The “Respectable" Mother


"Fidelity, the Mother Constant of Love", Augustin Pajau, 1799, The MET Museum, New York City. 

In 1799, Augustin Pajau created this sculpture to fashion what would be deemed the perfect mother of Roman times. Fidelity which is defined as "faithfulness to a person/thing", was deemed as the trait the made a woman a true and fit mother. He sculpted the hair of the sculpture in the "hairstyle favored by Roman republicans" [1]. This statue was seen as an artistic representation of what all Roman mothers should look like and how they should interact with their children. What does it mean to be a mother after the year 1799? Who is allowed to be a mother? Are there such things as good mothers versus bad mothers? In order to answer these questions we must take a look at the things that changed the social perceptions of what it means to be a woman. In order to understand that one must understand the idea of respectability politics. 

Respectability politics or the politics of respectability refers to attempts by marginalized groups to police their own members and show their social values as being continuous and compatible with mainstream values rather than challenging the mainstream for its failure to accept difference. [2] In early France women were seen as a marginalized group and they were also seen as the parent in charge of socializing the children. During this time France was seen as expereincing a social and moral decline.

The French Eugenics movement was a reaction to the perception that society was in a state of decline and degeneration. Before the Eugenics movement was created there was a significant decline in rural life due to 1) rise in the number of criminals, alcoholics, and people with tuberculosis and venereal disease 2) the decline in birthrate 3) and the supposed decline in culture due to art and literature being available to low and middle class individuals. It was these social ills that allowed for people to believe that France was in a state of emergency. Simultaneously, the French war had claimed the lives of 1.3 million soldiers so there was a need for "proper French citizens".

Therefore, a board of hygienists, doctors, psychologists, etc. formed the French Eugenics Society. [3] Their aim was to use sterilization and marriage restrictions to ensure the creation of the “best” species. The organization's slogan was: Reproduction, Preservation and Improvement of the species” and they felt as if the best way to do that was to choose who would be allowed to have children. [3] This placed the burden of child rearing onto the mother. If mothers were not seen as acceptable oftentimes they were forced into procedures that took away their ability to have children. Children were so important because they were supposed to grow up and correct the social ills that France felt were present in their country, which meant that the stress for proper mothers was prevalent in France at this time. There was rarely of a discussion about fathers as if their presence and behavior did not affect the chidlren. Therefore the term "proper" or "good' became very gendered with an emphasis on women. This rhetoric heavily affected the roles that women were allowed to hold. This rhetoric and roles of respectability continue to affect the role of mother to this very day. 


[1] The Met Museum, Aujanau Pajau, 1799

[2] Higginbotham, Evelyn Brooks. Righteous Discontent: The Women's Movement in the Black Baptist Church, 1880-1920. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993. 

[3] Adams, Mark B. The Wellborn Science: Eugenics in Germany, France, Brazil, and Russia. New York: Oxford UP, 1990. Print.