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Idealized Motherhood vs. the Realities of Motherhood in Antebellum North Carolina



Students will analyze a newspaper article about motherhood from a North Carolina newspaper in 1845 and compare it to the descriptions of motherhood from other contemporary sources including women's diaries and descriptions from oral testimonies of enslaved African American women. Students will also compare these antebellum descriptions to the modern debates over mothers' roles in American society.

A lesson plan for grade 8 social studies.

Students will develop a nuanced understanding of gender roles in antebellum America and compare and contrast the experiences of privileged white mothers to the experiences of mothers living under slavery in antebellum North Carolina. Students will connect the past to the present by comparing a newspaper article from Salisbury, NC in 1845 to modern popular debates about the roles of mothers in American society. Students will also gain experience analyzing primary source documents including newspapers and oral history narratives and gain experience comparing expressed ideals of behavior with historical realities.

8th grade social studies objective 3.04
"Describe the development of the institution of slavery in the State and nation, and assess its impact on the economic, social, and political conditions."

Three consecutive class periods. Individual instructors may choose to devote more time, including extension activities or inviting students to consider additional sources. Instructors may also find it possible to condense this lesson into a smaller period of time if time constraints require that modification.

A North Carolina history textbook

"For What is a Mother Responsible?" Carolina Watchman, January 25, 1845 (full text provided below) Note that this article is one of many digitized as a part of the North Carolina Newspaper Digitization Project of the State Archives of North Carolina.

"A mother is usually also a wife, and has the management of a family and a direct influence over subordination to her head, has the seat of authority and wields the sceptre of government. From a position of entire dependence, she has risen to power and rank, and though her throne may be in a cottage, and her dominion the little work of household affairs, yet is she not the less really responsible, than is that youthful queen who now sways a sceptre over the four quarters of the earth. But for what is she responsible?

She is responsible for the nursing and rearing of her progeny; for their physical constitution and growth; their exercise and proper sustenance in early life. A child left to grow up deformed, bloated, or meagre, is an object of maternal negligence.

She is responsible for a child's habits; including cleanliness, order, conversation, eating, sleeping, manners, and general propriety of behavior. A child deficient or untaught in these particulars, will prove a living monument of parental disregard; because generally speaking, a mother can, if she will, greatly control children in these matters.

She is responsible for their deportment. She can make them fearful and cringing, she can make them modest or impertinent, ingenious or deceitful; mean or manly; clownish or polite. The germ of all these things is in childhood, and a mother can repress or bring them forth.

She is responsible for the principles which her children entertain in early life. For her it is to say whether those who go forth, from her fireside, shall be imbued with sentiments of virtue, truth, honor, honesty, temperance, industry, benevolence, and morality, or those of a contrary character -- vice, fraud, drunkenness, idleness, covetousness. These last will be found to the most natural growth; but on her is devolved the daily, hourly task of weeding her little garden -- of eradicating these odious productions, and planting the human with the lily, the rose, and the amaranth, that fadeless flower, emblem of truth.

She is to a very considerable extent responsible for the temper and disposition of her children. Constitutionally they may be violent, irritable, or revengeful; but for regulation or correction of these passions a mother is responsible.

She is responsible for the intellectual acquirement of her children, that is, she is bound to do what she can for this object. Schools, academies, and colleges open their portals throughout our land; and every mother is under heavy responsibilities to see that her sons and daughters have all benefits which these afford and which circumstances permit them to enjoy.

She is responsible for their religious education. The beginning of all wisdom is the fear of God; and this every mother must teach. Reverence for God, acquaintance with His word, respect for the duties of ordinance of religion are within the ability of every parent to implant, and if children grow up ignorant or regardless of the Bible and the Saviour, what mother, when she considers the wickedness of the human heart, can expect them to rise up and call her blessed?" -- Mother's Journ.

Internet access to connect to additional readings and resources.

Students should have writing materials available to take notes during discussions and group activities.

Internet access should be available so that students can access primary and secondary resources, either individually or in small groups. If necessary, students could

Students should be familiar with North Carolina history up to the antebellum period, should have been introduced to the basic history of slavery in the U.S. south and should have some understanding of the difference between social and economic classes in North Carolina in the early to mid-nineteenth century.

