The Health and Safety of the Mother

During the Depression, the government encouraged men to get back to work—and women to stay home.

Then

Federal Art Project, 1938–39

Washington, D.C.

Then

Federal Art Project, 1938–39

Washington, D.C.

“I wonder how many members of this audience know the extent of WPA’s work in the field of public health,” said Florence Kerr, director of the Professional and Service Division of the Works Progress Administration in 1939. She was addressing the listeners of a Washington, D.C.-based radio station. If awareness of WPA health services was low, it wasn’t for the agency’s lack of trying—or sign-making. Since 1935, the administration had built 100 new hospitals and renovated 1,422 others. It had funneled technical and clerical workers to city health departments to run public health campaigns against venereal disease, hookworm, tuberculosis, typhoid, and malaria. From 1935 to 1943, 3.5 million patients filtered through WPA clinics across the country, where nurses administered nearly 900,000 immunizations.

Many of the WPA’s health initiatives directly targeted mothers and children. Expectant mothers attended prenatal clinics, and new mothers could avail themselves of well-baby clinics, where they were “taught how to keep their babies in good health,” according to a 1943 government report summarizing the accomplishments of the WPA. The Farm Security Administration sent doctors to migrant camps to attend births, and nurses to monitor the health of mother and baby post-delivery; camp nurses organized “Mothers Health Clubs” to teach women about prenatal and infant care.

Federal Art Project poster promoting infant care, 1938. Courtesy of Library of Congress
Federal Art Project poster, 1938. Courtesy of Library of Congress

Like many of the programs created by the WPA, the health branches availed themselves of the Federal Art Project’s Poster Division, which had outposts in 17 states and operated as a creative agency for relief organizations, which sent specific requests to be fulfilled by the artists. Of the 35,000 posters designed by the division—promoting everything from travel to literacy—many addressed health and safety concerns, especially those of mothers and children. Mothers were exhorted to breastfeed and inoculate their children, to “be clean in everything that concerns your baby,” and even to warn people away from kissing infants, as kisses could be a conduit for tuberculosis. One poster, designed for Cook County Public Health, depicted a woman standing protectively over a boy and girl, ominously reminding mothers that “the constant protection of their health” was a “lifelong job.”

While not every poster that children’s services was explicitly targeted at women, the New Deal government saw the domestic world as firmly the domain of them. “Americans turned inward during the Depression,” writes historian Susan Ware in her 1982 book Holding Their Own: Women in the 1930s, “and women’s roles at the center of the family took on even greater significance.” In her 1933 advice book, It’s Up to the Women, first lady Eleanor Roosevelt wrote that “the women, the wives and mothers, are the inspiration of the homes, the persons for whom the men really work.” During the Depression, women were expected to rise to the occasion in tough times—economizing food, resewing old clothes to make new ones, and otherwise making due with less.

Federal Art Project poster, 1939. Courtesy of Library of Congress

The most famous image to emerge from the Farm Security Administration’s photography unit was Dorothea Lange’s “Migrant Mother,” in which a worried-looking Florence Owens Thompson, holding her two disheveled children, gazes into the distance. Historian Annelise Orleck described the picture in a 1993 essay as reinforcing the “popular view of poor mothers as the last traditionalists, guardians of the beleaguered home.” In fact, while most WPA work was reserved for men, women were considered to be ably suited to the service work of which Florence Kerr spoke—she told her listening audience that “of the more than half a million people employed on professional and service projects, nearly 350,000 of them are women.”

Then

Federal Art Project, 1938–39

Washington, D.C.

Now

Koak, 2019

San Francisco

Now

Koak, 2019

San Francisco

I became familiar with WPA posters as a kid. For me, they held a similar fascination as comics; they were a bold form of graphic storytelling that often used a tongue-in-cheek humor to talk about the experience of being human—whether it was caring for your neighbor, breastfeeding your baby, or treating your syphilis.

I’ve used a similar humor and directness as a starting point to explore the human condition in my work. However, the posters I ended up making for Federal Project Number Two don’t contain the same form of humor that drew me to the originals—there was something in the making of these images that called more for tenderness than irony.

Each of my posters carries a different message, all following a thread of tolerance and humanism. It seems obvious to state something as simple as “all love is equal,” but it also feels like a very necessary PSA right now.

