There is an inexcusable illiteracy about American women and their historical role as mothers. Pre-suffragette American history is depicted as a type of Dark Ages in which women were stifled and repressed, chained to the home, kept ignorant by men who wanted them constantly “barefoot and pregnant.”
Reading Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America opened my eyes.
Tocqueville, a French political scientist who visited the United States in the 1850’s, studied and recorded American life in meticulous detail. The women he saw were not subservient drudges. They were not semi-present shadows blurred against the backdrop of history.
They were queens.
For American women, motherhood was not an abnegation of an independent spirit, it was the product. As Tocqueville observed: “It is from the practice of independence that she drew the courage to endure the sacrifice without struggle and without complaint, when the moment has come to impose it on herself.”
In Europe, Tocqueville writes, women fall into matrimony and motherhood as a trap set for their simplicity and ignorance. In America, where a free government allows the woman to develop her own reason and her own moral intellect, this is not the case. “She has been taught in advance what is expected of her, and it is by herself and freely that she puts herself under the yoke. She courageously bears her new condition because she has chosen it.”
The traditional maternal role didn’t stem from a lack of education. Rather, it was precisely the democratic education women were given that led them to embrace motherhood as a pinnacle of their divine nature. These women were exposed to the “vices and perils” of society at a young age, and taught to “judge them without illusion and face them without fear.” As Tocqueville writes, “I do not doubt that these young American women had amassed, in their first education, this internal strength that they then used.”
The idea that women prior to their “emancipation” only existed to “sit still, look pretty” seems applicable to the world of Jane Austen, but it is offensive and untrue when applied to the American woman. American women weathered the storms of war. They withstood the ever-shifting winds of the wild frontier. While aristocratic societies of Europe allowed women to spend their days changing outfits, the industrial and religious nature of American society required women to make a “continual sacrifice of her pleasures to her business.”
It was this sacrifice, motivated by love and made with grace, that prompted Tocqueville to write:
“If…you asked me to what I think the singular prosperity and growing strength of this people must be principally attributed, I would answer that it is to the superiority of their women.”
Feminists distract us with what I’ll call the “capable” argument. We’re cruising down the road to motherhood, something beautiful and fulfilling, and then they pull us over, lights flashing and sirens wailing, with indignant arguments about female potential. Women are strong. Women are brilliant. Women are creative, courageous, and capable of doing any job a man can do.
The question is not whether women have a tremendous influence for good. They do. The question is where the majority of their time and talents will be spent. A woman can’t give 100 percent of her energy to multiple outlets, so where is her highest priority? And what effect does this have on her family, on society, on the world at large? These are the questions that aren’t being asked. These are the questions that must be answered.
It’s not a question of being strong. It’s a question of where to use that strength. Feminism sidelines women in the greatest contest of all, the battle for the hearts and souls of the rising generation.
We need more mothers like those of the 2,000 stripling warriors in the Book of Mormon. The scripture describes these valiant young men:
“Now they never had fought, yet they did not fear death; and they did think more upon the liberty of their fathers than they did upon their lives; yea, they had been taught by their mothers, that if they did not doubt, God would deliver them” (Alma 56:47, emphasis added).
Ladies, it’s not about the after-school chocolate-chip cookies. It’s not about scrubbing regurgitated Cheerios off the kitchen floor. It’s not about the Pinterest-perfect birthday parties or Facebook-worthy family photos.
Motherhood is about giving life, physically and spiritually. It’s lifting precious children to their divine potential. It’s strengthening them to discern between light and darkness.
It’s preparing them to become like God.
For a mom who knows that, and lives that, I’ll be forever grateful.