Lutheran Women & Missions Around the World

Womanhood is Motherhood

By: Courtney Rainer

 

As Reverend and Mrs. T. L. Brevig braved the frigid Alaskan winds, Mrs. Brevig had only one thought, of the children. She began her mission in Teller, Alaska alongside her husband in the very late 1800s and early 1900s. Mrs. Brevig was originally merely her husband’s companion on this mission, to teach the native’s how to raise reindeer, but her work with the locals transcended the shadow of her husband. The first several years were grueling and the native population was hesitant to accept the outside help, but with a kind and understanding heart Mrs. Brevig was accepted into the community and became well loved by all. Her young son Carl was also beloved by the community and would show the native children his picture books depicting scenes from the Bible. Their life made in Alaska was harsh, but rewarding. But heartbreak soon struck the Brevig family when Carl, only two years of age, died tragically. Mrs. Brevig died soon after but her legacy lives on through a monument erected by the native people to represent her significant influence on the community.[1]  Mrs. Brevig’s time in Alaska directly influenced a future missionary program called the Cradle Roll, where women recruit children who have not been exposed to Christianity and teach them how to be proper Christian children. The Cradle Roll program was popular around the 1950s. Though Mrs. Brevig did not originate the program she helped to inspire its creation and during its period of significance several women who were members of the Cradle Roll had missions in Alaska because of Brevig.

Since Brevig’s inspiration, the Cradle Roll program bloomed. The Cradle Roll program became a staple of a Lutheran women’s lives during the 1950s era.  Lutheran women at this time were entirely responsible for the religious upbringing of children. This duty even extended outside of the women’s immediate families to any child that needed religious guidance. The expectation that women were meant to raise children became so fundamental, it was woven into the fabric of femininity. The Cradle Roll program enforced the ideal that womanhood and motherhood were synonymous. The Cradle Roll was a missionary program that allowed women within the church to go on missions with the specific intent of baptizing children. These women’s jobs were to provide a Christian religious mother for every child they could. Men’s missions targeted the general population, but these women were chiefly responsible for the children. As a result of the Cradle Roll Program women within the Lutheran Church in the Pacific Northwest during the 1950s were required to be religious mothers to not only their own children, but any child they interact with. These women were not considered women unless they were mothers. The Cradle Roll painted women’s lives as empty and meaningless without motherhood and that mothers are solely responsible for raising a child. This program reinforced an ever present idea that biology is destiny. That physically women can carry and birth children, therefore that is their true purpose. During this time a woman’s identity was completely formed around motherhood. Though this program did offer leadership opportunities to women, the opportunities were only offered to mothers. If a woman were to be truly ideal, she would have to be a mother, because of the idea that a woman’s responsibility lies with the children.

 

Lutheran Herald. 1950. “Women’s Missionary Federation: Cradle Roll Division,” June 20. Women’s Missionary Records, Box 15, File 1. Pacific Lutheran University Archives & Special Collections.

This is photograph from the Lutheran Herald in June of 1950. This image shows a line of five year olds going through a graduation ceremony from the Cradle Roll program. Once they complete this graduation they will officially begin Sunday School. These particular children are from Central Lutheran Church in Portland, Oregon.  The children are being guided into the ceremony by a member of the Cradle Roll Program.[2]

 

 

An essential part of the Cradle Roll program was recruitment, for children as well as their mothers. One particular way that women were recruited to participate in this program was through poetry written by officers of the local Cradle Roll organization. The poetry was geared not only to mothers but women in general. The program was specifically for women and children not men. It was woven into the framework that women are responsible for everything that had to do with having children and securing their well-being. In the “Cry of the Mothers”, a woman is essentially described as having no meaning or purpose in life but to be a mother. The poem describes a bleak, trapped lifestyle with motherhood as the only option. “My life is so narrow, so narrow,/Environed by four square walls,/And every across my threshold the shadow/Of duty falls.”[3] This bleak outlook gives an overwhelming sense that women are trapped within their station in life and have no opportunity for mobility. From there the poem goes on to explain that a woman’s only true purpose and fulfillment comes from motherhood. “My eyes wander off to the hilltops,/But ever my heart stoops down/In a passion of love to the babies/That helplessly cling to my gown,”[4] This reinforces a prevalent idea that women’s only option in life is motherhood, so these women should be finding fulfillment in their only option. The poem implies that though women are trapped they should not be unhappy, and they should revel in their only opportunity, motherhood.

