2FYJNR7 Vintage early 20th century photographic postcard showing a group of maternity nurses holding babies.

The Justice Mothers Are Due

“While flying home from the Midwest a month ago, I was paying more attention to the boarding process than I usually do. I had a tight connection to make, and boarding had been delayed by the Delta agent’s demand that a predetermined number of carry-on bags be checked before he’d open the gate door. For more than twenty minutes, he counted down dramatically as one passenger then another came forward to reluctantly relinquish his bag. Finally, the last piece of luggage was dropped at the agent’s feet, and I and a whole host of other passengers erupted in enthusiastic cheers. But what happened next is what has stayed with me since: as the agent called for both active-duty military personnel and families with small children to board, and a few of the latter ambled sweetly by, I noticed that I was actively suppressing the desire to keep cheering. Of course these two groups had been given priority boarding together on many of my prior flights, but in that moment, I rejoiced that the airline had gotten at least this just right.

Historically, in many important public policy debates in our country, mothers were explicitly and favorably compared to soldiers and war veterans. Like soldiers, mothers were understood to serve the common good in a uniquely sacrificial way. Speaking to the Congress of Mothers in 1908 at their First International Congress for the Welfare of the Child, President Theodore Roosevelt declared: ‘This is the one body that I put even ahead of the veterans of the Civil War; because when all is said and done it is the mother, and the mother only, who is a better citizen even than the soldier who fights for his country … the mother is the one supreme asset of national life.’ Unlike today, this early twentieth-century maternalist rhetoric was culturally ubiquitous and matched by material support.”