On American Motherhood Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

President Theodore Roosevelt, speaking before the National Congress of Mothers, offered his thoughts on the need for greater equality between men and women. There are many different occupations that are critical to the development of modern America, he said, but none more so than serving one’s own family. He argued that mothers have one of the most difficult jobs–protecting their children and ensuring that their family is cohesive and nurturing. Men and women, he said, both equally share a responsibility for ensuring that children have every resource necessary to develop strong character and a healthy mind.

Summary Overview

President Theodore Roosevelt, speaking before the National Congress of Mothers, offered his thoughts on the need for greater equality between men and women. There are many different occupations that are critical to the development of modern America, he said, but none more so than serving one’s own family. He argued that mothers have one of the most difficult jobs–protecting their children and ensuring that their family is cohesive and nurturing. Men and women, he said, both equally share a responsibility for ensuring that children have every resource necessary to develop strong character and a healthy mind.

Defining Moment

Theodore Roosevelt is considered by many to be one of the nation’s first “modern” presidents. He took full advantage of the fact that, in the post–Civil War era, Congress had been ceding greater responsibility to the executive branch. He used this increased power to protect the country’s natural resources as well as to develop a modern foreign policy that launched the United States into the international arena. Although he demonstrated many of the biases and prejudices of other white Americans who were born in the late nineteenth century (he considered the black race on the whole to be subordinate to whites, for example), he still showed an appreciation and respect for the many different kinds of Americans, a characteristic that endeared him to the electorate as a populist president.

One issue area, in which this characteristic was evident, was women’s rights. As president, Roosevelt did not advocate for women’s suffrage, which was not included on the Republican Party platform during the 1904 election, and consistently showed a belief that, at the time, changing the law to allow for women’s suffrage was unnecessary. However, he did take a pro-suffrage position when he unsuccessfully ran for president as the Progressive Party’s candidate in 1912. He also spoke a great deal about equality and respect for women throughout his career: he wrote his college thesis on women’s rights; authored legislation authorizing corporal punishment for domestic abusers in New York; and even elevated women to senior-level positions during his tenure as commissioner of the New York Police Department.

Roosevelt frequently invoked his experiences on the American frontier when addressing issues during his presidency (a characteristic historians have dubbed “the frontier myth”). The frontier myth provided the backdrop for his attitudes toward women. In the undeveloped wilds of the western United States, even if women’s roles were different from those of men, they showed the same ruggedness, strength, and intelligence that men did. In Roosevelt’s presidential rhetoric, he, therefore, characterized women as the moral equals of men, even if he did not see the two genders as political equals.

Although Roosevelt only embraced the equality of the sexes within the context of the frontier, there were issue areas in which the women’s rights movement and Roosevelt found commonality. For example, Roosevelt was a strong advocate for moral reform, particularly within the home. He even called for some forms of censorship in order to protect American culture and enhance the moral strength of children. Several organizations, such as the National Congress of Mothers and the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, shared such ideals, calling for the suppression of certain forms of entertainment that they deemed impure and, therefore, detrimental to families. This shared opinion on the need for moral reform at home became the basis of Roosevelt’s speech to the National Congress of Mothers in Washington, DC, in March of 1905.

Author Biography

Theodore Roosevelt was born on October 27, 1858, in New York City. On February 14, 1884, his first wife and his mother both died; Roosevelt spent about two years thereafter in the Badlands of Dakota Territory, hunting and recovering from his grief. As a lieutenant colonel in the Spanish-American War, he famously led a charge up San Juan Hill and earned distinction as a war hero. Shortly thereafter, he was elected governor of New York and later, at the age of forty-two, became the nation’s youngest president. After choosing William Howard Taft as his successor in 1908, Roosevelt left office (although he ran for president again unsuccessfully in 1912) and went on a safari. He later returned to his home in Oyster Bay, New York. He died on January 6, 1919.

Document Analysis

Theodore Roosevelt uses the pulpit provided to him by the National Congress of Mothers to share his view that there is no more pressing issue facing America than creating a strong home environment. Indeed, there are many different issues that require a national response, he says, but none are more important than ensuring that American families are strong and healthy. He extols the central role women have played in this issue and implores them to continue their efforts to bring moral strength to American households.