The recruitment material for the Cradle Roll program was exclusively targeted towards women. A common ideal during the 1950’s was that because woman can biologically bear children that women are better suited to raise children and that all women must want to be mothers. From the idea that women are more equip to raise and nurture children because their biology, stems the idea that women are destined to be mothers. As they are biologically capable of bearing children all women must want to be mothers. This ideal was so significant that it permeated to future time periods. In the 1970s when feminism and women’s rights were hot button issues there were still those who believed that women’s purpose was to have children and mother them. Some even looked down on women who chose to pursue a career rather than a family. A major political figure against the feminist movement, Phyllis Shlafly preached that is was a, “biological truth that women wanted mostly to be mothers.”[5] The ideas brought up by this program were so prevelant they contributed towards major political movements.

During the 1950’s when a woman in the church community gives birth, the members involved in the Cradle Roll Program would immediately send her a “Mothers’ Kit” with information regarding the spiritual upbringing of the child and her duty as a Christian Mother. No such “kit” was given to the men upon his child’s birth. The woman was considered solely responsible for the child’s upbringing. This was an unspoken rule of this time period, that women are the caretakers. This rule was backed by the incorrigible proposition that biology is destiny. As women can biologically produce children the idea that they are required to rear children and that children are someone more connected to their mother emotionally.  Within the “Mothers’ Kit” a pamphlet expressed the influence of only a mother on an infant. “There is the babe, less than a year old…It recognizes mother, father. And others who handle it and fondle it. In particular, the child notices the movements and facial expressions of the mother. Now we ask: would not such a child receive impressions from a mother’s attitude of prayer?”[6] This pamphlet claims that a child is most centrally influenced by their mother. The language of the document is placing a child’s well-being on a mother, if even if they are not the central care-giver. This writing places the entire responsibility of the child unto the mother.

 

WMF. “Sample ‘Mothers’ Kit.’” 1951. Minneapolis, Minnesota. Women’s Missionary Records, Box 15, File 1. Pacific Lutheran University Archives & Special Collections.

This is an illustrated image on the front of a pamphlet inside the Sample Mothers’ Kit. The pamphlet is entitled “What about your child?”. This image depicts several children surrounding a motherly figure reading to them. This places the responsibility on the women. The Mother is responsible for all these children’s religious education, so much so that it consumes her identity. Despite the story inside the pamphlet being about a woman with only one child, the image gestures several children.[7] Illustrating the idea that women should be considered mother to all.

 

 

Womanhood and motherhood are considered synonymous at this time period. One does not belong without the other. For a woman to truly be considered womanly, she must be a mother. A woman’s identity was based off of her status and level of competence as a mother. Conservative views very heavily focused on “the centrality of motherhood in women’s identity”[8].  Without motherhood someone could not truly be considered female by these standards.

For Lutheran Churches in the Pacific Northwest during the 50’s the only way for women to gain leadership and agency within the Church was through motherhood. Two organizations that women could be involved in and lead were the Cradle Roll Program, aimed at educating children and an organization called the Mother’s Club. This organization was specifically for women with children and participated in volunteer work. The blatant requirement of motherhood deprived woman who were not mothers of an opportunity to serve the community and be a part of a larger collection of women. The Mother’s Club and the Cradle Roll Program often fed into one another. As the only option for agency in the Church women were forced into motherhood if they sought a leadership role.[9]

The Cradle Roll Program even went outside of their immediate community to spread their messages and ideals. A significant amount of the Cradle Roll work took place in Alaska. A poem written about Alaska features the necessity for this program. “Up in Alaska, in that land of ice and snow,/There are Eskimo, who of Jesus do not know…Seeing our babies so snug and so warm,/And knowing the Savior will keep them from harm,/Can we forget to send the message of Love?/Can we fail to tell of the Haven above?”[10] Not only are women expected to be perfect mother’s to their own children but to others as well. An expectation of communal caregiving is placed onto all women in the Church. Motherhood was viewed as a symbol of status, therefore those who mothered outside of their own household were perceived as an ideal. The only acceptable work outside of the home was domestic duties of motherhood. Traditional work outside of the home was frowned upon, so the only opportunity many women had to work outside of the home was to be a motherly figure.

