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A mother and her children make artificial flowers in their New York City tenement; the “home work” performed by mothers and their children often helped to ensure the survival of the family unit.

At the turn of the 20th century, some women activists understood their roles as mothers to be their greatest political strength. They argued that women’s innate maternal qualities were missing from the political sphere.

Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin and other women activists who founded the National Association of Colored Women in 1896 often called on the images of Motherhood to advance their cause. Native-American activist Zitkala Sa (Gertrude Simmons Bonnin) and anti-lynching crusader Ida B. Wells-Barnett, both products of the early 20th century, often employed the rhetoric of motherhood to effect change.

By the mid-20th century, Bella Abzug led Women Strike for Peace, using maternal rhetoric to support an end to nuclear proliferation. Similarly, Del Martin and others who identified as lesbians founded the Lesbian Mothers Union in 1971 to help women in danger of losing custody of their children based solely on sexual orientation.

A mother and her children celebrate at the Indian Independence Day Parade in New York City, ca. 1990.

The language and ideas surrounding motherhood have positioned women as mothers to be leaders within and outside the home. Mothers have taken on myriad roles as educators, financial providers, and emotional caretakers. These roles have often been politicized by mothers themselves for political and social gain. Their role in raising the next generation of citizens has made them powerful leaders throughout history.


Sharecropper educates her children at home; discrimination, poverty, and the waxing and waning of the planting season often kept southern African-American children from attending school.



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