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Babies for the Nation

The Medicalization of Motherhood in Quebec, 1910-1970

Denyse Baillargeon

Publication Year: 2009

Described by some as a “necropolis for babies,” the province of Quebec in the early twentieth century recorded infant mortality rates, particularly among French-speaking Catholics, that were among the highest in the Western world. This “bleeding of the nation” gave birth to a vast movement for child welfare that paved the way for a medicalization of childbearing.

In Babies for the Nation, basing her analysis on extensive documentary research and more than fifty interviews with mothers, Denyse Baillargeon sets out to understand how doctors were able to convince women to consult them, and why mothers chose to follow their advice. Her analysis considers the medical discourse of the time, the development of free services made available to mothers between 1910 and 1970, and how mothers used these services.

Showing the variety of social actors involved in this process (doctors, nurses, women’s groups, members of the clergy, private enterprise, the state, and the mothers themselves), this study delineates the alliances and the conflicts that arose between them in a complex phenomenon that profoundly changed the nature of childbearing in Quebec.

Un Québec en mal d’enfants: La médicalisation de la maternité 1910—1970 was awarded the Clio-Québec Prize, the Lionel Groulx-Yves-Saint-Germain Prize, and the Jean-Charles-Falardeau Prize. This translation by W. Donald Wilson brings this important book to a new readership.

Published by: Wilfrid Laurier University Press

Series: Studies in Childhood and Family in Canada

Title Page, Copyright Page

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List of Tables

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pp. vii-viii

List of Acronyms

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pp. ix-x

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pp. xi-xiii

It has taken me over ten years to complete this book, so my debts are numerous and varied. I wish first of all to thank those who have assisted me in my research throughout so many years: Marie-Josée Blais, my collaborator from the outset, who conducted and transcribed the first series of interviews used in this book and who also generously made those ...

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pp. 1-14

In the early 20th century very few women consulted a doctor during pregnancy. When they did, it was often in order to confirm their “condition” after feeling the baby move, or during the third trimester to obtain a better idea of the birth date, or sometimes simply to warn the doctor that his services would soon be needed. In urban areas, women were indeed calling ...

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CHAPTER 1. A “Bad Mother” Called Quebec

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pp. 14-44

The campaign against infant and maternal mortality was the cornerstone on which the Western child welfare movement of the early 20th century was built. In order to make this fight more effective, the leaders of the movement introduced the first milk stations and infant care clinics, and doctors sought to impose their expertise in the art of looking after babies, ...

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CHAPTER 2. A Very National Infant Mortality Rate

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pp. 45-70

The vulnerability of the newborn to sickness and death was certainly not a new phenomenon at the turn of the 20th century, but it was around this time that it became a major preoccupation for the Quebec elite.1 The introduction, in 1893, of a system for collecting demographic statistics throughout the entire province, making it possible to obtain more complete and more ...

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CHAPTER 3. Let Us Have the Mother and the Child Is Ours

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pp. 71-106

Teaching women to become mothers was no doubt one of the great medical undertakings of the 20th century. This is shown by the hundreds of articles on the topic published in professional journals, and by the many publications written by specialists—obstetricians, pediatricians, and public health doctors—all filled with advice intended for women about different ...

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CHAPTER 4. A School for Mothers

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pp. 107-152

In a recent article reviewing the work of Quebec health historians, François Guérard points out that this field of research has helped to deconstruct the notion of the “backwardness” of Quebec society compared to other North American and, more broadly, Western societies. Like many other areas of historical research, says Guérard, the social history of medicine as practised since the 1970s ...

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CHAPTER 5. Bitter Struggles

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pp. 153-190

Early in the 20th century the problem of infant mortality was on every one’s mind. Doctors, nurses, members of the clergy, politicians, intellectuals, “maternalist” feminists—all were calling for the eradication of this scourge, each attempting to contribute to the campaign. However, underlying this coalition there were tensions and even open conflicts between the various parties. ...

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CHAPTER 6. The Quebec Mother and Child

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pp. 191-238

By the end of the 1960s a substantial majority of Quebec women were seeing a doctor from the onset of pregnancy. Almost all of these—more than 99 percent—were delivering their babies in hospital, and most followed medical directives in caring for their newborns. The very widespread adoption of new ways of thinking about pregnancy and new-born care and the incorporation ...

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Epilogue: To Have or Not to Have …

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pp. 239-246

Between 1910 and 1960, the medicalization of maternity went hand in hand with a decline in infant mortality, and also with a decline in the fertility rate. If it is difficult to specify which of these two phenomena, medicalization or contraception, contributed most to reduce the number of deaths, the fact remains that it was from the time when women were having fewer children ...

Appendix 1: Sources

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pp. 247-251

Appendix 2: Infant Mortality Rates

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p. 252-252


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pp. 253-300


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pp. 301-318


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pp. 319-323

E-ISBN-13: 9781554582723
Print-ISBN-13: 9781554580583
Print-ISBN-10: 1554580587

Page Count: 342
Publication Year: 2009

Series Title: Studies in Childhood and Family in Canada