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The creation of the modern mother

Women's magazines from the 1920's were used to enhance motherhood's new role

“Maternidade” - Eliseu Visconti, 1906

Forget the maternal instinct and the tips given by mothers, aunts and grandmothers. In the 1920’s, being a middle-class mother required that the mother be attentive to and well informed about the guidelines on how to raise children.

These guidelines were printed on the pages of women’s magazines, and were based on the enhancement and diffusion of maternal attitudes. By means of topics, articles, and advertisements aimed at women, health care professionals acknowledged the existence of a maternal instinct inherent in the female nature. But they considered that this maternal instinct was not sufficient to raise children in a sound manner. The so-called medical hygienists became increasingly more active, anchored on the assumptions of hygiene – and their idea of health as an individual responsibility and the target of a specific educational process. These professionals, informed through their knowledge of eugenics, were immersed in the nationalistic attitude that viewed children as the creators of Brazil’s feasibility. Therefore, they heralded themselves as authorities on the promotion and maintenance of children’s health.

To this end, they dedicated their time, at their offices and in hospitals, and in the pages of books and magazines, to a systematic campaign in favor of scientifically-based motherhood, guided by the medical principles of puericulture (a pediatric specialty focused on following child growth and development). “By relying on the supremacy of science and reason over emotion – and achieving its legitimacy at this level – the physicians offered a broad, diversified inventory of technical guidelines to guide mothers in the bringing up of their children. These guidelines were supposed to substitute ‘old-fashioned’ religious dogmas or suggestions from friends, neighbors or grandmothers, considered as being pernicious or ‘archaic’. “Resorting to science: this was to be the new social duty performed by the modern mother,” explains Doctor Maria Martha de Luna Freire, a physician with a medical degree from the Rio de Janeiro State University/Uerj, and a doctorate degree in the history of science and health from Casa de Oswaldo Cruz/Fiocruz. She is a professor at the Instituto de Saúde da Comunidade, Community Health Institute, at the Universidade Federal Fluminense/UFF university.

Maria Martha wrote the thesis Mulheres, mães e médicos: discurso maternalista em revistas femininas (Rio de Janeiro e São Paulo, década de 1920), which has just been published as a book, the title of which is Mulheres, mães e médicos – Discurso maternalista no Brasil (264 pages, R$ 35), by Editora FGV. When working on her thesis, she extensively read two leading publications from the 1920’s: Vida Doméstica (1920-1963) and Revista Feminina (1914-1936). She explains that the articles written by physicians normally had titles such as “Medical lecture,” “Medical advice,” “Puericulture,”  “Domestic medicine” or “Home medicine”; their main topics were focused on issues related to infants: from clothes to sleeping, from teething to food. “Everyday habits such as bathing or playing took on an air of hygienic rituals, taking up a lot of space in the pages of the magazines with detailed explanations on the procedures,” she says. In this context, new ‘health objects’, such as the home thermometer and weighing scales, were introduced and their use was encouraged as the prerogative of the modern mother.

During the first two years of her research work, Maria Martha dedicated herself to theory. The analysis of the sources took approximately one year. This was followed by the final draft of the thesis. “First, I found all the women’s magazines that had circulated in the 1920’s. After a preliminary analysis, I chose Vida Doméstica and Revista Feminina as the representatives of this genre, which establishes a set of attributes referring to the form and content normally associated with the world of women – namely, fashion and literature.” She points out that the long period during which these magazines circulated – 43 years and 22 years, respectively – attested to their receptiveness and led her to decide that they were good examples of this genre. She studied most of the issues of the magazines published in the 1920s: a total of 243 issues.

Thus, the infant’s psyche – began to receive special attention, for example, with suggestions of strategies to control fear and stubbornness and to encourage ‘healthy reading’. The habits associated with colonial heritage, such as cradling the babies, were strongly condemned on the basis of scientific principles. According to the researcher, child nutrition was the most intensely explored field in the referred magazines, especially topics related to breast feeding, which was advocated together with suggestions for substitutes for breast feeding. “By transforming food into nutrition, and the kitchen into a laboratory, these articles upgraded women to the status of ‘the family nutritionist,’enhancing the maternal role, on one hand, and facilitating access to female professionalization in the field of nutrition on the other.”

