|dc.description.abstract||Nineteenth century feminists demanded female autonomy and made two sets of claims arising from that. They demanded the removal of women's civil and political disabilities.
Their biggest campaign was for the vote. They also wished to alter family life and to change the marriage relationship from coverture to equality and support. Because they believed women's subordinate status within the family denigrated the family itself, they wanted the economic independence of married women. They wanted women to be respected as individuals and be freed of the fears of uncontrolled male sexuality. This led them to oppose the double standard and embrace the ideology of social purity. Further, the demand for female autonomy led some of them to a partial acceptance of the ideas of voluntary motherhood.
Feminists disputed neither the centrality of motherhood to women's lives nor the idea that the devotion of mothers was essential to the progress of the family and society. Indeed, it was their belief that the subordinate status of women caused social disharmony and evil. However, their assertions that women had the same rights and duties as men, and a declining birth rate (which was, in part at least, the product of feminism) led to fears that female emancipation would lead to social decay. Education and careers supposedly caused women to lose their maternal instinct. The result was a declining birth rate, a high infant mortality rate and worsening racial standards.
Consequently, the definition of womanhood underwent a subtle, but profound, change. Moral and physical progress depended upon the full-time nurturant role of mothers within monogamous marriage. To the idea that mothers ought to provide their children with moral guidance, was added the belief that women needed to guard their children's physical health through the techniques of scientific home management. This was re-enforced when an infant welfare movement based on these tenets was apparently so successful. Meanwhile, social purity had become a dominant value. But the prevailing view that sexuality was an anarchic force requiring containment through rigid self-control, placed an ever heavier burden on mothers.
The ideology of motherhood arose to confront the perceived excesses of feminism. But, paradoxically, women found that to meet its demands they not only needed to preserve their own health, but also to limit their fertility. Women embraced the ideology, for few would wilfully neglect their children, but to some extent they did so on their own terms. In the process, women transformed new attitudes to death and health into dominant values.
By the 1920s, within an unfavourable ideological climate, political feminism faced unresolved and perhaps, unresolvable conflicts. Feminists, especially those influenced by eugenic fears, felt uneasy about middle class fertility control. The feminist aims of social purity and planned parenthood became dominant values, but feminism as a political ideology was stranded within a separate spheres argument and in a political wilderness, because women lacked the political power to shape the public world according to their view of it. They did, however, possess the power to shape familial life and structure.||en_NZ