Maternalism refers to an attitude or a policy reminiscent of the non-hierarchic pattern of a family based on matriarchy.

In this form of system, women use society in order to protect children from unnecessary harm. This system is the opposite of paternalism; which refers to a policy that resembles the hierarchic pattern of a family based on patriarchy. Opponents of paternalism (and proponents of maternalism), such as John Stuart Mill, claim that liberty supersedes safety in terms of actions that only affect oneself. John Locke argues in his Two Treatises of Government essay that political power and paternal power are inherently different, and thus the former should not mirror the latter.


Basic concept

Maternalism is defined by Koven and Michel as a variety of ideologies that "exalted women's capacities to mother and extended to society as a whole the values of care, nurturance and morality," and was intended to improve the quality of life of women and children.[1]

To improve the conditions of women and children these policies attempted to reconcile the conflicting roles placed on women during this time period. As single mothers were responsible for both supporting their families and raising children, government assistance would reduce the probability that they could be charged with neglecting their "home duties.[2]" Another concept of maternalism includes nationally-funded insurance against illness, accidents, disability, and old age.[3] However, feminists in the 1970s found maternalism to be an epidemic of childbirths in women who previously thought of childbearing as "an epitome of proletarian submissiveness;" or unpaid work damaging the body.[4] Around 1980, these women were cuddling their babies and glorifying their animal instincts.[4] This crisis led to the notion of maternalism being empty.[4] Radical groups like the postmodern queers and the anti-capitalist gender theorists declared maternalism to be a major heresy.[4] Some trendy feminists would question maternalism with this phrase: "How dare you raise to the status of theory our Achilles' heel, maternity?"[4]

However, maternalist policies have helped to encourage women's paid work, support women's care giving work in the home, guard women and their families against poverty, and differentiate among women based on ethnic/racial classifications and class status after the Cold War.[5]

Issues by country

United States

Pre-21st century United States

There has been reforms in the United States that attempted to bring about a more maternalistic government with a degree of success in addition to a degree of limitations.[6] Jane Addams would begin the maternalism movement in order to improve the health, education and welfare of American children.[7] Under the banner of “social housekeeping,” professional reformers encouraged wives and mothers to make the world into a safer and more clean place to live.[7] Addams wanted to create a new meaning of motherhood by cultural ideology that championed the emotional and social value of women’s attachment to children and family.[7] To maternalist activists, the gateway to women’s political empowerment is revealed by engaging women in sentimental fervor over the innocence and vulnerability of children rather than challenging male dominance.[7]

The idea of a maternal public policy emerged in the United States following the landmark United States Supreme Court decision Muller v. Oregon, 208 U.S. 412 (1908). This case upheld the constitutionality of a law that limited the maximum working hours of women, reversing the previous Lochner v. New York, 198 U.S. 45 (1905), in which setting maximum working hours for men was held to be unconstitutional. The decision in Muller was based on a scientific and sociological study that demonstrated that the government has a legitimate interest in the working conditions of women as they have the unique ability to bear children.[8] Historians have considered the American maternalist policy to be beneficial to its welfare state.[9] By conceptualizing the source of women’s political power as an extension their domestic roles, maternalistic reformers have succceded in institutionalizing a class-bound ideology of mothering that set the standard for future social programs based on the "family wage."[9] Maternalist polices have reduced the American infant mortality rate from 30% in urban areas from 1900 to a significantly lower amount by 1930.[9] Although maternalism has been depicted as a distinct branch of first-wave (or early) feminism, there remains some debate about whether the objectives of maternalist reformers with women's rights were successful or not.[9]

However, the 1996 welfare system reform has characterized the end to the "traditional" maternalist strand of U.S. social policy that dates back to the 1910s and 1920s.[10] The introduction of the Earned Income Tax Credit has ushered in a more employment-based strand in the social policy of the United States.[10] The EITC had practically eliminated a social right, made mothers virtually indistinguishable from fathers, and expanded the role of the free (capitalist) market in the provision of income and care.[10] Contemporary historians, however, have seen the 1996 welfare reform as a historical break in transitioning from supporting motherhood to commodifiying women's labor.[11] Up until 1996, families were key sites of intervention through which the American welfare state was erected, especially through single women as mothers—not wives.[11] Due to a lack of welfare policies available to poor men, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families’ (TANF) marriage promotion policies have positioned poor women as nodes connecting the state to poor men while structuring the poor women as breadwinners, mothers, and wives simultaneously.[11]

21st century United States

The biggest challenge for gender equality in the 21st century is to eliminate the difference between traditionally feminine and traditionally masculine responsibilities in family caregiving.[12]

American law has mostly accomplished gender equality in parenting by doing away with gender classifications along with the attitudes that foster them.[12] All laws relating to family, work, and civic participation in the United States of America are considered to be gender-neutral.[12] As the Supreme Court’s 2003 decision in Nevada Department of Human Resources v. Hibbs demonstrates, both Congress and the Court have accepted the critiques of traditional gender roles as told by feminists.[12] However, the resultant legal reforms address only formal inequality - people still live with informal inequality.[12] Changes in legal norms must be embraced throughout the culture in order for these promises to become a reality in everyday life.[12] The most influential and resistant obstacle to actualizing gender equality is the continuing cultural practice of romanticizing the mother as a caregiver/homemaker symbol.[12] American people must learn not to accept existing gendered family patterns as the results of freely made individual choices.[12] Persistently gendered family care becomes self-fulfilling, and solidifies the very inequalities that the laws of a liberal democracy tries to dislodge.[12] The new maternalism is spread across Internet advocacy groups and "Mommy blogs" on the Internet.[12] Equality outside the home requires equality inside it; making the "new maternalism" controversial for 21st century feminists.[12]

