Marie Antoinette’s love of her children is commonly used as the strongest defense for her, both during her life and in modern times. Madame Campan, one of her staunchest defenders during her lifetime, constantly mentioned in her memoirs Marie Antoinette’s desire for a child and inherent maternal qualities even before her children were born. She also emphasized the queen’s love and devotion towards her children once they were born. This maternal emphasis survives in popular representations of Marie Antoinette today. It is still used as a way to create sympathy for her and as a remedy to the negative image that the rumors of her wild sexuality and rampant spending created. Clearly her role as a mother was, and still is, seen as one of her most redeeming qualities While her wild, luxurious lifestyle turned her into a sort of anti-hero we love to hate, her love of her children shapes her into a figure deserving of sympathy.
During her life as the infamous, unpopular, French Queen, most people in France saw Marie Antoinette as an unfit mother in a time where motherhood was becoming increasingly important for the morality of future generations. Her role as mother was especially important because she was responsible for raising the heir to the French throne. The 18th century marks the time where most historians agree the notion of childhood, and with it, the domestic mother, were created (Popiel 4). Before this time, childhood was not recognized as a distinct time in life where “special nurturing” was needed (Popiel 4). Before the 18th century, the most important aspect of education children received was how to act like an adult and accept responsibility (Popiel 5).
In the early 18th century and before, most French parents would send their infants to be raised by strangers. The children would have a wet nurse to care for them in the first years of their lives, and then servants and tutors to raise them during adolescence. The mother did not have a significant presence in their childhood, and often no presence at all as it was rare for mothers to visit their children (Popiel 5). In fact, the mother’s “reproductive duty” did not often extend further than becoming pregnant and giving birth (Popiel 5). By the 19th century, in part because of Rousseau’s conceptions of motherhood, this had changed completely. Mothers were then socially obligated to care for their children and educate them, because according to Rousseau’s ideas, children’s future contributions to society depended on having good mothers to raise them properly (Popiel 5). In this ideological model, the mother became central to her child’s development and was expected to be present and influential during all stages of their growth from infant to a member of society. Rousseau’s ideas had a significant influence in this shift, as he believed children would be better educated and behaved if raised and cared for by their mothers instead of wet nurses, servants, and tutors:
“Domestic child-rearing took on new importance. Not only was the ideal mother the moral center and focus of educational literature, but political and moral tracts also claimed that she was the crucial instrument for preparing and disciplining her offspring so that they could face and eventually reshape the world” (Popiel 4).
This was especially true for queens because their offspring would be ruling the nation someday, so it was imperative that they raise them morally. Since mothers were now expected to be the dominant influence in their child’s upbringing, mothers had to be a model of morality and self-control in order to raise children who possessed the same qualities. Since the people of France saw their queen as immoral and unrestrained in her sexual and material pursuits, it then followed that she was seen as an unfit mother to the royal children (Popiel 25). This made the charges against Marie Antoinette that much more severe because her reputation was not only damaging to her image, her immorality could corrupt the next generation of France’s rulers.