Refrigerator Mothers

Patty Douglas

Abstract


Over the past century, images of “bad” mothers have multiplied, and increasing numbers of mothers and children have come under the paternalistic regulation of scientific, racist and classist Western regimes of power. Since the late 1940s, “autism mothers” emerged as one such “bad” mother. These mothers have been scientifically blamed for their children’s autism, first through mid-twentieth century psycho analytic theories of emotional disorder and now through scientifically shaped regimes of intensive mothering. Drawing on feminist post structuralist and interpretive disability studies approaches, I trace the emergence of the mid-century autism mother in Toronto, the so-called cold, “refrigerator mother” thought to cause autism in herchild. I do so by examining “everyday texts” of the mass media and popular science during the years 1945-1969. Adding a new element to an age-old adage, I argue that the refrigerator mother emerged as a key cultural contradiction through which scientific understandings of autism and a contradictory femininity began to regulate the good/bad mother in new ways. I also suggest that far from being an element of the past, these modes of regulation are in large part continuous and intensifying under today’s neoliberal, patriarchal, global capitalist regimes.

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We are grateful to the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) for its ongoing support of the Journal of the Motherhood Initiative for Research and Community Involvement.