Mobilizing Maternal Sentiment for the Middle-Class Agenda in the Late 18th-Century Anglo-Atlantic

Saturday, January 5, 2019: 2:10 PM
Hancock Parlor (Palmer House Hilton)
Marissa Rhodes, State University of New York at Buffalo
Motherhood saw dramatic changes in the late eighteenth century. On both sides of the Atlantic, elite and middle-class mothers had fewer children and invested more time and energy into child-rearing than they had previously, and also organized their lives around nurturing sensitive, well-educated children. Maternal sentiment held pride of place in the formation of feminine identities. Elite and middling women went to considerable lengths to express the emotional stakes of their maternity. As early as the 1770s, the historical record is filled with dramatic soliloquies by privileged women whose self-worth was dependent on the welfare of their children. But the reorganization of the eighteenth-century family around the self-abnegating, sentimental mother was a social advantage confined to an emerging middle-class. Poor and working class mothers suffered infant death and both separation from and abandonment of their children as a direct consequence of middle-class agendas. Wet nurses, employed by middling householders and drawn from a pool of urban working mothers, were the point of contact between these two cohorts. Wet nurses appear only sporadically in diaries, letters, and poor relief records, but their lives give us invaluable insight into the economic imperatives of motherhood in the late eighteenth-century Atlantic, which operated similarly in both London and Philadelphia. This project pushes beyond the vice-grip of revolutionary politics on the history of the early American family by using a cis-Atlantic scope. Wet nurses’ experiences suggest that in both cities, middling families created employment dilemmas that separated children from their mothers without regard to their emotional bonds. Middle-class families then mobilized a discourse of heightened maternal feeling to justify the prioritization of their parental relationships over those of the lower classes.
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