A Mother's Sphere
By Madeline McDowell Breckinridge
Published by the National Woman Suffrage Publishing Company, Inc., 1917
There was a time when the children of the land were mainly taught at their mothers’ knees; those mothers who could afford it supplied private governesses for their children, or sent them to private schools; the others giving their children such education as they themselves had.
This time is passed. The business of teaching the children of this country has been taken over by the public schools, and though the mother herself no longer does the actual teaching of her children, it is now as much the privilege and the duty of the mother to oversee the education of her children in the public schools as ever it was to guide it in our pioneer homes.
Now the management of public schools is comprehensively included in the word “politics.” To realize this we must get rid of the ordinary conception of that misused word as something associated with corrupt elections, violence, graft—“dirty politics.” When it has been asserted in the states not even allowing their women school suffrage that the effort to get this right for them was an effort “to get women into politics” meaning politics in its dirty sense- it was truly asserted on the other hand that on the contrary, it was an effort to get the schools out of politics. In the proper sense of the term not only is the management of the schools necessarily in politics, but it is high time that the mothers of school children were also in politics. Bernard Shaw has succinctly stated the case. “Politics,” he says, “is not something apart from home and the babies. It is home and the babies.”
THE STRENGTH OF NATURAL LAW.—It was not originally intended that women should teach in our public schools. It was not originally intended that women should vote in our school elections, but some way and somehow, the women have gotten in; they are upholding the school system from within and from without. A large majority of the public school teacher in the land are women. Mothers of school children are more and more “meddling” in school affairs. They are finding out whether school houses are proper, whether school teachers are capable, whether school trustees are fit persons. They are exercising the divine prerogative of mothers to meddle in the education of their own children. Even in the dozen and a half states where man-made laws still attempt to write women out of any share in the management of the public schools, the women have gotten in. In many of these states through the School Improvement League, women have done a tremendous work for the material improvement of the school plant. In some of them, where over seventy-five per cent of the teachers are also women, the anecdote of the small boy who was asked by the teacher who supported the world, seems applicable. “Atlas, m’a’m” he answered. “But who,” asked the teacher, “supports Atlas?” The boy thought a moment. “I don't know, m’a’m,” he said, “but I suppose it was his wife.” The schools are nominally being managed and taught by men; but actually they are being supported both from the inside and the outside by the mother sex. Whom God hath joined together for the nurture and rearing of children it has proven impossible for men to put asunder.
A MOTHER'S RIGHT TO HER CHILD.—Children are not the exclusive creations of men. They are not the exclusive possessions of men—at least they are not in twenty-three of our states. In three states—under laws of a supposedly civilized people—it is still true that a mother of legitimate children has no right to them; they belong exclusively to the father whether he by living or dead, and in fact he may will away his unborn child. In seventeen other states, so long as the father lives, the mother has no legal rights to her children. But even in these benighted states which have not as yet passed a co-guardianship law, no woman will acknowledge that she has not a moral right to her children, and a moral responsibility for their education and training.
WHERE IT LEADS THEM.—Now it is impossible for women to fulfill this responsibility without a participation in the carrying on of public business—without, in short, being in politics. How naturally the women of the land have come to a realization of their responsibility for their children's education, and therefore, in the present day and generation, for the condition of the public schools, is well shown by the activities of the General Federation of Women’s Clubs. The education committee of the Federation some years back adopted a program of work which it recommended to all the clubs scattered throughout the country. The things recommended were are follows:
(1) More school houses—cleaner, better ventilated and better equipped school houses.
(2) More and better equipped play grounds, with supervised play.
(3) Medical inspection and school nurses.
(4) Physical training and the teaching of personal hygiene.
(5) The preparation of teachers in normal schools and state universities for the teaching of personal and sex hygiene.
You will not that these mothers of the Federated Clubs did not attempt to meddle with the professional side of the teaching job. They merely decided to do for their children in the public schools that which they were doing for the children in their own homes; to provide them a clean and healthful place in which to grow up. They had come to see that it was of no avail that their own homes should be spotless, their own gardens and play ground beautiful; that these should be fit places in which a child or a flower might grow. But that it was further necessary that the school buildings and the school yards in which these same children were to spend very many years of their growing lives should also be clean and healthful, free from contagion, physical or moral.
A MOTHER'S SPHERE.—What does it profit a mother to have performed her duty within the limited sphere that used to be considered hers within the hour walls of her own home, if the child has gone out from that home into conditions to which he has succumbed? What does it profit her when the child is brought home to her ill with diphtheria or scarlet fever, or some of the many diseases to which childhood is subject—what does it profit her when he lies dead before her, or when he is brought back to her contaminated in body and soul, that she has done her duty as men saw it, or as a former generation conceived it? Does she not know then that her sphere did not end at her own front door, or her own front gate? Does she not know that it followed her child wherever her child went—into the school, into the town, into the state? And that so long as there remained in the community where his lot was cast one foul spot, one evil condition which she had done nothing to remedy, and because of this he had returned to her broken and degenerate, does she not know that she had failed to fulfill her mother's task?
No mother can fulfill her task, no father can fulfill his, who watches and guides and tries to influence the child within the home alone. In order really to protect him, in order really to influence him it is necessary that father and mother both should bear their proper part in the management of the schools, in the city housekeeping, moral and physical, and in all that great public business on which, as I have said, private life in the present day absolutely depends.
THE BEST TOOL NEEDED.—No mother can do this thing unless she is armed with the instrument men have found necessary in their attempts to do it, namely with the ballot. Nor will any woman lose her direct influence by guiding this direct power, any more than a man when he casts a ballot loses such influence as he has in addition as brother, father, friend, neighbor or respected citizen.
The mothers of our land are coming to realize how necessary, in the carrying out of their natural and womanly tasks, as for instance in the education and training of children, is this direct power to enable them to carry out these tasks properly. It is especially necessary when they with the divine courage that is perhaps vouchsafed to mothers alone, are heroically facing the sex problem—the social evil as it is called—the last great dragon that stands in the way of civilization. When they fully realize these things, they will undoubtedly realize also that they must have every aid and advantage that men have had, that they must be armed with every weapon that mean have found necessary with which to fight the battles of civilization.
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