- Born Southern: Childbirth, Motherhood, and Social Networks in the Old South
In Born Southern, V. Lynn Kennedy examines the significance of birth in antebellum southern life. Drawing on prescriptive literature such as stories, magazine articles, and poems; Works Progress Administration narratives; letters; and diaries, she explores how a range of southerners, both men and women, understood and experienced the various stages of birth, from conception, through pregnancy, to nurturing the newborn infant. Kennedy argues in her comprehensive study that the proximity of free and enslaved people made the southern experience of birth unique, contributing to the construction of a distinctively regional identity during the antebellum period. As the sectional crisis intensified, the cultural and social role played by birth assumed broader political significance, providing southerners with a language through which to express their commitment and loyalty to the region.
Kennedy opens by examining the prescriptive literature that linked southern womanhood so closely to motherhood. She acknowledges that the ideals of motherhood circulated in novels, motherhood primers, and popular magazines differed little from similar ideas that held currency in the North. Yet in the southern context, she argues, these ideas resonated differently, largely owing to the existence of slavery and the primacy of family in the southern social structure. In the following chapters, focusing on pregnancy, birth, and motherhood, respectively, Kennedy astutely reveals exactly what she considers unique about the southern experience. Despite differences of race and class and despite efforts to maintain social and racial hierarchies, women throughout the South shared similar experiences in relation to childbirth. These “commonalities,” as Kennedy describes them, meant that enslaved midwives might be present in elite white women’s birthing rooms, as women trusted the experience of other women—enslaved or free—far more than the experience of white male doctors (57). Yet, while she draws attention to these commonalities, Kennedy [End Page 438] remains sensitive to the enormous disparity in experiences between free and enslaved. While white women occasionally acted as wet nurses for enslaved children, for instance, doing so was a means of ensuring that an income-producing asset—the child’s enslaved mother—returned to the fields as quickly as possible after childbirth. As Kennedy observes, this situation contrasted sharply with the role played by enslaved women who served as wet nurses for the infant children of elite white women.
Kennedy argues that community and social networks were central to the experience of birth in the South, within and often across racial lines. The importance of birth to the wider community is adeptly explored in her chapters on southern males’ experiences and understandings of childbirth. As Kennedy illustrates, fatherhood—the ability to assert control over one’s household—was essential to the construction of masculinity in the South, both for those with power and for the disempowered. For white men such as doctors, planters, and lawyers, argues Kennedy, asserting control over childbirth and narratives about the experience provided a means for them to define their professional identity and stamp masculine authority on an arena often dominated by females. By cleverly uncoupling birth from motherhood, Kennedy demonstrates that birth was an experience in which everyone in the community, including men, had a stake.
Kennedy concludes by deftly illustrating how debates over mothering mirrored and contributed to escalating tensions over slavery and secession within the wider political arena. Employing familiar examples such as Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Kennedy illustrates how abolitionists attacked the institution of slavery by appealing to the maternal instincts of women in both the North and the South. By drawing attention to the suffering of enslaved mothers, abolitionists sought to elicit white women’s sympathy for the antislavery cause. Southerners responded, Kennedy convincingly argues, by making their own claim to the language of motherhood, using the rhetoric of maternal love as a means of articulating a distinctively southern identity.
V. Lynn Kennedy’s study of childbirth in the antebellum South should be commended for going to great lengths to integrate a range...