The Costs of Motherhood: Capitalism and Reproduction in the United States, 1900 to the Present

AHA Session 30
Thursday, January 3, 2019: 3:30 PM-5:00 PM
Water Tower Parlor (Palmer House Hilton, Sixth Floor)
Jodi Vandenberg-Daves, University of Wisconsin–La Crosse
The Audience

Session Abstract

Over the course of the 20th century, America’s shift to a consumer-based economy affected every facet of life, including when and how women reproduced. Consequently, procreation became a booming business. The papers in this panel bring together the various literatures addressing this phenomenon, together illuminating one story that sits at the intersection of health consumerism and patient autonomy. To do this, these papers examine how the timeline of reproduction itself- from prenatal care and childbirth to contraception and postpartum depression- became consumable goods marketed and sold to women.

Shannon Withycombe examines how prenatal health care in the early decades of the 20th century relied on the established rhetoric of maternal impressions and influence amongst women’s social groups. However, early forms of health consumerism encouraged women to also seek advice from popular women’s magazines and health guides. Withycombe ultimately suggests that the success of prenatal health care programs is not proof of the rising cultural authority of medicine and public health, but rather a part of a rising health consumer movement. Naomi Rendina furthers this idea by examining how “natural” childbirth ideas were spread among women in the mid-20th century. Because of the rise in managed care and the interference of the hospital systems and insurance companies, childbirth became a highly profitable medical event. Women’s health organizations emerged as early as the 1920s for the purpose of arming women with information to enable them to resist over-medicalized birth. These organizations became a part of a much longer patients’ rights movement.

Kate Grauvogel analyzes the conflicting information about oral contraceptives from the mid-20th century. Journalist and women’s health advocate, Barbara Seaman, argued that the “pill” was unsafe for women and came with a variety of potential adverse effects. However, chemist Carl Djerassi defended the pill despite the growing scientific evidence of its dangers. While focusing on these two prominent sources of information, Grauvogel argues that such conflicting stories made it difficult for women to procure reliable information about contraceptives, which ultimately jeopardized their safety and reproductive autonomy. Rachel Constance brings information gathering into the digital age by examining how women have utilized the internet, including social media, in their search for information about postpartum depression. Like the physical materials of earlier decades, Constance analyzes how contemporary media and information outlets positively and negatively influence how women ask for help, what information they have access to, and how this kind of influence shapes their motherhood experiences. Together, these papers show various stages of reproduction were transformed into consumable goods shaped women’s reproductive lives.

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