During and following the (first) UK lockdown in March, there has been much discussion over childcare. Specifically, debates centred around what the ‘staying at home’ policy and the closure of schools meant for both children and those caring for them. Families where parents can work from home are struggling to juggle between smart working; personal/alone time; and educating, entertaining, and caring for their children. One of the issues that was stressed during these debates was that surrounding the role of women at home. In several heterosexual households, mothers are still the ones who are asked – overtly or subliminally – to do most of the childcare work (Ascher, 2020; Topping, 2020; UCL, 2020).
Despite many advancements, women are still portrayed as the primary, if not sole, carer for children
Women are still today thought of and portrayed as the primary, if not sole, carer for children. In Italy, the launch of Immuni, the virus tracking app promoted by the Italian government, has raised a vast number of criticisms due to its sexist graphics. The app portrays a woman taking care of a baby while a man is working on a computer. In thinking of a time after Coronavirus, Italy continues to anchor women down to what is understood to be their primary role in society: that of mothers.
Image from Italian contact-tracing app Immuni
Accessed from: Il Fatto Quotidiano.
For quite a few years, I have been interested in ideas surrounding motherhood, and how discourses of maternity often get entangled with, shape, and restrict what it means to be a woman. In researching patented clothing inventions, I grew more and more interested in exploring inventors’ ideas around childcare.
What can the patent archive tell us about who has been (and still is) thought of as an infant’s primary caregiver? Has childcare always been thought to be solely a woman’s ‘duty’? And who are the women attending to children’s needs?
We have been exploring “caregivers” in the POP clothing patent database
A search across our dataset for the word ‘caregiver’ produced 244 results1 which related to the care of infants2. Comparatively, a search for the word ‘mother’ produced 1,227 results, precisely 1,196 more than those for the word ‘father’. However, of these 31 ‘father’-patents none spoke about fathers as carers on their own, while mothers were always there.
Until 1958, men seem to be absent from tasks and general concerns related to raising and caring for children. In 1958 as well, all that I have been able to find was a brief mention of a child’s ‘attendant inserting his or her arm through the opening between the strap’. Yes, all that I could find testifying the presence of men in the business of caring for children was a mere pronoun!
In this patent illustration, like many examined until the end of the 1950s with the exception of those patents portraying children, reveals a young white woman who, in this case is ready for the ‘burping’ procedure.
Up to the 1960s, mothers in the POP dataset are virtually always depicted as white middleclass flawless women who are ready to care – on their own or with the help of an attendant or nurse – for their children.
The concern over the ‘ideal mother’ can be traced back to the end of the 19th century. Between the 1890s and the 1930s inventors – mainly women inventors – were preoccupied with a variety of issues concerning ‘nursing’ or pregnant mothers. Problems range from the need of protecting lactating mothers’ modesty, to society’s requirements dictating how a woman’s body should look like.
This ‘Nursing waist’ was devised for ‘nursing mothers and so contrived that the infant may be given the breast without subjecting the mother to the slightest unpleasant exposure’.
Garments were thus created to supposedly render nursing easier – women did not need to fully undress – but also to avoid ‘the inconvenience, embarrassment and exposure usually incident to the wearing of the ordinary form of waist or like upper garment’ as another ‘Nursing garment points out (Pat. US1098155A).
If the issue of modesty and privacy while breastfeeding may not come as a surprise, concerns over the bodily aesthetics of pregnant mothers-to-be and women who have already gone through childbirth could be slightly more unexpected. Figure-reducing and maternity corsets get patented during this period with little concern over women’s health.
Gillibert Rose Blanche patented this French ‘Flattener with belt’ which abides to ‘the current fashion of women’s clothing, putting more and more value on the woman’s body, obliges her to keep as long as possible her elegant line, despite the multiple causes that seek to alter them, such as overweight, consequences of motherhood and also age’. The inventor attempts to reduce the issues corsets have – often constituting ‘real devices of torture’ – by inventing a less compressing corset which can nonetheless ‘maintain the line’.
Already around this time, mothers need to be attentive not solely to the needs of their children but also to societal indignation towards the less attractive sides of maternity, from breastfeeding to changes in their physical appearance – including at times pregnancy itself.
Towards the end of the 1930s women’s bodies and especially those of ‘prospective’ mothers are portrayed as needing concealment. A skirt enveloping the belly so that, when wearing a coat, it will seem as if you are not pregnant at all (Pat. CH260066A).
This this invention, the suspenders worn by a fabulously looking ‘modern-mother-to-be’ highlight the climate of quasi-repulsion towards imperfect maternal bodies (Pat. US2469793A). Women are supposed to miraculously pop out babies from a body which has never born signs of pregnancy. Since this is obviously impossible, women are encouraged to conceal such changes.
In these patents, women are pressured to be great mothers, attentive to the point of straining their nerves. To be a great mother in the 1930s, meant not only being able to juggle between child care and other domestic responsibilities, but further being capable to do so in the most modern of ways – i.e. effortlessly and glamorously.
