Wife And Mother - President Roosevelt's Address
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
To the Delegates to the First International Congress in America on the Welfare of the Child, at the White House, March 10, 1908.
IT is a great pleasure to greet you here this afternoon. I receive many societies here in the White House, many organizations of good men and women, striving to do all that in them lies for the betterment of our social and civic condition. I am glad to see them. I believe in their work; I want to help them. But there is no other society which I am quite as glad to receive as this. This is the one body that I put even ahead of the veterans of the Civil War; because when all is said it is the mother, and the mother only, who is a better citizen even than the soldier who fights for his country. The successful mother, the mother who does her part in rearing and training aright the boys and girls who are to be the men and women of the next generation, is of greater use to the community and occupies, if she only would realize it, a more honorable, as well as a more important, position than any successful man in it. ...
Nothing in this life that is really worth having comes save at the cost of effort. I am glad when I meet men who have fought for their country, have served faithfully and well year after year for their country at the risk of their own lives; I respect them because they have had something hard to do and have done it well. When we look back to the Civil War, the men whom we hold in honor are not the men who stayed at home, but the men who, whether they wore the blue or wore the gray, proved their truth by their endeavor; who dared risk all for "the great prize of death in battle," as one of our noblest poets has phrased it; who spent year after year at what brought them no money reward, at what might result in the utter impairment of the chance of their earning their livelihood, because it was their duty to render that service. In just the same way no life of self-indulgence, of mere vapid pleasure, can possibly, even in the one point of pleasure itself, yield so ample a reward as comes to the mother at the cost of self-denial, of effort, of suffering in childbirth, of the long, slow, patience-trying work of bringing up the children aright. No scheme of education, no social attitude, can be right unless it is based fundamentally upon the recognition of the necessity of seeing that the girl is trained to understand the supreme dignity, the supreme usefulness, of motherhood. Unless the average woman is a good wife and good mother, unless she bears a sufficient number of children, so that the race shall increase, and not decrease, unless she brings up these children sound in soul and mind and body-unless this is true of the average woman, no brilliancy of genius, no material prosperity, no triumphs of science and industry, will avail to save the race from ruin and death. The mother is the one supreme asset of national life; she is more important by far than the successful statesman or business man or artist or scientist.
There are exceptional women, there are exceptional men, who have other tasks to perform in addition to, not in substitution for, the task of motherhood and fatherhood, the task of providing the home and of keeping it. But it is the tasks connected with the home that are the fundamental tasks of humanity. After all, we can get along for the time being with an inferior quality of success in other lines, political, or business, or of any kind; because if there are failings in such matters we can make them good in the next generation; but if the mother does not do her duty, there will either be no next generation, or a next generation that is worse than none at all. In other words, we cannot as a nation get along at all if we haven't the right kind of home life. Such a life is not only the supreme duty, but also the supreme reward of duty. Every rightly constituted woman or man, if she or he is worth her or his salt, must feel that there is no such ample reward to be found any-where in life as the reward of children, the reward of a happy family life.
I abhor and condemn the man who is brutal, thoughtless, careless, selfish, with women, and especially with the women of his own household. The birth-pangs make all men the debtors of all women. The man is a poor creature who does not realize the infinite difficulty of the woman's task, who does not realize what is done by her who bears and rears the children; who cannot even be sure until the children are well grown that any night will come when she can have it entirely to her-self to sleep in. I abhor and condemn the man who fails to recognize all his obligations to the woman who does her duty. But the woman who shirks her duty as wife and mother is just as heartily to be condemned. We despise her as we despise and condemn the soldier who flinches in battle. A good woman, who does full duty, is sacred in our eyes; exactly as the brave and patriotic soldier is to be honored above all other men. But the woman who, whether from cowardice, from selfishness, from having a false and vacuous ideal, shirks her duty as wife and mother, earns the right to our contempt, just as does the man who, from any motive, fears to do his duty in battle when the country calls him. Because we so admire the good woman, the unselfish woman, the far-sighted woman, we have scant patience with her unworthy sister who fears to do her duty; exactly as, for the very reason that we respect a man who does his duty honestly and fairly in politics, who works hard at his business, who in time of national need does his duty as a soldier, we scorn his brother who idles when he should work, who is a bad husband, a bad father, who does his duty ill in the family or toward the state, who fears to do the work of a soldier if the time comes when a soldier's work is needed. All honor to the man or woman who does duty, who renders service; and we can only honor him or her if the weight of our condemnation is felt by those who flinch from their duty.
