A salute to famous mothers

Motherhood has changed a great deal over the last few millenniums — or has it? Today, we take a look at famous mothers in history, fictional and otherwise — the good, the bad and the infamous.

Gaia. Also known as Mother Earth, Gaia was the first goddess in Greek mythology. She created herself out of the primordial chaos, and conjured Uranus (the starry sky) out of the nothing, proving that even thousands of years ago people believed mothers were capable of just about anything.

The sixth day: Eve. The first woman in the Bible, she famously listened to the serpent, ate the apple and got kicked out of Eden. God gave her an extra punishment as well — pain during child labor. Thanks for nothing, Eve.

2000 BC: (give or take a few hundred or thousand years): Sarah. In the Bible, Sarah struggles with the contemporary issue of trying to have babies in her old age. When she turns 90, God eventually grants her a son, but only one. He is totally doted on by both parents until God asks his dad to sacrifice him. (Luckily for Isaac, it was all just a test).


Around AD 1: Mary. She not only birthed a man-god, but Mary also did it while remaining a virgin, establishing a precedent that no woman has been able to live up to since.

Sometime between 800 and 1100: Grendel’s mom from “Beowulf.” We never learn her name, but in the epic story, she attacks Beowulf’s army to avenge the death of her son. Modern mothers may not understand the poem’s antiquated language, but we totally get where Grendel’s mom is coming from.

1600-ish: Hamlet’s mother, Gertrude. She’s loving and well-meaning but rather dense. Of course your son is going to be miserable if you remarry just weeks after your first husband’s death.

Sometime in the 1700s: Cinderella’s evil stepmother. Stepmothers have been getting a bad rap for a long time now. It’s unclear when the Cinderella story truly originated, but the evil stepmother part appears to have been added in the 1700s.


1755-93: Marie Antoinette. The Austrian-born queen of France did her duty to the French people and provided them with an heir (and three other children). Unfortunately for Marie and her family, her subjects (or at least some of them) seemed to lose interest in an heir.

1794: The old woman who lived in a shoe. The traditional nursery rhyme was first printed in this year. Classic case of too many kids, too little time.

1813: Mrs. Bennet from “Pride and Prejudice.” Jane Austen’s caricature of the social climbing mother suggests moms have been embarrassing their daughters with tactless comments and transparent hopes for a long time now.

1860-1961: Grandma Moses. Proof that there is life after childrearing, Grandma Moses began her strikingly successful painting career at age 70, long after her four children had grown.


1864-1948: Anna Jarvis. The woman responsible for the creation of Mother’s Day was not a mother but instead a devoted daughter. However, she was disgusted by how quickly it became commercialized and spent the rest of her life campaigning against it.

1873-1935: Ma Barker. The mother of four members of the infamous Barker-Karpis gang captured the American imagination in the 1930s for her role in criminal life. Her boys swore she didn’t mastermind the robberies and kidnappings for which the gang was notorious. Instead, they sent her to the movies when they were up to no good — or so they said.

1890-1995: Rose Kennedy. The mother of President Kennedy gave birth to nine children between 1915 and 1932. The quintessential Catholic mother stoically ignored her husband’s many dalliances (including an affair with Gloria Swanson) and was recognized for her charitable work.

1905-77: Joan Crawford. Thanks to her daughter’s 1978 tell-all book “Mommie Dearest” (and of course the 1981film starring Faye Dunaway), actress Joan Crawford will go down in the annals of history as one of the worst mothers of the century. No wire hangers!


1905-87: Maria von Trapp. Not all stepmothers are evil. The real-life inspiration for the character played by Julie Andrews in “The Sound of Music,” Von Trapp was a nun-in-training who fell in love with a widower who had seven children. After her husband lost all his money, Maria and her adopted family toured as a singing group called the Trapp Family Singers.

1939: Ma Joad. The practical matriarch and backbone of the family in John Steinbeck’s depression era tale “The Grapes of Wrath” never gets a full name. Just “Ma” apparently is good enough.

1945-present: Mia Farrow. The originator of the mother-of-many brand of celebrity welcomed several children into her home in the 1970s and ‘80s, four biological, the rest adopted. Perhaps Madonna and Angelina Jolie (a wee girl at the time) were taking notes. (She adopted several more children in the ‘90s.)

1957-63: June Cleaver. The mother in “Leave It to Beaver” (played by Barbara Billingsley) has long been heralded as the quintessential 1950s housewife. Favorite activities included needlepointing, flipping through women’s magazines and cake decorating.


1975-present: Angelina Jolie. Following in Farrow’s footsteps, Jolie has transformed herself from Hollywood wild child to sainted mother, adopting and birthing children in rapid succession throughout the mid-2000s.

1975-present: Nadya Suleman. Christened “Octomom” by the media, Suleman made headlines in January 2009 after successfully giving birth to eight children at once. (That’s in addition to the six she already had.) If there were a contest for most extreme mother, we think she’d take it.

1984-92: Clair Huxtable. Played by Phylicia Rashad, the matriarch of “The Cosby Show” was part of a brigade of high-powered professional moms that took television by storm in the 1980s. Other members include Angela Bower (played by Judith Light) from “Who’s the Boss?” and “Murphy Brown” (played by Candice Bergen).

1988-97: Roseanne Conner. In her hit series “Roseanne,” Roseanne Barr played Roseanne Conner, the iconic anti-hero mom. She was overweight, underpaid and just barely able to control her rambunctious children — making her the most realistic mom ever portrayed on television.


2004-present: The “Desperate Housewives.” Competitive suburban mothering at its campiest.