What I was surprised by was the enormous number of women inventors who patented inventions which reinforced this stereotypical vision of women/mothers/domestic angels. However, considering the kind of pressures, typical of those years, women were subjected to, it might be easier to understand why so many women inventors left unquestioned the patriarchal dogmas which were transforming women into either flowless maternal creatures or monsters with frail nerves uncapable of raising their children.
Many inventors were just trying to help these super-mothers in their daily tasks. Additionally, it must be added that not all women inventors were as complicit to societal impositions demanding them the maternal perfection I discussed so far.
There were (and still are) women who, while being aware of the demands placed by society on their appearance, use their lived experiences to create garments which respond to the needs a pregnant woman may have beyond those imposed by the community in which she lives in.
Alethea H. Lockwood in the late 1920s patented a ‘Maternity corset’ thanks to her ‘long continued experimentation and practical experience’. Her invention differs from other contemporary maternity corsets which, as she remarks ‘are intended not so much; to give proper support, but more especially to suit the requirements of over sensitive persons, who, because of false modesty, desire at all times, and particularly during, the latter stages, just prior, to confinement, to maintain the substantially, normal appearance of the figure’. Her corset aims to ‘support the abdomen of the prospective mother, in such manner as to relieve the stomach tissues and muscles from undue weight and consequent fatigue’.
Patented inventions in the 1950s become increasingly practical. Mothers’ bodies begin to be equipped to avoid the ‘tremendous volume of laundry’ as well as for ‘burping procedures’, and other ‘chore[s]’ well-known to ‘the busy mother’.
This ‘Article for protecting clothing’ was patented in the US to simultaneously protect mothers from infants’ refluxes whilst enabling them to find a safe ‘a place to put the bottle while the degassing is accomplished’.
Between the 1950s and 1970s other paradoxes emerge in relation to motherhood. As Jaqueline Rose (2018:38) remarks:
“Mothers in the home are expected to manage more or less on their own – one of feminism’s loudest, most persistent and fairest complaints – but the one thing a mother cannot possibly manage by herself is mothering.”
So, while men get equipped to fly in space with cosmonauts’ suits, women get ‘armed’ to care and to keep ‘spic and span’ (Pat. US2650362A): their children, their bodies, and their homes.
Ascher, D. 2020. Coronavirus: ‘Mums do most childcare and chores in lockdown’. BBC News. Accessed from: https://www.bbc.com/news/business-52808930
Rose, J. 2018. Mothers: An Essay on Love and Cruelty. Faber & Faber.
Fisk, C. 2019. Looking for Maternity: Dress Collections and Embodied Knowledge. Fashion Theory, 23 (3): 401-439. DOI: 10.1080/1362704X.2019.1603871
Topping, A. 2020. UK working mothers are ‘sacrificial lambs’ in coronavirus childcare crisis. The Guardian. Accessed from: https://www.theguardian.com/money/2020/jul/24/uk-working-mothers-are-sacrifical-lambs-in-coronavirus-childcare-crisis
UCL, Institute of Education. 2020. Parents, especially mothers, paying heavy price for lockdown.” UCL News. Accessed from: https://www.ucl.ac.uk/news/2020/may/parents-especially-mothers-paying-heavy-price-lockdown
Pat. US890614A. Irwin George Culver, State of New York, USA, ‘NURSING-WAIST’, 16 June, 1908. Accessed from the European Patent Office (EPO) Espacenet www.epo.org
Pat. US1098155A. Alice H. Knapp, State of New Jersey, USA, ‘NURSING-GARMENT’, 26 May, 1914. Accessed from the European Patent Office (EPO) Espacenet www.epo.org
Pat. US1620264A. Aleatha H. Lockwood, State of Connecticut, USA, ‘Maternity corset’, 8 March, 1927. Accessed from the European Patent Office (EPO) Espacenet www.epo.org
Pat. FR781035A. Gillibert Rose Blache, Marseille, France, ‘Flattener with belt that can be attached to a corset’, 8 May, 1935. Accessed from the European Patent Office (EPO) Espacenet www.epo.org
Pat. CH260066A. Annemarie Gurtner-Bruegger, La Tour-de-Peilz, Switzerland, ‘Skirt for expectant mothers’, 28 February, 1949. Accessed from the European Patent Office (EPO) Espacenet www.epo.org
Pat. US2469793A. Ann Siegel Sally, State of Illinois, USA, ‘Figure-free maternity suspender’, 10 May, 1949. Accessed from the European Patent Office (EPO) Espacenet www.epo.org
Pat. US2617105A. Frances G. Backman, State of Massachusetts, USA, ‘Article for protecting clothing’, 11 November, 1952. Accessed from the European Patent Office (EPO) Espacenet www.epo.org
Pat. US2650362A. Christine Musgrave, State of Missouri, USA, ‘Knee pad for infants’, 1 September, 1954. Accessed from the European Patent Office (EPO) Espacenet www.epo.org
Pat. US2831193A. Terry John, State of Ohio, USA, ‘Garment for use in the care of infants’, 8 October, 1956. Accessed from the European Patent Office (EPO) Espacenet www.epo.org