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Born Southern

Childbirth, Motherhood, and Social Networks in the Old South

V. Lynn Kennedy

Publication Year: 2010

In Born Southern, V. Lynn Kennedy addresses the pivotal roles of birth and motherhood in slaveholding families and communities in the Old South. She assesses the power structures of race, gender, and class—both in the household and in the public sphere—and how they functioned to construct a distinct antebellum southern society. Kennedy’s unique approach links the experiences of black and white women, examining how childbirth and motherhood created strong ties to family, community, and region for both. She also moves beyond a simple exploration of birth as a physiological event, examining the social and cultural circumstances surrounding it: family and community support networks, the beliefs and practices of local midwives, and the roles of men as fathers and professionals. The southern household—and the relationships among its members—is the focus of the first part of the book. Integrating the experiences of all women, black and white, rich and poor, free and enslaved, these narratives suggest the complexities of shared experiences that united women in a common purpose but also divided them according to status. The second part moves the discussion from the private household into the public sphere, exploring how southerners used birth and motherhood to negotiate public, professional, and political identities. Kennedy’s systematic and thoughtful study distinguishes southern approaches to childbirth and motherhood from northern ones, showing how slavery and rural living contributed to a particularly southern experience.

Published by: The Johns Hopkins University Press


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pp. vii-viii | DOI: https://doi.org/10.1353/chapter.8491

As I wrote about the social networks formed by people in the Old South, I could not help but think about those who encouraged my own endeavors and tied me to a larger sense of community. At the University of Western Ontario and at the University of Lethbridge I have benefi ted from the generosity of many people. I am particularly grateful for the ...

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pp. 1-8 | DOI: https://doi.org/10.1353/chapter.8492

Mahala and Henrietta lived in the same household in antebellum Vicksburg, Mississippi. In July of 1856 Mahala, who kept a daily diary of her activities, recorded the birth of her fifth child: “Little John, born this morning at 5 am—before 5—he is a delicate poor baby, only weighs 3- 1/2 pounds—Mother came down, but no one was here when he arrived but Margery and Henrietta.” About nine months ear-...

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1. Idealizing Birth and Motherhood in the Antebellum South

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pp. 9-33 | DOI: https://doi.org/10.1353/chapter.8493

In 1835, Thomas Dew wrote of a mother’s love for her child. Having given the baby life, he suggested, she “feels the deepest sympathy with all its pains and wants, and carries in her heart, the most unbound and unremitting affection for it”; in her devotion “she notices with a tender anxiety all its little movements, and administers to all its wants.” While still a schoolgirl in North Carolina, Mary Ezell echoed these sentiments ...

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2. Conception and Pregnancy: Southern Women’s Experiences of Reproduction

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pp. 34-56 | DOI: https://doi.org/10.1353/chapter.8494

On April 2, 1854, Mary Lydia Hauser wrote a letter of sympathy to her sister- in- law, Julia Conrad Jones, on hearing that she was pregnant again: “[W]ell do I recollect how I used to trouble myself about such things and how I suffered from the time that I was aware of my condition until I was delivered from it.” And although she recalled that “many have been the tears that I have shed on that account,” she coun-...

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3. Childbirth: Commonalities and Divisions

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pp. 57-83 | DOI: https://doi.org/10.1353/chapter.8495

The events of labor and delivery were both pivotal points in the lives of women and parts of a broader continuum in their reproductive histories. This time of physical and emotional peril generated the potential for mutual dependence and the creation of a community of women across race and class lines. The birthing room became a space where normal social rules did not always apply. Birth assistants were ...

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4. Motherhood: Infant Nurturing and Identity

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pp. 84-112 | DOI: https://doi.org/10.1353/chapter.8496

In 1799, Eleanor Lewis observed: “The idea of being a Mother, of watching over & forming the mind of Our little infant is a source of delight which none but those in similar situations can experience.” Alabamian Sarah Anne Gayle suggested a similar pleasure when she wrote about a friend in 1833: “what a thrilling and interesting occasion is the birth of a first child, especially in one who feels so tenderly and thinks as ...

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5. Fatherhood and the Southern Patriarchy

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pp. 113-136 | DOI: https://doi.org/10.1353/chapter.8497

When Caroline North Pettigrew of North Carolina gave birth to her second child in 1855, many in her extended family expressed disappointment that the baby was a girl. Her husband’s brother, Johnston Pettigrew, summed up these sentiments when he wrote that he could not “refrain from regretting” the infant’s sex since boys were “the thing for the world.” ¹ The ideals of patriarchy, male domi-...

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6. Birth and Professional Identity in the Antebellum South

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pp. 137-166 | DOI: https://doi.org/10.1353/chapter.8498

Dr. D. Warren Brickell, a noted New Orleans physician, complained in 1856 that “we must condemn the almost universal practice, on the part of owners and overseers, of tampering with their sick negroes for one, two, or more days before applying for medical aid.” Increasingly, doctors such as Brickell included childbirth as one of the “sicknesses” with which lay people ought not to tamper. Although agri-...

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7. Birth, Motherhood, and the Sectional Crisis

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pp. 167-188 | DOI: https://doi.org/10.1353/chapter.8499

In the wake of John Brown’s 1859 raid on Harpers Ferry, Virginia native Mrs. M. J. C. Mason and anti-slavery writer Lydia Maria Child began an exchange of letters. Among the issues they discussed, the treatment of birthing women became a key indication of the moral well-being of their respective societies. Mason began the exchange by querying of Child: “Do you soften the pangs of maternity in those around you by all ...

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pp. 189-196 | DOI: https://doi.org/10.1353/chapter.8500

In 1860, the Reverend Benjamin Morgan Palmer of South Carolina asserted his loyalty to an emerging southern nation, writing that “born upon her soil, of a father thus born before me—from an ancestry that occupied it while yet it was a part of England’s possessions—she is in every sense my mother.” Nearly four decades later, Victoria Clayton of Alabama made a similar link between her birth and her sense of south-...

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Essay on Sources

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pp. 259-267 | DOI: https://doi.org/10.1353/chapter.8502

The narratives that southern women created about their own birth experiences are at the core of this book. Fortunately, archival repositories throughout the South have preserved many of the diaries and letters in which southern women recorded and shared this information. My research is based on archival collections held in the Southern Historical Collection at the University of North Caro-...

E-ISBN-13: 9780801897405
E-ISBN-10: 0801897408
Print-ISBN-13: 9780801894176
Print-ISBN-10: 0801894174

Page Count: 288
Publication Year: 2010

OCLC Number: 794700346
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Born Southern

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Social networks -- Southern States -- History -- 19th century.
  • Families -- Southern States -- History -- 19th century.
  • Community life -- Southern States -- History -- 19th century.
  • Southern States -- Social conditions -- 19th century.
  • Pregnancy -- Social aspects -- Southern States -- History -- 19th century.
  • Childbirth -- Social aspects -- Southern States -- History -- 19th century.
  • Southern States -- Social life and customs -- 1775-1865.
  • Children -- Southern States -- Social conditions -- 19th century.
  • Mothers -- Southern States -- Social conditions -- 19th century.
  • Motherhood -- Southern States -- History -- 19th century.
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