs all contributed to that devastating number. 6 Progressives across the nation were eager to address the issue, which led to the “medicalization” of pregnancy that we know today. 7
In the late 1910’s and early 1920’s, when my great grandmas were having their first children, about half of all expectant mothers were able to see doctors. The other half – usually those with lower incomes – were dependent on midwives or on the help of a friend or neighbor. 8
My Great Grandma Redding gave birth to her first son in Montana and it was likely that she did not have access to a doctor or hospital for any of her births, just due to her rural location. In 1922, her third child died in labor.
Great Grandma Olson also likely depended on a midwife or friend to help her deliver. Her first son was born in 1918, five years after she arrived in the United States. According to Judy Barrett Litoff, “Immigrant women, especially those newly arrived from southern’and eastern Europe, also used midwives. A 1908 study revealed that 86 percent of all Italian-American births in Chicago were reported by midwives.”9 While GG Olson was certainly not Italian-American, she was an immigrant and I think it likely that she would have sought care with someone who spoke her native language.
Great Grandma Loney was the most likely to have had care with a doctor in a hospital given her husband’s middle-class background, but after a phone call to my grandmother, I have confirmed that she did not. Both my grandmother and her sister were born in their home, likely by a midwife or family friend. Given the evidence from GG Loney, I feel pretty confident that Great Grandma Kingsley also bore her children in the home, rather than at the hospital. EDIT: My grandmother sent me my grandfather’s birth certificate and it verifies that he was indeed born at home.
Legal protections for Working Mothers
When my great grandmothers started their families, there was no legal protection for women against discrimination in the workplace. It was custom for women to quit their work when they got married and if they continued working beyond that point, they almost certainly would quit once becoming pregnant. The rare woman who wished to continue to work would be laid off by 6 months; it was unheard of for a woman to continue working past that point in her pregnancy. It was socially accepted that women stay home and provide childcare to their young children while men continued working to provide for their livelihoods. To have a mother continue to work the way most of us (over 60% 10) do today would have been culturally shocking to the community.
The suffrage amendment of 1920 ushered in the first of many legal protections established to protect women in the 20th century. The Equal Rights Amendment was introduced shortly after in 1923, but was never ratified by the states.
In 1964, the Civil Rights Act was passed that included language protecting women from discrimination in the workplace. Some say that sex was included as a protected status in the bill in order to kill it. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act establishes legal protection for women against discrimination in hiring practices, promotions, firing practices, and sexual harassment. In 1970, the first female class-action lawsuit was filed by 48 women employed at Newsweek, suing the magazine for discriminatory hiring and promotion practices. 11
In 1978, the Pregnancy Discrimination Act became federal law, establishing that discrimination on the basis of pregnancy was the equivalent of discrimination on the basis of sex. It gave women the right to work during their pregnancy (whereas before that, it would have been perfectly legal to lay them off) and it required that employers offer the same benefits to everyone regardless of whether or not they were pregnant. It also forbade employers from discriminating on the possibility of pregnancy. (So they can’t deny a woman a promotion on the grounds that she just got married and is likely to become pregnant. Of course, they could cite some other grounds and escape a lawsuit…) 12
Then of course there’s the 1993 Family and Medical Leave Act. This law guarantees 12 weeks of unpaid leave for parents with a new child and requires that the employer hold their jobs for them throughout that leave. It only applies to employers with 50+ employees and employees who have worked a year or more.
Working Mothers Today
While we have more legal protection for working mothers in the U.S. today, we still have a long way to go, especially if we are to encourage enough population growth in our country to replace the population we currently have. Many countries around the world are experiencing negative rates of increase and in countries like Japan that has caused systemic problems supporting a rapidly aging population.
After the Great Recession, many millenials in my generation were left with huge student loan debt and no viable salary with which to repay it. Though the economy has recovered, many of us are still under-employed or under-paid in proportion to our debt and there is a distinct decline in birth rates among millenial women.
Past studies show that the Great Recession caused a 2.4% decline in overall fertility in the United States, or about 426,850 live births. 13 Among women in their 20’s, the Urban Institute found that the fertility rate declined between 11-26%, depending on the demographic.
Why have a child in this modern age? I know not 5 years ago, I was asking this question (rather more loudly than is polite). Why would I pay all this money and time and energy towards raising a child when I could travel the world, have a more ambitious career track, or otherwise use those resources to enhance my own happiness? Further, why have a child in a country that offers little to no incentive by way of structural support?
The United States has a lack of community support from prenatal care all the way through to early childhood education. While resources do exist, much of what I have found is provided by private groups or nonprofits and much of it is not easily accessible for working women striving to save what little sick time they have for their maternity leave. Most insurance policies do not cover prenatal education and the repeal and replacement of the Affordable Care Act is very likely to remove the requirement that individual health care plans cover maternity care. (WebMD estimates that the average cost of prenatal care without insurance coverage is $2,000. A vaginal delivery cost about $9,600 in 2008 and a cesarean cost $15,800 14.) Early childhood education programs offer sliding scale fees that adjust to the income level of the parents, but the burden of those costs is proportional, so it has the same impact on the livelihood of the families. Add all that to the basic costs of having a child (purchasing clothes, diapers, food/formula, crib, car-seat, breast pump, etc.) and I’m left with, “Why have a baby?”
At the end of the day, I can’t imagine living my life without experiencing parenthood. For me, life is all about learning and gaining new experiences and parenthood is the penultimate learning experience. My great grandmothers all had children of course, but they didn’t have a choice. While my great grandmothers were coming of age in 1914, Margaret Sanger was being indicted for distributing information about contraception. It wasn’t until 1972 that the Supreme Court case Eisenstadt v. Baird assured access to birth control for all. 15 Fertility rates have been in decline ever since. Cross-culturally, human geographers find that when women are given access to education, health care, and control over their own bodies, they have fewer children. On a global scale, that’s a really good thing as our planet edges near its capacity to support human life. (10 billion people, they estimate! We’re at 7.5 billion and growing at a rate of 1 billion every 12 years!)
But on a national and local scale, what incentive does our country provide to have children? Many other countries offer a lot more incentives and still are struggling to replace their aging population with new children. What makes us think the U.S. is going to be different with less incentive? Some people argue that things like maternity care should not be required by law in health care plans because it will only be used by a portion of the population. But if we don’t all pay for it now, we’ll all pay for it later supporting an aging population of people through entitlements. Either that, or we’ll need to open our doors to more immigrants to help fill out the younger population.
The governmental regulations surrounding pregnancy and parenthood for working parents isn’t enough to make the financial and job-security risk worth it. If the government (whether it’s state or federal) doesn’t take action to make it worth it, our population growth will continue to slow and eventually become negative. Further, many young people who would otherwise consider having families may feel forced to omit children from their lives because they never manage to become financially secure enough to afford the life their child deserves.