Moms Are Awful, And Other Things You Never Knew About The 1950s
12:30 pm, March 29th | by Rebecca Srulowitz
Summer’s coming and we know you’re looking for the newest guilty pleasure book in which to indulge. You figure chick lit might be appropriate, but before you download the latest Confessions of a Shopaholic copycat, you might want to check out the ultimate trash in Phillip Wylie’s 1942 classic, Generation of Vipers. No, the book’s not downloadable, but trust me—it’s still worth a read, if only because it’s great entertainment. And by “great entertainment,” I mean jaw-dropping crazy conspiracy theories about pretty much everything, including motherhood.
Wylie, a pop psychologist, was born at the turn of the century, and came of age during the era of cigarettes, jazz, shorter hemlines, and what he viewed to be looser morals. At least looser than morals had been in the 1800s. (Though by today’s standards, all those people doing The Charleston in the 1920s were positively saint-like). But regardless, Wylie did what any smart, outspoken capitalist does. He took his anger at society and funneled it into a profit-making venture. In this case, a book.
In Generation of Vipers, Wylie coined the term “momism,” which derisively referred to the cultural phenomenon of mothers as “an American creation” that resulted in an unprecedented “adoration of motherhood” by an entire generation of sons who were unreasonably attached to their mothers. He cautioned that maternal attachment was a sign of narcissism and that mothers should restrain their traditional maternal impulses in order to encourage separation and emotional independence. Further, according to Wylie, momism was causing an erosion of masculine fortitude and American individualism. Or, as he so colorfully put it, “Mom still commands…. The nation can no longer say it contains many, great, free dreaming men. We are deep in the predicted nightmare and mom sits on its decaying throne.” Which probably looks something like this:
Though he published Generation of Vipers in 1942, it became a mega-hit during the Cold War era, which is not so surprising because, you know… McCarthyism contained all those batshoot type of crazy conspiracy theories too. The book became an immediate bestseller, inspiring frequent mention and selling over 180,000 copies well into the next decade.
It makes sense to think of Wylie’s creation as a precursor to today’s current crop of politically controversial books. More like tirades against humanity than cheery little pick-me-ups, these kinds of books somehow often become bestsellers. I’d like to think it’s because these books espouse theories so insane that they’re laughable, but who knows? Maybe people actually believe this stuff.
And in the 1950s it appears they did. This fear of overbearing mothers raising sons to become inadequate or weak men was exacerbated by the large numbers of army recruits who had either been turned away or discharged during World War II due to mental instability. During the war, psychiatrists noted the prevalence of “combat fatigue,” now known as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), which affected 1,393,000 soldiers and resulted in an alarming total of 37.5 percent of all World War II ground combat troops being discharged for psychiatric reasons. In 1946, Time published an article entitled “Mama’s Boys,” which inflated the Army’s “discovery” of “psychoneurotics” during World War II to 2,400,000, and which largely blamed mothers for their sons’ problems.
Others picked up on Wylie’s crazy conspiracies and furthered his work. The psychiatrist David Levy published Maternal Overprotection, in which he claimed to have found more than twenty instances of mental instability due to a “displaced form of maternal aggression and hostility.” Many newspapers blamed mothers for “producing” emotionally ill children. The Detroit News published an article entitled, “Psychopath’s Start Traced: Lack of ‘Mothering’ in Youth Blamed;” other papers and magazines ran headlines such as “Mother Blamed for Neurotic Child,” and “Are American Moms a Menace?” The domineering mothers who were described so scathingly in Wylie’s book suddenly became the most glaring cause of everything wrong in society. So basically, a woman who was overly attached to her child was demonized as breeding pathology.
Moreover, respected psychologist, Dr. Edward Strecker, who wrote Their Mothers’ Sons: A Psychiatrist Examines an American Problem in 1946, reiterated the notion that mothers smothering and emotionally stunting their sons was a serious danger in the postwar era, and called momism a “menace” to the nation’s security.
Now if you think that statement is a bit farfetched—I mean, how could mothers displaying too much love possibly be a national security issue—then you haven’t paid attention to your typical 1950s political rhetoric, have you?
In 1950, President Truman convened the White House Conference on Children and Youth with the goal of assessing how to attain “individual happiness and responsible citizenship.” The conference was attended by representatives from every state, 460 private organizations, as well as by the kinderlach themselves. Addressing the large crowd, Truman stated, “We cannot insulate our children from the uncertainties of the world in which we live or from the impact of the problems which confront us.” However, in order to persevere and triumph against Communist forces, he rallied mothers to raise “mentally and morally stronger” youth in order to be “useful and honorable citizens” who would be capable of combating the “moral and spiritual dangers that flow from Communism.” Truman particularly emphasized the mothers’ duty to properly raise their children, referring to them as “the basis of mental and moral strength.” Right, so pretty much the president told women to raise their kids properly… or else. But no pressure, right?
Wrong. Even political rhetoric from one party to another was full of allusions towards failed masculinity. Senator McCarthy referred to Democrats as “dilettante diplomats” who “cringed,” “whined,” and “whimpered” in the face of Communism. In 1950, McCarthy spoke to a Republican Women’s Club in Wheeling, West Virginia, and blamed America’s “position of impotency” on the “privileged and sissified” Democrats who spoke out meekly against Communism with “a lace handkerchief, a silk glove, and with a Harvard accent.” McCarthy, by portraying the Democrats as effeminate and emasculated, sent a clear message to parents: you could either raise your son to be a manly man who is strong and revered, or to be, well, a sissy. According to McCarthy and other “truly masculine” Republicans, because the Democrats were purportedly soft on Communism and “so thoroughly debased, the nation’s men…would no longer possess the (masculine) will to fight for Democracy.” They therefore stood as public examples of Wylie’s momism, manifested as an issue of national security.
Nowadays, there’s clearly no shortage of political mudslinging and we have heard Republicans say some interesting things regarding the snobbery of college, but telling parents how to raise their kids for the best interest of our security? I doubt we’re going to hear that any time soon. The Tiger Mom controversy last year was, I think, enough to last us a while.