Margaret Sanger, "The Unity of American Motherhood," 1923.

Source: "Margaret Sanger Papers Microfilm, Library of Congress, 131:0082."

This article was likely written in 1923. It bears a "Brandt & Kirkpatrick" stamp, a literary agency that represented Sanger from 1921. It changed its name to Brandt & Brandt in 1924.Additions were made by hand by Margaret Sanger.


By Margaret Sanger

“The Mothers! The Mothers! Ye are all one. . .” So wrote the late William James in a beautiful letter to his wife. This great unity of motherhood we need today more than ever before. Today and tomorrow and the day after tomorrow the greatest need of our country is and increasingly shall be for great men and great women. We cannot produce them without great mothers. And motherhood can be made strong and great only as we recognize its unity, only when we come to the realization that the degradation and enslavement and neglect of any of our mothers or potential mothers means the enslavement and the degradation of all.

But let us not make the mistake of thinking that we can protect American motherhood by a bath of pathos, a debauch of sentimentality. Today, as a nation, we are too prone to worship catchwords and catchphrases. We ↑only↓ pretend to hold motherhood sacred. “Motherlove” presented on the stage or the screen is always “sure fire stuff”. Yet our intelligence cannot, or does not, keep pace with our emotions. The pitiless statistics of the Children’s Bureau of the Department of Labor reveal the painful fact that the people of the United States of America are more careless and wasteful of Motherhood than any of the great civilized countries of the world. We have a higher maternal death rate than any of the other principal countries. In [1911?] we lost more than 25,000 women in childbirth. Most of these deaths might have been prevented. Within the first year after birth, one of every ten babies born is foredoomed to an early death. In respect to the well-being of the mothers, upon which depends the very health and strength of our future generations, our public conscience has not yet been truly awakened. The maternal mortality rates and the infant mortality rates are the greatest disgrace of American civilization.

What are we to do?

Upon this point, I disagree with most of the so-called feminists. Shall we pass laws? Should we concentrate upon political and legislative action? Shall we extend our maternity centers and milk stations? Must we increase our donations to organized charities and philanthropies? Must the state and federal governments assume a supervision and paternal control of mothers and babies? Shall we demand larger and larger appropriations for the upkeep and maintenance of institutions for the unfit and the feeble-minded? These are but a few of the questions that arise immediately when one begins to probe into the complex facts of this great problem.

At such a moment as the present one, when ↑Now that↓ American women are for the first time experiencing the privilege of the vote, they are, perhaps, too ready to accept it as a magic power, an “open sesame” to every form of social and political justice. Too many of the new leaders of American women have forgotten, or have never realized, that the vote is valuable only as the expression of power and consolidation of interests. If votes are not cast with the aim of crystallizing organized and unified power, they are practically thrown away. Therefore before concentrating upon and placing all faith in piecemeal political measures,--particularly for the “protection” of mothers and children, the greatest present necessity is to awaken and unite American motherhood, to arouse in American mothers an acute consciousness of their great and inalienable function. Only thus can American women be brought to a realization of their central role and enormous responsibility.

Not through superimposed and external [political?] remedies, nor through charitable or paternal ministrations, can we truly protect the mothers of our future generations, It is ↑but↓ only by awakening in them a sense of their own responsibility and by liberating their intelligence. We can protect American motherhood only by permitting it to protect itself. When American women come to the realization of this profound yet simple truth--the great unity of Motherhood--they shall have taken the first great step in self-education and freedom.

Then and then only can the enfranchisement of woman assume any importance in the political development of our country. For then the votes of women will become the expression of a great creative power. This is the power of Motherhood, a free and fearless Motherhood, by and through which will come a new race of strong men and women.

In thus liberating the oldest power in the world and in creating a new one, American women are not called upon to break with the great traditions of America. The word “Americanization” means something quite different from that supposed by its noisiest adherents.