 

 

The media’s portrayal of gender—not just of women, but of the whole spectrum of gender—needs to change. There are many ways to be a man or a woman, to be non-binary, to be attracted to other people. Gender is complex, and these complexities are always shifting. When social communication is based on traditional interpretations of gender, the identities of male and female become rigid archetypes. This sort of messaging fragments our potential as humans. It becomes the dictator of normalcy, an inescapable whisper of how we are supposed to function in the world.

My work is about the experience of being human. It would be impossible to explore this without also considering the context of the world we live in and the events that shape us.

When making works about motherhood, I consider gender politics and social policies that effect mothers—like the recent separation of families at the border. I would say the female figures in my work act as vessels—carriers for narrative told through emotion. The narrative is rarely explicit, more so it’s implied by the thought that there is a thought—the glint of an eye, or smile, or finger ready to move. The figures are there to remind us of feeling.

 

 

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Explore Federal Project no. 2

Child’s Play

Handmade dolls embodied marginalized workers’ desire for autonomy—and, now, the plight of children at the United States’ southern border.

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The Visible Man

Telling, and preserving, the stories that reveal what it’s really like to be black in America—from Ralph Ellison’s classic novel to now.

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The Health and Safety of the Mother

During the Depression, the government encouraged men to get back to work—and women to stay home.

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Shelter in Place

The most iconic image from the Great Depression centers on rural poverty—but then, as now, the misery of homelessness was compounded in America’s cities.

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Song of the Mississippi

Heartbreak defines the human experience. And nothing can break your heart like your own country.

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On the Factory Line

Finding moments of beauty and elegance in industrial labor.

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A Queen Is Born

A local beauty pageant can be about more than just looks. It can also reveal how a community wants to be seen.

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When Art Is an Act of Protest

A summer of activism in Chicago reminds us that in order for history to be taught, it must first be recorded.

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Hole in One

Harnessing the power of the humble hole punch, to either create narratives or deflate them.

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What’s Your American Dream?

Gordon Parks and the pursuit of happiness as a black American.

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Public Service Announcements

Updating the iconic posters of the Works Progress Administration.

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If You Build It, They Will Leave

During the New Deal, Southwest DC was razed to create a “model city” for federal workers. Now the area is being redeveloped again, this time into a gentrified urban playground.

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Proposals for a Monument

Public art has the power to show us what we want to see—or reveal what we deserve.

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A Room of One’s Own

A photograph of a home speaks volumes about the inhabitant, even when they’re not included in the shot.

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Back to the Music, Back to the Game

A visit to the juke joints in the Florida Everglades where migrant laborers could go to relax.

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This Land Is Your Land

During the Depression, the federal government urged Americans to visit the country’s natural wonders.

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The Exquisite Catalog of a Crow Fair

Wendy Red Star brings illustrations from the Denver Art Museum’s card catalog to the Crow Nation’s annual gathering.

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The American Guide to the New Vermont

Shane Lavalette follows the refugees who have made their home in the whitest state in the nation.

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Stoop Life and Survival

Documenting a life of a neighborhood means covering street life in all of its joy and pain.

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Hot, Wet, and Out of Control

The history of Texas’s power struggle with water.

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The Afterlives of Slaves

Snapshots of a life after slavery, and an imagining of a world without bondage.

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Portraits of Hard Living in America

The faces and places of a forgotten swath of American life.

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She Works Hard for the Money

During the Depression, women were advised to “sing for their supper” as a way to survive hard times.

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Hands Across America

Manual labor can be hard and exhausting, practical and poetic.

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Wall to Wall

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Sharing the Great Outdoors

Tennessee’s once-segregated parks turn over a new leaf.

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Signs of Boom and Bust

Mark Steinmetz drives the streets of the city’s fast-growing urban sprawl.

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After the Curtain Calls

Fulfilling the American dream of standing under bright lights while your friends and neighbors applaud.

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The Many Lives of McCarren Park Pool

Beloved, abandoned, then beloved once more, a Brooklyn pool transforms alongside its neighborhood.

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The People of the Land

Dust Bowl migrants had to pull up roots. Native Hawaiians are strengthening theirs.

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Letting Sleeping Children Lie

Leanne Shapton reconsiders motherhood after seeing a photograph of children asleep during a square dance.

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The Cycle of a Woman’s Life

A 20th-century mural for a women’s prison meets 21st-century inequality.

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More Federal Project No. 2