The History, Meaning, and Racial Evolution of Mothers

May 2022
10-minute read

Watsons’ first-hand insight provides a glimpse into the multitude of struggles and the integration of political, economic, and racial influences that’s seeped into the roles, responsibilities, and personalities of mothers have been deeply rooted in history. Ensuring the longevity of the depiction of a "good" mother is derived from the remnants of the ideal mother persona developed since the beginning of America and that has survived through the media and labels: the "uppity mother" and the "welfare queen."[1]  America provides an outline for mothers that is outdated and does not align with the current climate of families, and proceeds to outcast and ostracize women for failing to uphold the American family ideals.

The concepts of motherhood and family values have been present since the development of colonial America. Family was at the epicenter of colonial America, so much so that a patriarchal system was institutionalized to promote these ideals, helping “promote conformity and, by extension, helped maintain social order and stability in the community.”[2]  Like an agenda, when anyone deviates from these customs, they would be faced with legal penalties. Women, who, by any means were unable to mold themselves into these values, were then considered, by the time’s media outlet (newspapers) as unattractive, disagreeable “old virgins'' unable to attract a man. Unmarried White women were seen as, “a social disapproval of dependent girls and incomplete women… without a husband a colonial woman was not a real woman for evading their civic responsibility.”[3]  Notably, there is a civic responsibility to uphold these customs despite the circumstance. The social practices have lingered and evolved into a rhetorical norm known as the standard North American family, and its structure was inspired by colonial fundamental beliefs. First, the family must be middle class, White, heterosexual, and should only raise their biological children.[4]  Then, roles were distributed according to gender; women were expected to remain at home, fulfill the household tasks, such as caring for the children and cleaning, while the husband resumes the role of breadwinner.[5]  Stubbornly, these roles have remained and have not undergone any alteration to suit the climate of current and future families.

By placing mothers at the forefront of media, the complexities of motherhood were divided into two categories—good mothers and bad mothers—and simplified with race.  With the upswing of "momism frenzy," according to Mothering by Degrees, scientific and medical discourses were central to developing the characteristics of a good mother, which narrowly defined the desirable qualities in a mother.[6]  A good mother was a heterosexual, White, married, middle-class woman that “adores her offspring and finds them fascinating. She is exquisitely attuned to her children and so resourceful she is immune to boredom.”[7]  This narrative portrays a good mother as almost above human, whereas bad mothers were imperfect to a fault. Bad mothers were so prevalent in the media that they created two separate entities to appease the republican and political parties: welfare queens and uppity mothers.[8]  Both terms were flexible, unable to maintain a permanent definition.  Associated with welfare queens and uppity mothers are social class and race.   Welfare queens are predominantly African American mothers who are, “convenient villains” created to be easily disliked.[9]  Attached to this caricature were themes involving immorality, poverty, and poor judgment.[10]  Many elaborate accounts were shared in the media. For example, Ronald Regan publicly shared a story of a woman from Chicago’s South Side who conned her way into receiving benefits by falsifying social securities and names. The unnamed woman accumulated enough White taxpayer money to afford multiple luxury cars.  In turn, the Democratic party constructed their character: the uppity mother.  The uppity mother aligned itself with the rising feminist movement and consisted of a woman who actively practice having children out of wedlock, purposely rejecting traditional family values, and thus seeks female empowerment by doing so.[11]  Uppity mothers were resuming the roles of breadwinners and rendering males useless; this character was associated with the destruction of a civilized family. Like the welfare queen, she will train her children to manipulate the system in hopes of achieving a welfare dynasty.

Believing that a mother's incapableness was attributed to race, White mothers' shortcomings were a temporary issue, possible to resolve under the correct care, whereas mothers of colors' failures were to be expected simply because of their race and portrayal within the media[12]  White mothers having a child out of wedlock was categorized as a lapse of momentary judgment, their lack of maternal skills accredited to no morality training, which led them into unfortunate circumstances.  Institutions were developed in the guise of helping White women mold them into ideal citizens and mothers and evolved alongside society[13]  For example, during the 1920's, the ideology was designed to help the mothers transform into the typical middle-class women and help them reclaim their femininity.  Domestic skills revolving around childcare were taught, along with middle-class working skills, the purpose to help them be deemed suitable for the middle-class woman, hoping to achieve moral reintegration. 

The social climate altered once again during the Great Depression, and morals training was abandoned, from the inability of a White mother shifted from a relapse in morality to a sign of mental illness. Politicians and psychologists believed that a White mother’s deviance was temporary, a symptom of psychological weakness. Options to reconstruct the White mother included counseling sessions designed to help them pinpoint the familial dysfunction that could have led them to have a child out of wedlock.[14]  Theories arose, implying that a White mother’s relapse was a fantasy fulfillment for a woman to impulsively solve the problem in an unmarried woman's life, then proceeded to suggest adoption as a solution for the woman to pursue a “renewed commitment to fulfilling her destiny as a real woman.”  Black women having children out of wedlock was a biological expectation, suggesting it was their hypersexuality. A Black mother’s illegitimate child was portrayed as an economic device used to gain more money from White taxpayers.

Society has created expectations from mothers that have existed since the discovery of the New World and gender roles were assigned. Upholding mothers to rudimentary practices, inserting race as an antidote to explain the inadequacies of mothers can be harmful. These preconceived notions facilitated by the media can derail the progression of research of figures from multiple backgrounds, and by using various frameworks alongside Julian Watson's Mothering by Degrees, we can see how the complexity of motherhood historically developed and has been continuously minimized because of race, further enforcing the stigma experienced by Black women, especially Black student mothers.

Written by Jazmine Gracia, Undergraduate Research Fellow
The University of Texas at El Paso, The Humanities Collaborative at EPCC-UTEP

1.  Watson, Jillian M. Mothering by Degrees : Single Mothers and the Pursuit of Postsecondary Education. Rutgers University Press, 2017.
2.  Ibid.
3.  Ibid.
4.  Ibid.
5.  Ibid.
6.  Ibid.
7.  Ibid.
8.  Ibid.
9.  Ibid.
10.  Ibid.
11.  Ibid.
12.  Ibid.
13.  Ibid.
14.  ibid.


Watson, Jillian M. Mothering by Degrees : Single Mothers and the Pursuit of Postsecondary Education. Rutgers University Press, 2017.

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