Troubling Maternity in the 18th- and 19th-Century Anglo-Atlantic

AHA Session 203
American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies 2
Saturday, January 5, 2019: 1:30 PM-3:00 PM
Hancock Parlor (Palmer House Hilton, Sixth Floor)
Karin Wulf, Omohundro Institute and College of William and Mary
Felicity Turner, Georgia Southern University

Session Abstract

Historians pinpoint the late eighteenth century as the moment when Anglo-American motherhood was transformed from an occupation into a vocation – from an already significant responsibility into a calling that superseded all other forms of women’s labor. Well into the nineteenth century, the popular imagination was filled with depictions of idealized mothers, for whom a selfless devotion to children was envisioned as biologically predetermined. Such mothers adhered strictly to dominant social norms, which in turn were informed by white, Protestant, middle-class values. Many women, however, were “disloyal” to this model of motherhood, and either unable or unwilling to meet its idealized demands. This panel seeks to complicate our understanding of maternity in the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Anglo-Atlantic world by bringing women who challenged these narrow ideals to the fore. While scholars have recognized that motherhood achieved a newfound importance in this period, they have done too little to interrogate the lives of those whose maternity was, for a variety of reasons, considered troubling. In response to this imbalance, the following three papers focus on such women, while also “troubling” the notion of motherhood itself. Through the figure of the wet nurse, Marissa Rhodes examines the disconnect between poor, laboring mothers and middle-class families in eighteenth-century London and Philadelphia. Poor mothers, she argues, often faced separation from their children – and even the death of infants – as a direct result of middle class employment practices. As middling women outsourced the maternal labor of breastfeeding, they ensured that it would be nearly impossible for wet nurses to fulfill obligations to their own children. Nora Doyle’s paper interrogates pain during childbirth prior to the advent of anesthesia. In the early nineteenth century, physicians paid little attention to the pain experienced by women during labor. Since women were considered naturally suited for maternity, pain was dismissed as either a physiological aberration, or as a necessary component of birth – not something to be managed and understood. Women’s experiences of childbirth, on the other hand, were in large part defined by pain and fear of its consequences. Childbearing, Doyle suggests, was conceived by most mothers as a trial to be endured. Cassandra Berman turns to the growing preoccupation with abortion in the 1830s and 1840s. In this period, legal and medical authorities began, for the first time, to decry the practice of abortion, bringing both abortion providers and women who sought to avoid maternity into the limelight. While this outcry – and its focus on married women – was new, Berman uses popular print to demonstrate its continuity with a longstanding public fascination with “unwilling” mothers. Together, our panelists argue that motherhood was far more complex than historians have previously acknowledged – and that while a particular ideal may have been upheld in the popular consciousness, its “troubling” foil may have, in fact, been far more prevalent. Finally, our varied disciplinary approach should be of interest to historians of gender, medicine, print culture, and the family.
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