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Hearts of Wisdom: American Women Caring for Kin, 1850-1940
Hearts of Wisdom: American Women Caring for Kin, 1850-1940
Emily K. Abel
Harvard University Press, 2000
336 pp., $53.00

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Jean Bethke Elshtain

Who Cares About Care?

I was giving a talk at a Catholic church just outside Chicago when one member of the audience stood up, apologizing because she had to leave. She explained that she was part of the "Quad Squad," a team assigned to help with round-the-clock care for quadruplets born a few weeks earlier to a couple who were members of the church community. Such voluntary caregiving—disproportionately provided by women—is invaluable, yet it commands little respect, argues Emily Abel in Hearts of Wisdom: American Women Caring for Kin, 1850-1940. Indeed, Abel writes, in this culture at this time we routinely "disparage the people who sustain life and nurture the weak." We prefer to maintain our illusion of independence in all things. No one wants to be dependent. In fact, it has even become the name of a syndrome—codependence—and is to be avoided at all costs. How strange that a state we all share—that of dependence on others—becomes a condition we first deny exists and then re-cast as pathological.

But the reality won't go away. Whether the focus is on preschool-age children or aging parents, practical questions of caregiving are central to many American households. And increasingly, scholars in many fields—moral theory, psychology, political philosophy, and more—are turning to the subject of care.

This current attention to care has many sources, but the most significant of these is feminist thought, in particular the evolving feminist debate over motherhood as the archetype of caregiving. Motherhood took a beating in 1970s feminist political tracts and treatises, which tended to see caregiving as a kind of servitude imposed on women by a patriarchal society. But the visceral antipathy toward mothering expressed by radical feminists helped to spur a reaction in the 1980s, when a few brave souls opined that perhaps the family was not the source of all political evil. Today exploration of mothering is widespread among feminist writers and scholars who are rethinking the world of women's work, ...

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