The following resources can help students learn to analyze primary sources like the ones used in this lesson plan. If your students have little experience with primary sources, they may want to explore some of these web-based resources and practice working with historical documents:

Reading Primary Sources: An Introduction for Students by Kathryn Walbert from LEARN North Carolina:

Scholars in Action: Analyze a Colonial Newspaper from History Matters at George Mason University:

Making Sense of Documents: Making Sense of Letters & Diaries by Steve Stowe from History Matters at George Mason University:

Scholars in Action: Analyze Nineteenth Century Letters from History Matters at George Mason University:

Making Sense of Documents: Making Sense of Oral History by Linda Shopes from History Matters at George Mason University:

Day One

(1) Ask students to take out writing materials and spend 5 minutes free-writing about what they think "responsibility" means. In free-writing, students simply write, without paying attention to grammar/spelling/organization, as a way of getting their ideas down on paper. I have found that asking students to free-write can help students start to clarify their thoughts and will allow students who are often hesitant to participate in a discussion because they feel "on the spot" to join in comfortably because they've had a chance to think about the topic at hand briefly. For more information about free-writing and other brainstorming strategies, many of which are useful as class discussion starters as well as writing strategies, the UNC Writing Center has an excellent handout available here:

(2) Open up discussion, asking students to share their ideas about responsibility. It may be useful to use a blackboard, whiteboard, overhead, or computer-based projection to write down key ideas as the discussion unfolds. As a class, try to reach a consensus definition of "responsibility" during the conversation. It may be helpful, if time permits, to ask students what a student is responsible for in a class, what a teacher is responsible for in a class, or what a parent is responsible for in a family.

(3) Explain to students that today they will be reading an article that was reprinted in the Carolina Watchman, a newspaper from Salisbury, North Carolina, on January 25, 1845. The article was originally printed in the Mother's Journal and may have been reprinted in numerous publications around this time. Hand out copies of the article and divide students into groups of 3 to 4 members.

Students will then work together to analyze the document using the guidelines in Reading Primary Sources: An Introduction for Students by Kathryn Walbert from LEARN North Carolina: Teachers may find it very helpful to create a handout that includes space for students to answer the questions mentioned in this article to help guide students' analysis of the article. Of course, the instructor could also add any additional questions that might connect to previous or upcoming activities as well. One student in each group should volunteer to record the group's thoughts on the analysis worksheet.

As they work together, students should have their textbooks handy so that they can read about North Carolina in the 1840s during the part of their analysis that will deal with the historical context of the source. The instructor should circulate from group to group to make sure that groups are on task, determining that all group members are participating actively, and asking further questions to push students to think more critically about the source.

In classrooms with computer access, students could compare their own analysis of this article with that of historian Kathryn Walbert, who answered the same questions about this article in an interactive web document on LEARN North Carolina.

(4) After most groups have worked through the majority of the questions on the worksheet, write on the board or overhead, "According to the author of this article, for what is a mother responsible in 1845?" Verbally remind groups that they can keep working on their worksheets if they still have questions left, but that when they are done, they should each write down their own answer to this question, discussing the question with group members if they choose to help clarify their thoughts.

(5) Collect group worksheets and students' answers to questions for use on Day Two.

Day Two back
(1) Ask students to return to their groups and hand out the group worksheets. Also hand back students' individual answers to the question from the day before. Being with their group members and having their worksheets available for review may help spark discussion.

Open a discussion of mothers' responsibilities according to this article. Ask students:
-- For what was a mother responsible, according to this article?
-- When the author wrote this article, who was his or her intended audience?
-- Do you think the author is writing about all mothers, or does he or she have a specific group of mothers in mind?
-- Do you think that this article presents an idealized view of motherhood?
-- Do you think that most mothers' experiences would have matched up to this idealized view?
-- Do you think that different mothers in antebellum North Carolina had different experiences? What factors might influence a mother's experiences?

(2) Explain to students that today, they will be working in groups to explore the experiences of individual mothers in North Carolina from different walks of life during the antebellum period.

You can either allow students to remain in their original groups or to "regroup" for this activity -- you can even let the class vote about whether they would like to stay with their current groups or mix things up if you like. Divide students into either pairs or groups of 3 or 4 and assign each group to a different primary source. You can also decide whether you will use printed copies of the resources or invite students to work online at computers. Some of these sources are lengthy and you may want to preview them and select specific pages or passages for students to analyze.

If you feel that your students could use some more practice analyzing primary sources, you could create another worksheet based on the LEARN NC primary sources article and ask students to work through those questions as well as questions about motherhood. Or if you think your students have a good grasp of the process for analyzing a new primary source already, you could ask students to focus on the idea of motherhood in the sources. Here are some ideas for questions that could get your students thinking critically about motherhood in these sources:

-- In the printed copy of your source, highlight any sections that deal with motherhood. (The instructor could also do this ahead of time, or only ask students to read and respond to specific relevant passages.)
-- Tell me about the mother described by your source. How old was she? How many children did she have? Was she enslaved or free? What was her family's economic status? What kind of work did she do each day, and was it work for pay, work for her own household, or unpaid work for someone else (as in the case of enslaved people)?