If it means anything worth while, it can only mean the expression of the pioneer spirit. Our whole history has been the dream of an endless conflict--the inspiring drama of frontiers. Our pioneers have pushed undaunted onward, from coast to coast, crossing mountains, plains and deserts, forward always into the unknown, confront ↑ing↓ courageously, bitter uncompromising realities, surmounting formidable hardships, performing daily acts of heroism that were not recorded only because they were so unconsciously and so unflinchingly performed ↑accomplished↓ . And in this great drama of the pioneer spirit, the women were equal protagonists with the men.

The spirit of these forgotten pioneers is the cornerstone, if not the whole foundation, of our present national strength and hardihood. But with the advent of prosperity and sophistication, our women have, it seems to me, been related ↑relegated↓ to a secondary role. There is a tendency today, among our advanced feminists, to stress the limitations of our pioneer “foremothers”. We hear that they were crude, uneducated, limited, religious bigots, lacking in all the finer susceptibilities and graces ↑modern ability to organize and agitate↓ . They were “unawakened.” They had never heard of “Woman’s rights”. they did not vote and they did not even want to vote.

Perhaps this is, in the narrow sense, the truth. But let us never forget that they were facing sterner realities and greater hardships than the great majority of American women face today. They lived on another level; they were simpler, more primitive, yet with a keener instinctive sense of their great and inalienable function. So closely and so completely were they the comrades and companions of their men -- because comradeship and equality were the stern necessities of the frontier -- that the insistence upon petty ↑(personal)↓ ethical rights, or such luxuries as “The vote” simply never entered their heads.

Am I too idealistic, too eulogistic, in this tribute to the pioneer mother? Upon what evidence, it may be asked, am I so certain of their greatness? By what test, except that of legend and tradition, can I claim so much for them?

These questions may well be asked. The answer seems to me irrefutable. It is that these women became the mothers of strong men. Nancy Hanks, the mother of Abraham Lincoln, is perhaps the classic instance. Today we have passed the stage of defaming this great mother -- great in spite of her lack of “education” and culture. Look into the lives of the great majority of great Americans and you will find an exceptional mothers. Abraham Lincoln was the son of a “pioneer” mother. Mark Twain was the son of another. Only the strong could survive the hardships of frontier life. And there can be no doubt that it was these very hardships that brought out all that men and women possessed of indomitable courage and bravery, and that human strength was thus enabled to perpetuate itself.

They, indeed, were the lucky ones, in spite of their crudity, their lack of sophistication and social refinement. We American women of today are less fortunate in that our national prosperity does not call into play all that we possess of latent strength and courage.

Today the whole situation for the American woman and the American mother has changed. Life is more complex. As a nation we have become rich. And more and more it has devolved upon the mother of the American family, even among the working class, to serve as the external and living advertisement of the husband’s prosperity. American mothers, who under the rough and ready conditions of pioneer life, were veritable towers of strength, have ↑almost↓ succumbed to the insidious disease of comfort and luxury.

Prosperity is a great test of character. And it is the American womanhood, rather than American manhood, who ↑today↓ bears the great burden of national prosperity. The great pressing problem is: shall we lie back in comfort and luxury, and, taking a detached sentimental interest in the less fortunate women and children, throw out the doles of charity or support superficial palliatives? Or shall we take up the great task of the pioneer American womanhood, facing courageously the new and tremendous problems of the future? There is ↑should be↓ no alternative. There is but one answer.

To reconquer their great central place in American life, to produce the great Americans that are so increasingly necessary as the United States becomes the great leader in world affairs--for this role is being thrust upon us by history--the unity of motherhood is the first essential for American women. This duty cannot be shirked.

The investigations and reports of the Children’s Bureau of the Department of Labor indicate how closely bound up with the welfare of children is the welfare of mothers. To produce a race of strong and vigorous children it is necessary to create a race of strong and healthy mothers. Where then shall we begin?