Roosevelt begins his speech by commenting on the many dangers facing the still-developing United States. The nation, he says, was at risk of growing at a rate that its foundations could not sustain. However, the most pressing issue facing the country is not its infrastructure but the American home. Regardless of the level of wealth or talent in a household, he says, the most important characteristics homes should possess are intangible: courage, honesty, decency, and an ethic of hard work are among these characteristics. There are those individuals whose job responsibilities outside of the home are indubitably important, he says, but there is no greater responsibility than that of a parent.

Roosevelt invokes his frontier views of women to extol their roles as mothers and wives. While a man was traditionally supposed to be the breadwinner and a woman was expected to be the “helpmate, the housewife, and mother,” the latter’s role is, in Roosevelt’s view, more crucial and more difficult. Women’s jobs at the home lasted twenty-four hours a day and involved the stress of child care and the pain of childbirth (which Roosevelt says makes men “the debtors of all women”). Women, Roosevelt says, deserve respect for their hard work and dedication in the home. Referring to the growing women’s rights movement, Roosevelt says that women’s duties are far more important (and, therefore, more rewarding) than their rights in comparison to men’s.

Roosevelt next focuses on the roles of women as mothers. He encourages mothers to continue to teach their children to be morally upright and, in a general sense, upstanding members of society through parental affection, attention, and education. Parents, who are blessed enough to have children, he says, should therefore take seriously their responsibilities as mothers and fathers. That there are women who do not wish to be parents is, in Roosevelt’s opinion, an “unpleasant and unwholesome” fact that needs correction.

Men, Roosevelt says, also have a responsibility regarding the moral education of their children but instead defer to women to play this role. Mothers, thus, have the obligation to train their children in this area. If women fail to procreate and foster healthy and happy home environments, Roosevelt concludes, the vacuum that will be left in their place will result in what he terms “race suicide.”

Essential Themes

Theodore Roosevelt was, perhaps paradoxically, both a social conservative and a progressive. On the social front, he believed in a morally upright society. At the same time, he advocated for a wide range of social and political changes. While these two concepts might appear divergent, they appeared to converge somewhat with regard to women and family. In his speech to the National Congress of Mothers, he attempts to demonstrate the connective role mothers played (and for which they should be revered) in both of these arenas.

Roosevelt mentions that, although there are a great many important issues and dangers facing the twentieth-century United States, none is more important than the strength of the American home. Tradition and society continued to assign the greatest degree of responsibility on this issue to women and, in particular, to mothers. Mothers, he says, should be held in the highest regard, as their responsibilities as parents were the most valuable and difficult to perform. Mothers, Roosevelt argues, were the keys to ensuring that children were raised in healthy, strong, and morally upright homes.

To be sure, he adds, there were many households from which American society was receiving negative influences. Children were being raised in unloving and non-nurturing environments, a fact that Roosevelt deplores as the biggest danger to society. All parents had a role to play in correcting this issue, but he says that mothers should take particular heed of such problems and foster positivity in their own homes.

In his speech, Roosevelt expresses great concern that the crime and moral issues evident in modern America suggested that American society was–like the country’s rapid economic and infrastructural development–in danger of collapsing inward upon itself, particularly because some women were choosing not to have children, a situation he describes as “race suicide.” It should be noted that the phrase “race suicide” was often used at the time by white supremacists, who felt that ethnic and racial minorities were a threat to white dominance. In the face of increasing immigration in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, the perceived threat to native-born Anglo-Americans seemed to be growing. This factor, coupled with women’s increasing use of birth control, is what drove Roosevelt to implore the women in his audience to fulfill their duties and become good mothers. Although he ultimately championed women’s political rights, Roosevelt was clearly a social conservative on such issues as race and procreation.

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • “American President: Theodore Roosevelt (1858–1919).” Miller Center. U of Virginia, 2013. Web. 8 Apr. 2014.
  • Dalton, Kathleen. Theodore Roosevelt: A Strenuous Life. New York: Random, 2007. Print.
  • Dorsey, Leroy G. “Managing Women’s Equality: Theodore Roosevelt, the Frontier Myth, and the Modern Woman.” Rhetoric and Public Affairs 16.3 (2013): 423–56. Print.
  • Freeman, Jo. A Room at a Time: How Women Entered Party Politics. Lanham: Rowman, 2002. Print.
  • Gable, John. Interview. PBS.org. WGBH Educational Foundation, 2013. Web. 8 Apr. 2014.
  • Morris, Edmund. Theodore Rex. New York: Random, 2001. Print.
  • Ricard, Serge. A Companion to Theodore Roosevelt. Hoboken: Wiley, 2011. Print.
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