-- Describe a typical day in the life of this mother. Include a description of her home, meals, and other relevant details.

-- Describe this mother's interactions with her children. Describe her interactions with other family members (her husband, any other adults in the household).

-- How do you think this mother thought about motherhood? What values did she try to instill in her children and what kinds of things did she do to try to be a good mother to them? What evidence from the source leads you to these conclusions?

-- How does this mother's experience match up with or differ from the responsibilities in the article we read yesterday?

Use the following primary sources for this activity:

Slave Narratives:
Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936-1938:

The following narratives deal specifically with enslaved mothers in North Carolina, but there are 218 North Carolina narratives and most of them address issues of family and daily life. You may search by location to find North Carolina narratives and then read through the narratives to find additional examples if you want to branch out further:

Rachel Fairley interview -- she was born in Sardis, Mississippi in 1863, but describes her parents' experience of enslavement both in Mississippi and in Charlottesville, NC.

Annie Stephenson describes her childhood as a slave in North Carolina.

Rena Raines describes the harsh treatment and hard work that her mother endured as a slave in North Carolina

Please note that you may want to prepare your students for the language and dialect of these narratives. In many cases, the narratives use language that is offensive to modern readers and historians generally agree that the transcriptions of these interviews is uneven and influenced by the expectations of the interviewers and transcribers who were usually white. In the 1930s, when these narratives were recorded, stereotypes and prejudice may well have influenced some of the ways in which former slaves' recollections were written down. For more information, see "A Note on the Language of the Narratives" here You may also find it helpful to read through the ideas in the lesson plan "Mountain Dialect: Reading Between the Spoken Lines" by Kathryn Walbert for more information about preparing students to read sources that may caricature or misrepresent the speech of others:

Recollections of white women from the antebellum and Civil War periods:

Diary of Mary Jeffrey's Bethell, b. 1821, diary from 1861-1865 from Documenting the American South at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill:

Mary Norcott Bryan, 1841-1925, A Grandmother's Recollections of Dixie: from Documenting the American South at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill:

One group should consider this older but still useful secondary source, and you may need to adapt the handout for this group, allowing them to generalize about women's experiences as mothers in antebellum North Carolina, using Johnson's research as a guide.

"Antebellum North Carolina: A Social History" by Guion Griffis Johnson, Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1937 Chapter 8 addresses family life, motherhood, and the experiences of children:

(3) To conclude the day, ask each group to share their reflections on the source that they read. It may take some time to have each group briefly describe the source that they encountered and the ideas about motherhood within it, so be sure to leave at least 3 to 5 minutes per group for this activity.

(4) Collect worksheets for tomorrow's discussion. Students could be given the text of the documents that they did not read in their own group as supplemental reading or homework if the instructor would like each student to have exposure to all of the primary sources.

Day Three back
(1) Invite students to return to their groups from Day 2 and hand out their worksheets to help refresh their memories. Remind students of their earlier discussions of the article from the Carolina Watchman and ask them to compare the responsibilities detailed in the article to the lives of the women that they read about on Day Two. Do they think that the mothers they read about would agree with the article? Would they find it possible to do all of the things that the article asked? In other words, did the article present a realistic model for all mothers or an idealized one?

It may be helpful to remind students that being unable to live up to an unrealistic ideal does not necessarily make someone a "bad" mother -- as they probably saw in their readings, many women living under very trying circumstances provided for their children, loved them, and prepared them well for adulthood even when they had few resources and little time to spend with their own sons and daughters. Given the choice, many of these women would certainly have preferred to have more flexibility and more resources to enable them to do all that they would like to have done for their children, but the lack of that flexibility and those resources in no way discredits them as mothers. Students may be able to think of other examples of a very idealistic standard that is difficult for all people to attain and remember that someone's inability to live up to all parts of that standard does not necessarily reflect badly on them. Voltaire's famous quotation from 1764 that "the best is the enemy of the good" may be worth discussing in this context.

(2) Ask students if they think that our society still idealizes motherhood or puts pressure on mothers to be perfect. Ask them for examples of the pressures mothers face, and also ask whether they think that our society places similar pressures on fathers.

(3) Invite students to work in pairs to look up recent articles about motherhood on reliable news sites like the New York Times, the Washington Post, CNN, or other well-known media outlets. They may wish to search for terms like "mommy wars," "working mothers," or "stay at home moms" to find a few articles (2 to 5 depending on time available) that discuss the expectations for mothers in modern American society. Ask students to copy and paste the URL for each article into a Word document and write a one-paragraph summary of each article. If students have selected an even number of articles, each student in the pair could write up their summary of half of the articles. Students should print out their summaries. Pairs that finish early could read additional articles or work on other class activities.

