Ellen Ledoux on Productivity and Reproduction

7 minute read

Second wave feminism’s gift to women was the the chance to “have it all”: a fruitful career and a fulfilling home life. Two spheres that had long been considered mutually exclusive.


But as ever-struggling female protagonists like 30 Rock’s Liz Lemon have demonstrated, the battle to balance the demands of both the professional and domestic spheres can itself feel like a full time job. In recent years, awareness about the downsides of the modern superwoman complex has begun a trend toward heightened sensitivity regarding parental leave, workplace flexibility, and the sharing of caretaking among partners. But, at the macro level, we still foster some pretty traditional ideas about what it means to be a “good mom.”

Ellen Ledoux is Director of the Women's and Gender Studies Program at Rutgers University. She also has an 8 year old daughter. Ledoux’s forthcoming book, Laboring Mothers: Reproducing Women and Work in the Eighteenth Century, looks to the Enlightenment period for the roots of some of our commonly held beliefs about the uneasy relationship between women’s productivity and reproduction. The shocking conclusion? Not much has changed, and any improvements aren’t equally distributed across social classes.  

Ellen Ledoux and her daughter.

Ellen Ledoux and her daughter.

Q: What was the genesis of this work?

This book—like so many feminist projects—began with what I perceived as a personal problem. In my mid-thirties, I needed to produce a book and get tenure, but this time was, according to my obstetrician, the one at which I also needed to get pregnant if I wanted children. I needed to produce original scholarship and to reproduce a human being at the same time. Compared to most women, I had it easy—7 weeks of paid leave, health insurance, an employed spouse—yet, I found meeting the demands of high productivity and reproductivity simultaneously almost impossible.

While I am sure most women manage this challenge much better than I do, I started to attend to moments in my ongoing research—usually fleeting—in which eighteenth-century women writers discussed the demands of productivity and reproductivity intersecting. At first, it just felt good to know that my feelings of beleaguerment were nothing new and shared by women I admired. If a goddess such as Mary Wollstonecraft (the “mother” of liberal feminism and Mary Shelley!) had trouble concentrating under the demands of breastfeeding and complained about it in her letters to Gilbert Imlay, well, one could not expect more from a mortal such as myself. Then, I started to ponder two simple questions: how did these women manage to work while, in many cases, being perpetually pregnant, nursing, and caring for children—how did they create the physical space, time, and intellectual bandwidth to write?

Most important, I wondered how these women “got away with it”; that is, how did they create the rhetorical space to render their work socially tolerable?

Furthermore, how were the efforts of poor women, who rarely had the education or a venue in which to tell their own stories” (i.e. it’s about having the language skills and access to a publisher/printmaker/stage) being documented? These are the research questions that galvanized this project.

Q: So, by Enlightenment standards, what defines a good mother?

During the Enlightenment through the Romantic period, the act of mothering started to take on greater social significance. For writers such as Rousseau, who are interested in the formation of a Republic, they talk a lot about a mother’s influence in raising future citizens, who will take an active part in governance, the state, etc. Feminists, such as Mary Wollstonecraft, take up this idea to argue for women’s greater access to education. Wollstonecraft argues pretty persuasively that women aren’t fit to take on this important social role without a rudimentary education. Part of what I’m arguing is that these ideas are pretty much the same ones with which our society still operates.

So, a “good mother” in the eighteenth century and in the twenty-first isn’t that much different. A good mother is affectionate, involved in her children’s lives, and she is their first and most important teacher when it comes to how to function in society and how to use one’s innate reason. One major difference: in the eighteenth century, many of the ideas about social norms (“the golden rule” “sharing” “being kind to animals”) get transmitted through religious lessons, so piety is also important in a mother.

Q: Give me some examples of “good” working mothers.

Typically, these women have found a way to incorporate the expectations about motherhood I’ve outlined above into their work. So, for example, there are good mothers who become village schoolmistresses. They become “mother” to the village while also educating and caring for their own children at the same time. There are good mothers who become missionaries in India. Again, they take a grassroots role in educating other children (in both religious doctrine and basic math and language arts) while their own kids are nearby.

