Born Southern: Childbirth, Motherhood, and Social Networks in the Old South
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 presented constant ideological and practical challenges, as white fathers did or did not acknowledge their offspring.
Men also related to childbirth not as fathers but as professionals. Extending the work of Marie Jenkins Schwartz (Birthing a Slave: Motherhood and Medicine in the American South, Cambridge, MA, 2006), Kennedy explores the ways in which doctors, lawyers, and planters used childbirth to establish their professional identities. As childbirth became increasingly medicalized throughout the United States in the nineteenth century, southern doctors sought to impose their authority over the birth process. Planters engaged in slave breeding to increase their holdings, directly interfering with reproduction as good agricultural management. Lawyers made their fortunes litigating questions of custody and legitimacy. These men, Kennedy argues, “created narratives around the issues of birth and motherhood that sought to ensure the maintenance of the social structure” (165).
As the Civil War approached, birth and motherhood became symbolic of the South, for good and for ill. According to pro-southern commentators, southern blood and a southern birth “meant a common character and a common political loyalty” (168), and they used the metaphors of motherhood to assert links between the region and its people. Abolitionists decried the corruption of motherhood as one of the great sins of slavery, while southerners countered that southern ideals enabled women to fulfill their maternal destinies, downplaying the separation of slave mothers and children. The end of the war radically altered the southern family, as African Americans could now form their own families and have authority over their own children. Elite white women increasingly gave birth in racially segregated settings. Whites’ patriarchal sentiments [End Page 540] toward their former chattel broke down, and their households became more nuclear.
Lynn Kennedy has written a nuanced, balanced, multidirectional study of the pivotal event in many women’s lives, and she has explained clearly why birth and motherhood mattered for individual women and for southern society. Her writing is graceful and readable, and she uses well the limited sources available to her. She makes explicit the commonalities and contrasts between slave women and their owners, and she explicates well the ways in which southern society put the experiences of these women to its own uses.
Rebecca Sharpless is associate professor of history at Texas Christian University. She is the author of Cooking in Other Women’s Kitchens: Domestic Workers in the South, 1865–1960 (Chapel Hill, NC, 2010).