Where is the US Monument to the Mothers Who Gave Their Lives?

A question was recently asked of the candidates during the Republican presidential debate:  “What national security issue do you worry about that nobody is asking about, either here or in any of the debates so far?” As I listened to the responses, each with a different focus and level of expertise, I thought how great it would be to finally hear something along the lines of “well, although there are pressing issues in so many areas, I really feel that we must create a society where women are seen as equals, where they are no longer invisible, and where the opinions of all are accepted and valued councils of human decision making. We simply must allow women to have a voice at each level of society, from the household all the way up to international councils. We must recognize their sacrifices, achievements, and unique and important points of view in order to truly have a secure nation.”

I am pretty sure no one will ever say this, at least not a mainstream candidate in the next couple of years. But I hope. And the question made me again reflect upon all the ways in which women truly are invisible in our society. One that was recently again brought to my mind was the blood sacrifice women are required to give for their nation simply by giving birth. Several years ago I was at the site of Valley Forge in Pennsylvania. We stopped at an old church to see the stained glass windows, and as I walked around the grounds I came across a beautiful old statue. I have included the pictures below. It was a woman kneeling, as if in mourning. The inscription read “To the mothers of the nation, and in memory of Henrietta Heckscher. Died in childbirth June 11 1912.”  At that time, the world was about to enter into World War I. Hundreds of thousands of people were about to die due to violence, making it easy to overlook one mother’s death. But Henrietta’s husband commissioned the statue to honor his wife and all the mothers of the nation who have died in childbirth. Many people have given their life for our nation over the years, and I have great respect for each of them. There are monuments, schools roads, even national holidays named in honor of these heroes. But, as of 2012, this small statue in Valley Forge is the only one dedicated to the millions of mothers who have given their lives for the nation.


As scholars have written, “The World Health Organization estimates that about 529,000 women died in 2005 as a result of pregnancy and childbirth, and over a million more were permanently injured. In contrast, the Human security Report states that in 2005 there were 17,400 conflict deaths in the world. In other words, there were thirty times more maternal mortality deaths than deaths in international or civil conflict in 2005!” [1] And yet, the sacrifice of these mothers receives little attention. Maternal death has even been termed “the invisible death.” And maternal mortality in the United States is significantly higher than many European countries. Some may find this surprising, thinking that the US leads in every aspect of development. However, it is quite the opposite. The “invisible death” is an American phenomenon.  The United States is ranked 50th in the world, behind most European countries and some Asian and Middle Eastern countries. [2]  This is not just a small health issue, nor an issue confined to a few isolated families. Maternal mortality will not go away or decrease on its own. It is an issue of national security, of human security. The strength of a nation lies in families, and the strength of the family lies with the mother. They raise, feed, clothe, teach, love, care for, and nurture the children who will grow up to be leaders and the decision-makers. We cannot have mothers sacrificing their lives on a regular basis in this way. Not all maternal deaths can be prevented, but surely the United States should lead out in improving hospitals, research facilities, and safe care practices so that our mothers are no longer the “invisible death”.

The one beautiful yet isolated monument in Valley Forge is testament to the invisibility of maternal mortality. It is a great reminder of what mothers have done and are still doing, but it cannot be the only reminder we have. There is currently a movement to construct a larger and more visible monument to mothers. Information can be found here: http://mothersmonument.org/ . This is a wonderful goal that needs our support. It will be a tribute to all women who have sacrificed so much and will remind us that the protection of our mothers is the responsibility of us all. Hopefully someday soon this problem of maternal mortality and other issues of the invisibility of women will be addressed by political candidates, officials, and those in all positions of power.

[1] Hudson, Valerie M., Bonnie Ballif-Spanvill, Mary Caprioli, and Chad F. Emmett. 2012. Sex and world peace.New York: Columbia University Press.

[2] Association of Reproductive Health Professionals. Maternal mortality in the United States: A human rights failure. http://www.arhp.org/publications-and-resources/contraception-journal/march-2011 (Accessed April 1, 2012).


4 thoughts on “Where is the US Monument to the Mothers Who Gave Their Lives?

  1. GoodReason says:

    Becky, thank you so much for this stirring post! You were the one who originally started us all thinking about this issue by bringing back these photos several years ago. I am so glad your generation is now thinking about these things . . . I hope one day you will find a candidate that will speak openly of them, and who will build that monument!

  2. Charla says:

    Becky, one of the reasons that maternal death is invisible in the US is that hospitals are not required to report pregnant/recent postpartum status for women who pass away in their care. Thus the cause of death can be recorded as “cardiac arrest” – their heart stopped beating. Or some other technical cause of death (they stopped breathing, etc) rather than “died in childbirth”. “Reporting of maternal deaths in the United States is done via an honor system. There are no statutes providing for penalties for misreporting or failing to report maternal deaths.” Ina May Gaskin has a great project going on currently in response to this gross issue and the underreporting thereof. You can read more at http://www.rememberthemothers.org/ or http://www.democracynow.org/2012/3/19/ina_may_gaskin_on_rising_us

  3. Chelsea says:

    Thank-you for bringing attention to this monument, and the need to honor those who have shaped and cared for us in society

  4. Sue Donym says:

    “The United States should lead out in improving hospitals, research facilities, and safe care practices so that our mothers are no longer the ‘invisible death’.” Right. That’s if the reason for the high US mortality ranking (which I’ve seen anywhere from 21 to 47) is bad hospitals and unsafe care. But it’s not. This post ignores some important facts. The standard US death certificate has been revised twice in the past two decades in order to more accurately capture maternal deaths. Contrary to what a previous commenter said, the new death certificate has revealed maternal deaths which otherwise would not have been counted. Because of this, and because there is no standard for how other nations count deaths, the disparity between the US and other nations may be exaggerated. It’s important to remember that modern obstetrics in the US has lowered the neonatal mortality rate 90% and the maternal mortality rate 99% over the past 100 years (http://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/mm4838a2.htm).

    Nevertheless, the US maternal mortality rate is upsetting. What is causing these deaths? One study showed that heart disease is the most common cause of maternal ICU admission (http://journals.lww.com/greenjournal/Fulltext/2012/02000/Near_Miss_Maternal_Mortality__Cardiac_Dysfunction.8.aspx.). The study took place at Duke University from January 2005 to April 2011. There were 19,575 births and 5 maternal deaths for a maternal mortality rate of 25/100,000. That is approximately double the US maternal mortality rate, but that is only to be expected in a tertiary center that receives the most complicated cases from the surrounding area. The causes of the five maternal deaths were: two from metastatic cancer, two secondary to cystic fibrosis, and one the result of sepsis.

    While this study dealt with near-miss maternal mortality, the risk factors for actual mortality are similar. The maternal population in the US is older, more obese, with more co-morbidities than ever before. The mother’s race is a factor. So what can be done? What, exactly should “political candidates, officials, and those in all positions of power” do? Encourage mothers to be younger, thinner, and of a particular race? Yeah, that won’t work. Besides, women should have the right to give birth no matter what their situation. Fortunately, in America mothers have access to skilled medical care to help mitigate risk factors. The real culprit in maternal mortality is not American obstetrics, it’s the lack of safe circumstances and skilled medical care for mothers around the globe.

    By the way, “is” should be capitalized in the title of this post.

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