The most fascinating “good mother” I have come across, though, is Sarah Siddons. She’s an actress, but she does all of these really savvy PR moves to make sure the public perceives her as working FOR her children. So, for example, when she moves from a regional theatre to London, she brings her 3 children on stage on her final night and gives the “Three Reasons” speech. Essentially, she says these 3 kids are my reasons for leaving this town and going to London (the big time).

She basically says, “I’m not going because I’m greedy or ambitious; I have to go to feed and to maintain these kids. Any good mother would do the same, etc. etc.” When she gets to London, her first acting role is as a sentimental mother—the play is called The Distres’t Mother—and she acts opposite her biological son. In the same way people love this type of performance today—think of Will Smith and Jaden Smith in [the] 2006 film The Pursuit of Happyness—audiences ate it up. This performance launched a VERY successful career and made her look respectable and caring at the same time.

In short, beyond the expectation of religious indoctrination, little has changed in our concept of what a good mother is. Her children should be her primary concern. Ideally, her career should dovetail with her role as caretaker of her children and society at large (teacher, pediatrician, non-profit that benefits families). If her career appears to be her primary concern or in conflict with her role as mother, she gets severely criticized.

Q: What are some examples of “bad mothers”—women whose work didn’t fit neatly in with her role as a caretaker?

One so-called “bad mother” is actress Dorothy Jordan as depicted in James Gillray’s caricature, Promenade en Famille (The family walk).

La Promenade en Famille . Courtesy of  The Lewis Walpole Library, Yale University

La Promenade en Famille. Courtesy of The Lewis Walpole Library, Yale University

When La Promenade en Famille—A Sketch from Life, appeared in April 1797, actress Dorothy Jordan and the Duke of Clarence (later William IV) had been living together and raising a family for six years. King George III, Clarence’s father, never approved of this living arrangement. Yet, in January 1797, George III gifted Clarence Bushy House to accommodate his growing family.

Gillray’s caricature documents the family’s migration to Bushy, while providing commentary on a host of social and political issues that Jordan’s extramarital coupling with a potential future king provoked. So, while this image operates on several discursive levels, I focus on its most prominent take-away message: professionalism and motherhood are incompatible. La Promenade en Famille mocks the reversal of traditional gender roles in this couple. The ironic title “A Family Walk” (my translation) highlights the fractured nature of the group depicted.

Work preoccupies Jordan to the exclusion of other duties. She studies her lines for her next Drury Lane performance, while ignoring her husband and small children: George, Sophy, and newborn Henry. Clarence assumes the role of primary caregiver. Gillray renders him as simultaneously a beast of burden—controlled by a makeshift reign and infantine whip—and an over-indulgent father. His pockets burst with toys for monstrous, illegitimate offspring who will never serve their country as royal heirs.

Q: How does class play into perceptions of competent versus incompetent mothering?

For working-class women—farmhands, artisans, prostitutes, wet nurses, and street hawkers—the very distinction between the domestic and the public spheres, remains an illusion maintained by the privileged. Poor women take their children to work and their children start working alongside them early in their lives. As a result, poor women are frequently represented as distracted or neglectful mothers—a distorted stereotype that persists today. So, while privileged women’s deployment of Enlightenment rhetoric broadened their professional opportunities, this same model of woman as “caretaker” simultaneously disqualified the poorest women from being perceived as suitable, competent mothers.

Q: What do you hope this work will accomplish once it's published?

In the scholarly world, I hope it will chip away at this idea that there is a clear, bright line between the public sphere and the domestic by showing how women invoke private life to push into public, professional life. More generally, I want to affirm the amazing history of women simultaneously producing and reproducing—to add more evidence that demonstrates that women have always contributed meaningfully to industries, all while raising the next generation of people.

On a more somber note, I also want to shed some light on the way that class has divided women. The momentous task of raising a family and providing for it should bring women together in solidarity, but historically women are their own toughest critics—especially where mothering is concerned. We see this today with “mommy wars,” etc. Often, whether a woman is perceived as being a “good” or “bad” mother is closely linked with her economic status, and this book helps uncover the roots of that false belief.