Childbirth, Pregnancy, Motherhood, Slavery
For many women across time and space, childbirth and child-rearing have been the centerpieces of their adult lives, and this was the case in the antebellum South. Lacking effective contraception, both African American and white women could expect to be pregnant or nursing much of the time, often bearing ten or more children. Lynn Kennedy successfully uses birth and motherhood as a lens to investigate the complexities, difficulties, and social meanings of race and gender in the mid-nineteenth-century South. She looks not only at the actual experiences of women but also how southern society used those experiences to shape the region’s identity.
Kennedy argues that motherhood had great meaning not only for individual women but for southern society as a whole: “Birth and motherhood shaped the identities of all individuals within the antebellum South [End Page 538] and . . . these experiences created family and community bonds that developed into the foundations of a broader southern identity” (7). Slavery, of course, put a different spin on the institution of motherhood in the South, and Kennedy carefully outlines the contrasts that slavery created between women. She also investigates the ways in which gender bound women into common experiences.
Kennedy begins her discussion with the idealization of birth and motherhood common in the early nineteenth century. While southern white women shared the ideals of womanhood with other European and American cultures, southerners tied a woman’s fulfillment of these standards to her status and identity within the southern community, giving a regional cast to the expectations. Southern society wanted mothers to be virtuous, monogamous, and pious, even expecting slave women to adhere to the “principles of virtuous motherhood” (13). Southerners boasted about the fecundity of the region’s women, although the birth-rate actually declined.
The reality of childbirth and parenting was something altogether different from the ideal, Kennedy reveals, and it gave women an occasion for cross-racial sympathy. Some southern women feared and dreaded motherhood, and both African American and white women tried actively to limit their fertility. Their efforts largely failed, of course, and many women bore more than five children. Privileged white women often received careful attention during pregnancy. Conditions for slaves varied with the owners, as some took extra care of pregnant slaves while others refused to lessen the workload and even devised special methods of corporal punishment. The actual occasion of childbirth provided respite from patriarchy, as women alone controlled the birthing room for both slaves and their owners. African American midwives provided a cross-racial experience for both races and often held esteemed positions within their communities. After the births, however, white women received care that the African Americans could only dream of, as they returned to their work routines in short order.
Once children were born, most white women nursed and cared for their children themselves, although wet nurses and mammies did exist. The nurture of white children by African American women was somewhat controversial, as it implied that black women might be better than white women in caring for babies. On large plantations, slave children often had communal care; in smaller settings, their mothers had to figure out how to juggle childcare with their workload. Conversely, a few white [End Page 539] women adopted slave children as “pets,” leading one former slave to comment to her interviewer, “During slavery it seemed lak yo’ chillum b’long to ev’ybody but you” (99). Kennedy provides another example of the differences among privileged white women and their slaves.
Kennedy includes male attitudes toward childbirth in her consideration of gender. For a man, the birth of a child shaped his identity by making him a father. If white, he had a new basis for power as a patriarch; if black, he often had his “ultimate powerlessness” made manifest as he could not control the fate of his child (113). While white families preferred male offspring, slaves evidenced little preference for one sex over the other. Mixed-race children...