(4) When all pairs have printed out their summaries, the class should regroup for discussion. Invite students to talk about the following:

-- What pressures and expectations did they notice being placed on mothers today? Are those same pressures and expectations a part of fathers' lives to? (If so, are fathers pressured to the same extent as mothers?)

-- What are "the Mommy wars"? Do you think that the differences in women's views of motherhood have anything to do with their own personal circumstances and the options that are available to them?

-- How do these modern views on motherhood compare and contrast with the views in For What is a Mother Responsible? from 1845? How do the different experiences of modern mothers compare to the different experiences of mothers in the nineteenth century?

(5) For their final assessment, students will write a letter to the editor of the Carolina Watchman of 1845 responding to the article about mothers' responsibilities. They will write from one of the following perspectives:

(a) A white mother who is the wife of a wealthy slave holder

(b) A mother (white or free African American) who is the wife of a subsistence farmer whose family owns no slaves and is living on the economic margins (While many poor farmers did not read or write in this period, for the purposes of this activity, we will ignore that historical reality.)

(c) An African American mother who is enslaved and lives on a large plantation (While most enslaved people would have been forbidden to read and write and had no access to newspapers, for the purposes of this activity, we will ignore that historical reality.)

(d) A modern mother who is writing "back in time" to explain how times (and ideas about motherhood!) have changed and/or not changed since the article was written -- students choosing this option should feel free to discuss their ideas with their own mother or other mothers that they know before writing their letter

In each case, be sure to include at least one paragraph in which you describe a day in your life as a mother in your particular circumstances. Please also discuss whether or not you agree with the responsibilities listed in the article and whether or not you feel that the article presents a realistic set of expectations for women in your circumstances. What kinds of additional articles would a mother in your circumstances like to see in the newspaper in the future?

I will fill in the assessment section this week.

There are a number of terms used in this nineteenth century source that may be unfamiliar to students. Teachers interested in using this resource to build vocabulary could invite students to look up unfamiliar terms, create a glossary, or summarize passages in their own words to enhance comprehension.

Critical terms could include: subordination, sceptre, dominion, nursing, rearing, progeny, sustenance, deformed, bloated, meagre, maternal, negligence, propriety, deficient, disregard, deportment, cringing, impertinent, ingenious, deceitful, clownish, repress, imbued, sentiments, virtue, temperance, industry, benevolence, contrary, vice, covetousness, devolved, eradicating, odious, amaranth, emblem, disposition, constitutionally, regulation, correction, acquirement, portals, reverence and ordinance.

Students will need to define responsibility as part of the activities for this lesson.


Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936-1938:

Diary of Mary Jeffrey's Bethell, b. 1821, diary from 1861-1865 from Documenting the American South at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill:

Mary Norcott Bryan, 1841-1925, A Grandmother's Recollections of Dixie: from Documenting the American South at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill:

Chapter 8: Family Life of Ante-Bellum North Carolina: A Social History: Electronic Edition. By Guion Griffis Johnson, First Edition, 2002, Academic Affairs Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Chapel Hill, NC
Sections on women's work inside and outside the home, children's status, and family life are especially of interest.

Deciphering the 'mommy wars' By Manav Tanneeru
CNN, Monday, April 24, 2006:
This article summarizes the arguments of many recent authors writing about motherhood. These modern articles tend to focus on whether or not mothers work outside the home, the extent to which women of different socioeconomic groups have choices about whether or not to work outside the home, and the meanings of those choices for women, children, families, businesses, and society.

A War Inside Your Head by Tracy Thompson, The Washington Post, Feb 15, 1998 Page W12:
A journalist reflects on her experiences as a new mother becoming aware of the idea of "the Mommy wars."

For more information on women's history in North Carolina, this resource from the Documenting the American South collection at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill may be of interest:

Teachers may be interested in reading "Making Southern History: Guion Griffis Johnson's Antebellum North Carolina" for background information on Johnson's work and North Carolina's social history:

Kathryn Walbert teaches online professional development courses on topics in U.S. and North Carolina history for LEARN North Carolina. She received her B.A., M.A. and Ph.D. in United States history from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and has worked with educators throughout the state in various capacities since 1992. Her areas of specialization include women's history, Southern history, African American history, North Carolina history, and the history of education. This lesson plan was created for the North Carolina Newspaper Digitization Project of the State Archives of North Carolina.


Last Modified: 07/01/2013

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