Recent welfare reform has also started to target poor men directly, especially in fatherhood and marriage promotion initiatives.[11]


Maternalist policies created by the female-dominated Parliament in Iceland starting in the 2000s has led to the criminalization of strip clubs.[13][14] The law officially took effect on July 31, 2010.[13]

With the banning of strip clubs, it is believed that Iceland's sex industry will have to shut down permanently.[13] Strippers that were under the employment of the newly-criminalized strip clubs will have to file for unemployment insurance (and eventually welfare if job prospects don't improve). Iceland has been declared the most "female-friendly" and feminist country in the world due to its maternalist policies.[13]


These are the names of notable people who supported maternalism in addition to a maternalist policy:


  1. ^ Koven, S., & Michel, S. (1993). Mothers of a New World, Maternalist Politics and the Origins of Welfare States (). Routledge.
  2. ^ Barney, S. L. (1999). Maternalism and the Promotion of Scientific Medicine during the Industrial Transformation of Appalachia, 1880-1930. NWSA Journal, 11(3), 68-92.
  3. ^ "Eirinn Larsen: Feminist Scholars define Maternalism and Maternal Policy". UIB. Retrieved 2011-05-02. 
  4. ^ a b c d e "Feminism, maternalism, and puerism". Philosophical Investigations.,_maternalism_and_puerism. Retrieved 2011-05-02. 
  5. ^ "SSRN-From Public to Private Maternalism? Gender and Welfare in Poland and Hungary after 1989". SSRN. Retrieved 2011-05-02. 
  6. ^ Brandeis, L. D. (1907). The Brandeis Brief. Retrieved January 27, 2010, from
  7. ^ a b c d "MMO: Morality or equality?". Mothers' Movement. Retrieved 2011-05-02. 
  8. ^ Woloch, N. (1996). Muller v. Oregon: A Brief History with Documents. Boston: Bedford Books of St. Martin's Press.
  9. ^ a b c d "MMO: Another Mother's Movement". Mothers' Movement. Retrieved 2011-05-02. 
  10. ^ a b c "Farewell to Maternalism". Repec. Retrieved 2011-05-02. 
  11. ^ a b c d "Not Just Maternalism: Marriage and Fatherhood in American Welfare Policy". Oxford Journals. Retrieved 2011-05-12. 
  12. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k "Against the New Maternalism". Georgetown Law Faculty Publications and Other Works. Retrieved 2011-05-10. 
  13. ^ a b c d "Iceland's Strip Club Ban". UPI. 2010-03-24. Retrieved 2011-05-02. 
  14. ^ "Legislation Bans Stripping in Iceland". Iceland Review. 2010-03-24. Retrieved 2010-06-06. 

External links

Wikimedia Foundation. 2010.

Look at other dictionaries:

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  • maternalism — noun the treatment of people in a motherly manner, especially by caring for them as a mother would care for her children. Syn: motherliness …   Wiktionary

  • maternalism — n. motherliness; motherhood; motherly approach, mother like relation …   English contemporary dictionary

  • maternalism — ma·ter·nal·ism …   English syllables

  • maternalism — noun 1. the quality of having or showing the tenderness and warmth and affection of or befitting a mother the girl s motherliness made her invaluable in caring for the children • Syn: ↑motherliness, ↑maternal quality, ↑maternity • Derivationally… …   Useful english dictionary

  • maternal — maternalism, n. maternalistic, adj. maternally, adv. /meuh terr nl/, adj. 1. of, pertaining to, having the qualities of, or befitting a mother: maternal instincts. 2. related through a mother: his maternal aunt. 3. derived from a mother: maternal …   Universalium

  • Marriage promotion — is a neoliberal policy aiming to produce “strong families” for the purposes of social security; as found in 21st century American maternalism.[1] The George W. Bush Administration had focused on government marriage promotion as the solution to… …   Wikipedia

  • Maternalist reform — Maternalist Reforms in the United States were experiments in public policy[when?] that took the form of laws providing for state assistance for mothers with young children that did not have the financial support of a male member of the household …   Wikipedia

  • maternal quality — noun the quality of having or showing the tenderness and warmth and affection of or befitting a mother the girl s motherliness made her invaluable in caring for the children • Syn: ↑motherliness, ↑maternalism, ↑maternity • Derivationally related… …   Useful english dictionary

  • maternalistic — adjective showing maternal instincts • Similar to: ↑maternal • Derivationally related forms: ↑maternalism * * *  ̷ ̷| ̷ ̷ ̷ ̷|istik, tēk adjective : having or showing maternal instincts or attitudes : marked by maternalism maternalistic care * *… …   Useful english dictionary

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