The idea that women are destined to be mothers exists outside of the Church setting as well. The general population during the 1950s was obsessed with women being mothers. To be viewed as a real woman you needed to bear children and have a family. Not only to have a family but that a family is a women’s top and often only priority.  This idea that women can only be women by have children and dedicating their entire lives to them, or the “cult of full-time motherhood” [11] as Stephanie Coontz calls it permeates this culture.

In the 1950s women were consistently being judged on impossible standards. The most prominent standard during this era was the ability to be a perfect wife and mother. Women were expected to be a perfect mother, which is a sheer impossibility without a child.  “The 1950s version of the ‘superwoman’ was the wife and mother who could fulfill a wide range of occupational roles—early childhood educator, counselor, cook, nurse, housekeeper, manager, and chauffeur—all within the home.”[12] Women who did not conform to the traditional identity as a mother were heavily criticized.  These standards spilled over into the church, though women were given opportunities for leadership and agency, they were only offered within the specific field of motherhood. Therefore, someone could not possibly be considered womanly without children.

Throughout history women have often only been considered useful in bearing and rearing children. The only way women had influence in society was by how they raised their children. If a woman did not become a mother she was practically voiceless. During the 1950’s the idea that biology is destiny, that all woman want to have children because they physiologically can,was extremely prevalent within society. Though many of society’s expectations for woman have changed the idea that women are destined to be mothers is still relevant today. Women are still often valued on their ability to bear children and thought to be an ‘old maid’ if they chose not to get married and have a family. Popular culture is filled with examples of woman who’s only goal is to obtain a husband and start a family, but woman who do not want children are so under represented they are practically nonexistent. Therefore the ideal woman is still a mother, the marketing of motherhood may have changed but the message is strikingly similar. As a society we continue to assume that because women can biologically have children that all women want to be mothers. It is important to consider where this ideal stems from to reduce the stigma about woman who do not want children.

Footnotes

[1] Sihler, E. W. “The Peace of God.” n.d. Women’s Missionary Records, Box 15, File 1. Pacific Lutheran University Archives & Special Collections.

[2] Lutheran Herald. “Women’s Missionary Federation: Cradle Roll Division,” June 20, 1950. Women’s Missionary Records, Box 15, File 1. Pacific Lutheran University Archives & Special Collections.

[3] Hardy, Elizabeth Clarke. “The Cry of the Mother a Poem in the Northwestern Christian Advocate.” n.d. Women’s Missionary Records, Box 15, File 1. Pacific Lutheran University Archives & Special Collections.

[4] Elizabeth Clarke Hardy

[5] Dowland, Seth. Family Values and the Rise of the Christian Right. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015. 130.

[6] WMF. “Sample ‘Mothers’ Kit.’” 1951. Minneapolis, Minnesota. Women’s Missionary Records, Box 15, File 1. Pacific Lutheran University Archives & Special Collections.

[7] WMF

[8] Coontz, Stephanie. The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap. New York: Basic Books, 2016. 281.

[9] WMF

[10] Rychley, Jeanette. “Poem about Cradle Roll.” n.d. Women’s Missionary Records, Box 15, File 1. Pacific Lutheran University Archives & Special Collections.

[11] Coontz, Stephanie. “Historical Perspectives on Family Studies.” Journal Of Marriage And The Family 62, no. 2 (May 2000): 283-297. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed April 28, 2017). 285.

[12] May, Elaine Tyler. Homeward Bound: American Families in the Cold War Era. New York: Basic Books, 2008. 176.

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