News that Senator Tammy Duckworth brought her baby to the Senate floor for a vote thrilled some and infuriated others. Prior debate over whether babies belonged in the Senate sparked some great pro- and anti-baby remarks that pundits and scholars will enjoy parsing and quoting in coming days, weeks, months… or until babies on the floor of the Senate, or House, are no longer an interesting item, which could be a long time.
What interested me the most was the tweet by conservative Richard Armande Mills that included the line “I have issues with Duckworth potentially being able to weaponize that baby to affect legislative decision making.” The tweet provoked a storm of politically sharp replies, and the hashtag “weaponized babies” soon appeared.
Once I got over chuckling at some of the replies to Mr. Mills, I reacted like a historian. I had two questions: why hadn’t I used that term in my book Babies Made Us Modern: How Infants Brought Americans into the Twentieth Century (Cambridge UP)? And, how come no one thinks of babies, or images of babies, as being weaponized? Babies have been playing in the political arena for a long time.
During World War 1 babies appeared in propaganda campaigns, shown being bayoneted by evil Germans. Babies didn’t just provoke patriotism, they got paid for their work serving as symbols of vulnerable innocence. The nation’s high infant mortality rate, which took a far greater toll in lives than the enemy on the battlefield, helped spur President Woodrow Wilson to announce that 1918 would be the “Children’s Year,” a joint effort of the United States Children’s Bureau and the Women’s Committee of the National Council of Defense. A key goal: “Save 100,000 Babies.” Without appearing at the White House or in the halls of Congress, infants (and children) got President Wilson to appropriate $150,000 for this effort from his War Emergency Fund.
During World War II babies once again got call-up notices. With centuries of experience selling all kinds of consumer goods — cigarettes, guns (Iver Johnson Revolvers, “Accidental discharge impossible” read the ad showing a toddler in a bed playing with one), billiard tables, and hair tonic, to name a few — babies soon went to work for the government. “I’m good and mad” declared an angry-faced baby in one advertisement. The text went on, “I’ve been hearing a lot about a couple of guys called Hitler and Hirohito.” What should people do to turn that angry (or should it be called weaponized) face into a cute smile? The answer was obvious: buy war bonds.
Just as babies leveraged government dollars in World War I, they got a bundle of cash in World War II by way of EMIC, the Emergency Maternity and Infant Care Act. Federal dollars paid for the births of babies whose fathers were in the four lowest pay grades in the military. From 1943 through 1946 Uncle Sam spent taxpayer money on one out of every seven births and on a year of infant health care for 1.5 million infants.
War, it seems, weaponizes babies, turning them into infant citizens who support the cause by serving as subjects of propaganda, promoters of patriotism, and sellers of bonds. It also makes them into the reasons soldiers and sailors fight, because they symbolize, and indeed are, the nation’s future. But that hasn’t happened lately, though not because of peace and prosperity. Instead, the nation’s relative prosperity in the decades after World War II transformed “our babies,” the ones our nation’s military fought and died for, into “my babies,” individual citizen-subjects meant to be cared for by their families.
It shouldn’t take a war to make a nation pay attention to babies, and it is highly unlikely that the appearance of one, ten, or a hundred babies in our nation’s legislative chambers will lead to more investments in their welfare and that of their fellow citizens, young and old. The political will to craft legislation that helps babies grow up well-housed, well-fed, well-educated, and healthy will have to come from people who care about them. Mr. Mills has little to fear from weaponized babies, but he has much to worry about if citizens decide that infants matter.
Janet Golden is a historian and author of Message in a Bottle: The Making of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (Harvard University Press, 2006). She coedits the blog, The Public’s Health. This article was originally published by Nursing Clio.