Most of the already organized efforts to solve this endless problem have concentrated upon the child. Yet these attempts to lessen the hideous rate of infant mortality have shown themselves to be wasted effort, unless they take into consideration also the inspection and supervision of expectant mothers and provide pre-natal care for the children. But even this, as any intelligent person my see, is not enough. As long as the potential motherhood of the country is being drained and wasted in the most ignominious industries, as long as the life blood of the mothers of the future and the creators of the America of tomorrow is being stitched into ready-made clothes, wrought into cheap embroideries and laces, into feathers and hideous artificial flowers, into sham furs and all sorts of tawdry fineries with which more “prosperous” women bedeck themselves, all these superficial attempts at “Child welfare” will be in vain.

As long as these working women and mothers, in seeking to escape the monotonous slavery of such industries, are thrust into the “industry” of motherhood--but motherhood ↑a maternity↓ no less monotonous and unrelieved, because it is a matter of blind instinct--we shall discover, if we have not already discovered, that all efforts to establish maternity centers and milk stations, all efforts to decrease the casualties among these battalions of babies cannot touch the real cause ↑root↓ of the problem.

Too long have all our efforts at social betterment been directed by the heart instead of the head. Love and sympathy are great dynamic powers. But too often our kindness has exactly the same effect, put into practice, as cruelty. If we cannot see it, it is because the majority of us are socially so near-sighted. It is a commonplace of social workers that the only charity that is worth while is that which helps people to help themselves; but in the working out of the various schemes at ↑for↓ amelioration of mothers and children, what efforts are being made to awaken among poor victimized mothers the sense of responsibility and power, of self-reliance and self-respect? Social workers are fond of repeating that “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure”. But to prevent we must strike at the very roots of social evils. And to find these roots, we must understand the factors in the situation ↑that↓ confront us. A great mathematician has said that no less important than the solution of a problem is the statement of the factors comprising it.

Applying this to the great problem of American motherhood, upon which our whole future as a world power and leader depends, we very soon must come to the conclusion that our most pressing need today is a great revaluation of motherhood.

We must lift motherhood out of the mire.

As long as American women drift unprepared and unwillingly into the greatest profession in the world, as long as they look upon maternity not as the fulfillment but the penalty of woman’s nature, as long as they look upon childbirth merely as an inevitable affliction, as long as they accept the coming of children with dumb and fatalistic resignation, we may rest assured that the quality of the American men and women who are through such a channel brought into our ↑the↓ world, will continue to deteriorate.

But when we are brave enough to liberate the mothers and the potential mothers of tomorrow from fear, when we awaken in them a sense of responsibility and freedom, which must go hand in hand, of self-reliance and self-respect, we shall find less and less need for outside interference, for organized charities and philanthropies. We shall find the quality of children improving, instead of deteriorating. Released of ↑from↓ her unwilling burdens, liberated from the fear of becoming again and again the victim of blind chance, the mothers of tomorrow may ↑will↓ become the mothers of hardy children.

This is no idle Utopian vision. Already we are developing a fine race of such mothers, intelligent, self-reliant, radiant. They are the creators of our future. All that they lack at present is this great sense of the unity of motherhood. It is for these American women to socialize their motherhood, to widen the sphere of their beneficent influence among the less fortunate and less enlightened. Enlightened ↑Intelligent↓ self-interest demands this. The future of their children is bound up with the future of all American children. For if our American stock, our ↑the↓ boys and girls ↑of any of us↓ are ↑is↓ to be “marked down”, permitted to deteriorate, such a degradation will affect the whole community.

Thus the unity of motherhood is the great ideal. Upon this basis the intelligent woman may befriend the less fortunate, approaching her ↑them↓ with reverence and respect, teaching her ↑them↓ and without condescension, ↑influencing her them↓ , but with the ↑arousing them to a ↓ sense of their tremendous importance to the future of America and the world.

“The Mothers! The Mothers! Ye are all one. . .”

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