Peoples and cultures across time and place deem the relationships mothers cultivate with their children as sacred and integral to the order of societies and nations. Mothers not only offer their children love and nurturance, they inculcate the values and ideologies of their respective worlds in their children and prepare them to be productive members of societies. This panel explores how acts of maternal violence challenged prevailing ideologies of sacred motherhood in the American South during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and considers the responses of local communities to these incidents. We contemplate how Americans defined and understood violent maternal power, child murder, and infanticide, how they reckoned with mothers’ abilities to violently disrupt and co-opt the maternal relationships of other women, how the slave economy shaped and altered notions of motherhood, and how this differed according to race or indigeneity within America.
Katy Simpson Smith’s paper “Early Republican Maternal Violence in White, Black, and Red” investigates mothers of European, African, and Native American descent who failed to conform to expectations of appropriate parenting in the eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century South by committing violent acts against their children. She argues that acts of maternal violence provide just as much insight into the lives of early American women as ideologies of “sacred” motherhood. In her paper “Slavery, Abolition, and Murdering Mothers” Felicity Turner juxtaposes local stories of infanticide from antebellum North Carolina with narratives of child murder generated by anti-slavery activists. Her paper argues that although abolitionists typed infanticide as an act of violence so antithetical to motherhood that only slavery could inspire a woman to commit it, murdering mothers constituted part of the fabric of everyday life in nineteenth-century America. In “Black Milk: White Women, Enslaved Wet Nurses, and Maternal Violence in the Antebellum Slave Market” Stephanie Jones-Rogers examines white women’s demand for and use of enslaved wet nurses within the context of slave marketplaces. She argues that white mothers who procured the services of enslaved wet nurses commodified the nutritive and maternal care enslaved mothers provided to white children, enhanced enslaved women’s value in southern slave markets, and disrupted the relationships enslaved mothers established with their children prior to sale or hire. In the process, they committed acts of maternal violence against enslaved mothers and children that were, in large part, economic in character. In presenting the papers that form this panel, we hope to re-imagine ideologies of sacred motherhood, provide new ways of understanding maternal relationships in early America, and offer alternative conceptualizations of the relationship between gender, race, and violence in the American South.