Reproductions from the book "Caricaturistas Brasileiros", Pedro Corrêa do LagoMaria Martha, who has four children, says she has lived through the pains and joys of carrying, giving birth to, and raising children. As a physician, she has dedicated many years of her professional life to puericulture. “I journeyed through the two-fold dimension of being an agent and a receiver of the practices of puericulture.” During this journey, she accumulated reflections and questions on the origins, ideological aspects and limits of puericulture as a field of medical practice. Her research work for her doctorate led her to come to the conclusion that scientific motherhood is one of the aspects of the maternal discourse, because it advocates the scientific principles of puericulture – as the main tool of medical action – and the arguments produced by the feminist movements. “The discourse of scientific motherhood, even though it was advocated by physicians, was not reduced to their authority; it emerged from the confluence of their common interest in women “the co-protagonists of the action.”

At the historical moment when the construction of nationality gained a central role and the maternal function consolidated itself as a public health concern, Maria Martha continues, the enhancement of motherhood – which gained a new meaning as the enhancement of the Brazilian nation itself – acquired more argumentative power and provided  renewed justification for both the medical and the feminist discourses. “By making women – as mothers – responsible for the upbringing of future Brazilian citizens, this concept of motherhood added the status of the social function, thereby increasing the prestige of the doctors dedicated to child hygiene. Thus, these professionals viewed the enhancement of motherhood as a way to obtain professional recognition and legitimacy; for women, this perspective represented a way of extrapolating the domestic domain and  improving their social status.”

The qualification of women’s magazines as a social space for the construction of an alliance negotiated between women and physicians proved to be correct, in the researcher’s opinion. “I concluded that, based on the shared dimension of modernity, the magazines shaped the appropriate cultural environment for the diffusion of the ideas of scientific motherhood.” The quantitative growth of articles that focused on the scientific way of taking care of children and the loyalty of the subscribers confirmed the interest of the readers in this topic. “The opinions in the letters to the editor published in Revista Feminina praised the quality of the magazine, announced feminist events or social events and asked for suggestions on a wide variety of issues – from fashion to cooking recipes.” The column by Dr. Wittrock, in Vida Doméstica, answered more specific questions on child care, which made this column a veritable ‘doctor’s office’.

Likewise, the progressive substitution of advertisements related to the field of farm inputs or zoo technology with advertisements on child nutrition – particularly more explicit in Vida Doméstica − represented another sign of the penetration of the medical-maternalist discourse. “An analysis of the profile of the writers provided another indication of the adequacy of women’s magazines. The people who wrote articles for Vida Doméstica and Revista Feminina included such representatives of the intellectual and medical elite of the time as Aprygio Gonzaga, Osorio Lopes, Antonio Wittrock, J. P. Fontenelle and Octavio Gonzaga.” Many of these authors held executive or prestigious job positions at public institutions – such as the post held by Dr. Fontenelle, who was the sanitation inspector of the Public Health Department and vice president of the Brazilian Hygiene Society. This also confirmed the tendency of the Brazilian sanitation movement as an essential strategy for the reform project.

Reproductions from the book "Caricaturistas Brasileiros", Pedro Corrêa do LagoMaria Martha found various prominent women writers among the contributors to the magazines. These included such renowned writers as Ana de Castro Osorio, Chrysanthème, Condessa de Pardo Bazan and Maria de Eça − feminist movement activists and collaborators to periodicals in various countries. This reinforced the assumption of the association between the hygienist, maternalist and feminist concepts. “The simultaneous existence of such a wide diversity of renowned writers attests to the fact that the maternal discourse expressed in women’s magazines did not stem exclusively from the medical community. It mirrored the convergence of interests of  physicians and the mothers in the construction of a new feminine role for mothers.

The articles published in the magazines led the physician-researcher to realize that upper and middle-class women living in the main urban centers had participated actively in the construction and diffusion of the scientific motherhood ideology. “By re-stating the link of the maternal function, and the nature and compatibility of such attribution with other female roles, many of these women, especially the feminist activists, took advantage of the motherhood concept – as the exclusive domain of their gender – to increase their power and facilitate their claim to other rights.” Therefore, they endorsed the scientific motherhood ideology, and viewed this alliance with the doctors – and the adhesion to the scientific principles of puericulture – as the means of transforming motherhood within the social role of women.

For these women, concludes Maria Martha, the exercise of scientific motherhood represented  access to a socially acknowledged space within science – up to then, an exclusively male domain – and constituted a potential way of inserting women into public space – via philanthropic or professional work.