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10 Great Moms of the Twentieth Century

10 Great Moms of the Twentieth CenturyDue to an error on our part, this article should’ve appeared a week ago… But hey, better late than never! – Ed.

They are activists, humorists, Holocaust survivers, writers, first ladies, and missionaries. But first and foremost, they are moms. And, in my opinion, some of the best. As a relatively new mom, I could learn a lesson or two from the veterans. So here is a list of my blue-ribbon picks.

1. Erma Bombeck.

She was the funniest mother in America, with an uncanny ability to bemuse fellow moms with hilarious twists on cleaning toilets and carpools of whinny kids. For more than 30 years her clippings occupied the most coveted real estate in middle-class homes — the refrigerator — where she’d offer invaluable insight and a dose of comedy amid lost socks, bad report cards, and dirty laundry. In her more than 4,500 columns syndicated in 900 papers nationwide, she confessed her imperfections with a refreshing, self-deprecating humor that became her trademark.

Fueled by the idealized picture of TV mothers such as Harriet Nelson (“Ozzie and Harriet”) and Jane Wyatt (“Father Knows Best”), Erma won the hearts of housewives when she admitted that her kids “were the ones the prime-time mothers forbade their kids to play with,” and if she’d raise her hand to wipe the hair from their eyes, “they flinch and call their attorneys.”

She began writing her column, “At Wit’s End,” in 1965 at age 37, when Matthew, the youngest of her three children, started school. Within a year, she gained a huge following as her words were printed in newspapers across America, and eventually between the covers of 15 bestselling books. Diagnosed with polycystic kidney disease at the age of 20, Erma eventually suffered from kidney failure, and died in 1996 of complications from a kidney transplant at the age of 69.

2. Barbara Bush.

From the first minute she entered the public eye during her husband’s campaign for political office, she became “everybody’s grandmother,” exuding a rare warmth and genuineness, keen whit and forthrightness, that won her enormous popularity throughout the country and abroad. Perhaps her relaxed manner and sincere compassion evolved from the hardship of losing her first daughter, Robin, to leukemia when the little girl was not quite four, a tragedy that the former first lady says will make her husband George and her “love every living human more.”

As the mother of four sons, one daughter, and 14 grandchildren, she fulfills her role as America’s endearing grandmother by reading aloud stories to children at schools or as part of her national radio program called “Mrs. Bush’s Story Time,” and by her tireless efforts for children’s literacy.

3. Donna Martin.

Two kids are enough headache and hassle for the average American family. But not for the Texan-native mom of nine-year-old daughter, LaDonna, and 15-year-old son Princeton, who convinced her husband, the pastor of Bennett Chapel Missionary Baptist Church, to adopt four neglected and abused kids. She received her inspiration from her own mother, Murtha Cartwright, who gave birth to 18 children and raised them in the small, predominantly African-American community of Possum Trot, near the Texas-Louisiana border.

Despite the extra attention her developmentally disabled son already demanded and her husband’s modest income that barely fed the family, Donna drove 60 miles to the town of Lufkin to meet with a social worker to inquire how she could adopt at-risk children. In less than a year, Mercedes and Tyler joined the Martin family; Terri and Joshua came next.

Moreover, Donna and her husband encouraged their church’s congregation of 50 families to love and care for one or more of the thousand black children who are up for adoption in the Texas child-welfare system. The result was miraculous. By the summer of 2002, 76 children were placed in permanent homes, and even more in foster homes.

4. Martha Beck.

Place yourself in the manically competitive and over-achieving environment of Harvard, where girls schedule abortions when unplanned pregnancies threaten their academic and professional progress and a new dad is reprimanded by his professor for skipping a day of class to witness the birth of his first child. While pursuing your doctorate in sociology, you discover you have conceived a baby with Down’s syndrome. Your friends advise you, by all means, to terminate the pregnancy. But you carry the baby to full term. And you are changed forever.

You are Martha Beck, and you feel like it when you read her riveting memoir, “Expecting Adam”, about the little boy with Down’s Syndrome who brought more love, joy, and magic into her life than any Ivy League achievement could ever hope to. On every page of her autobiographical tale, she describes her painful and poignant transformation, in which she unlearns everything she was taught by the sharpest and shrewdest of minds in order to recognize and cherish true beauty and wisdom. And in doing so, she is an inspiration to all mothers caring for children with disabilities.

5. Mother Teresa.

Mother TeresaShe may not be a mother in the traditional sense, but she fed more mouths in one day than most moms do in a lifetime. Born as Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu in Skopje, Yugoslavia, she joined the Sisters of Loreto at age eighteen and moved to Calcutta, India where she took her final vows and taught at St. Mary’s High School for twenty years.

Every day of those two decades she saw the poverty and suffering of the people outside the convent wall, and so in 1946 obtained permission from her superiors to devote herself exclusively to working among the poorest of the poor in the slums of Calcutta. She started with a school for homeless children, and later opened clinics, orphanages, homes for the dying, leper colonies, and food centers. In 1950 she founded her own order, the Missionaries of Charity, which today comprises more than a thousand sisters and brothers and has spread to other countries in its many relief projects.

The modern saint died in 1997, but her mission “to care for the hungry, the naked, the homeless, the crippled, the blind, the lepers, all those people who feel unwanted, unloved, uncared for throughout the society,” lives on in the humble sisters who wear the plain white sari with a blue border, and in all those who have been inspired by her message to love well.

6. Bobbi McCaughey.

At age 29, Bobbi McCaughey gave birth to America’s first set of living septuplets, shocking medical experts alongside the general public. Add Bobbi’s first daughter, Mikayla, and that makes eight kids to dress in the morning, feed every three or four hours, potty train, and bathe before bed.

Within a few hours of Bobbi’s cesarean section on November 19, 1997, the small town couple of Carlisle, Iowa became instant celebrities, showered with lifetime supplies of diapers and baby food. But just because she’s famous and moved into a large home donated to the family doesn’t mean Bobbi’s days aren’t jampacked with a mother’s share of challenges times eight. Born prematurely, all seven were on ventilators as infants and two children suffer from cerebral palsy. With all outings impossible–even a trip to the local supermarket–you’d think this homebound mom would go stir crazy. But the devout Baptist doesn’t let herself get frazzled. Her secret? “You just have to trust that God’s going to take care of you,” she says, a bit of insight from a pro.

10 Great Moms of the Twentieth Century

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Therese J. Borchard

Therese J. Borchard is a mental health writer and advocate. She is the founder of the online depression communities Project Hope & Beyond and Group Beyond Blue, and is the author of Beyond Blue: Surviving Depression & Anxiety and Making the Most of Bad Genes and The Pocket Therapist. You can reach her at or on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or LinkedIn.

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APA Reference
Borchard, T. (2018). 10 Great Moms of the Twentieth Century. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 24, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Jul 2018 (Originally: 15 May 2011)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
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