You see, my guests, you have let yourselves in for a sermon. I have now almost come to the end. Before I do, however, I want to ask your assistance for two or three matters that are not immediately connected with the life in the family itself, but that are of vital consequence to the children. In the first place, in the schools, see that the school work is made as practical as possible. For the boys I want to see training provided that shall train them toward, and not away from, their life-work; that will train them toward the farm or the shop, not away from it. With the girl, see that it is not made a matter of mirth that the girl who goes to college comes out unprepared to do any of the ordinary duties of womanhood. See, in other words, that with the higher education which she should have-for she should have a right to just as much education, to just as high an education, as any man-see that with that goes the education that will fit her to do her fundamental work in the world. As regards our public schools especially I want to put in a special word in behalf of the right kind of playgrounds. No school is a good school if it has not a good playground.
Help the children to play; and remember that you can often help them most by leaving them entirely alone. I misread them if they themselves do not often know how to play better than we old folks can teach them. Remember that in the city especially it is an outrage to erect a school without erecting a playground to go with that school. It is the gravest kind of wrong, not only to the children but to the whole community, to turn out the boys and girls, especially in the congested part of the city, with no place to play in but the streets. There can be no more important reform than to provide adequate play-ground; and a beginning should be made here in the District of Columbia.
You cannot have good citizens, good men and women of the next generation, if the boys and girls are worked in factories to the stunting of their moral, mental, and physical growth. Wherever the National Government can reach it should do away with the evils of child labor, and I trust this will be done; but much must be done by the actions of the several State legislatures; and do, each of you, in your several States, all that you can to secure the enactment, and then the enforcement, of laws that shall put a stop to the employment of children of tender age in doing what only grown people should do.
The field of your activities is so very wide that it would be useless for me to attempt to enumerate the various subjects of which you will and ought to treat. You have come together to discuss the problems that more vitally than any other affect the real welfare, the well-being in the present and the well-being in the future, of this Nation and of all nations. I wish you wisdom and good judgment. You must bring more than one quality to your task. No mother can do her duty in her own home without genuine tenderness of heart, genuine sentiment; but if she has only sentiment and only tenderness of heart she may through folly do more harm than another could through weakness. You must have the tenderness, you must have the sentiment; but woe to you and woe to the children who come after you if that is all that you have. With the sentiment, with the tenderness of heart, encourage the common sense that will enable you to correct the tenderness when it becomes weakness and injustice. In addition, cultivate what in the long run counts for more than intellect, for more than sentiment-and that is character, the sum of those qualities which really make up a strong, brave, tender man or woman. You cannot get along, you nor any one else, if you develop your intellect to the point that you lose all other things, all other qualities. It does not make any difference how intelligent a woman is, if she looks upon her children only with intelligence, they are not going to care overmuch for her in re-turn. Do not forget that love must come first; that love is what the family is based on; but don't do children, don't do grown people the dreadful injustice-through a love that is merely one form of weakness-of failing to make the child or, I might add, the man, behave itself or himself. A marriage should be a partnership where each of the two parties has his or her rights, where each should be more careful to do his or her duty than to exact duty from the other partner; but where each must, in justice to the other partner no less than to him-self or herself, exact the performance of duty by that other partner.
So with the children. A hard and unloving mother does infinite harm to her children; but she does no more harm than the loving but weak and foolish mother who does not train the children to behave with respect for the feelings of others, who permits them to be selfish or cruel or thoughtless. I remember reading a story, years ago, that greatly interested me. It described how a worn, tired-looking woman was riding in the cars with her son, she sitting by the window. The son was a thoughtless boy, and soon began to whine and complain until he made his tired mother move away from and let him sit by the window. The observer, looking on, remarked that in the future there would be some unfortunate wife who would wonder "why men are so selfish," instead of placing the blame where it really ought to be placed-upon the lack of strength of character, the lack of wisdom, the lack of genuine love on the part of that woman in not bringing her boy up to be unselfish and thoughtful of others, so that he might live decently in his own household, and do his work well in the world at large.