U.S. South, Motherhood, Slavery, Native Americans, Indian Territory, Gender roles
Motherhood, the act of birthing and/or raising children, was an experience that often dominated women’s lives in the past and linked women of varying racial, cultural, and economic backgrounds. For several decades, scholars of American history have considered the meaning of motherhood for women in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries by examining the subject at a particular historical moment or by region; by looking comparatively at black and white women; or by focusing specifically on a particular group such as enslaved or Native women.
Katy Simpson Smith ambitiously combines several of these approaches, regional specificity and comparative work, in her attempt to uncover the lives of ‘‘the majority of women—white, black, and Indian—who derived a sense of importance from how they raised their children’’ in the early American South (2). She explores southern motherhood from the mideighteenth century, a moment that coincided with the entrenchment of large-scale plantation agriculture, concomitant changes in the nature of slavery, and a shift in thinking about children and motherhood within white families, to the removal era when many Native women were relocated to Indian Territory. Smith argues there was great power for women in their roles as mothers, in this ability to exercise authority in their own lives and shape the lives of the people around them, and ‘‘that maternal power is a difficult thing to recognize unless we look at motherhood across cultural lines’’ (3). Yet this power was also shifting: Native women lost authority as their nations increasingly adopted American gender practices, white mothers gained respect as the nurturers of ‘‘virtuous citizens,’’ and enslaved black mothers gained influence in their families but at the terrible cost of absent fathers (266–67).
Smith divides her study into three roughly equal sections that focus on Indian, white, and black mothers. Within each section, six chapters focus on various roles that women held. The author applies some of these roles to all three groups of mothers—such as that of Teacher and Sufferer—but not others. For instance, both Native and black women could act as Providers and Spiritual Guides, but Smith discusses only Native women as Farmers and Politicians. Similarly, Smith describes [End Page 664] only white mothers who acted as Nurses, Readers, Sages, and Judges, and only black women who acted as Protectors and Aunts in these chapters. Of course, Smith demonstrates more overlap in mothers’ roles than the chapter titles suggest: Black mothers who acted as Protectors when they sought the skills of fellow slaves to heal their sick children might well be seen as Nurses (219); and white women Sages who urged their children to engage in particular religious behaviors could also be read as Spiritual Guides (137–42). Likewise, Cherokee women who petitioned against removal to Indian Territory and further land cessions were simultaneously Politicians and Protectors of their tribal land base and the future inheritance of their children (71–73). These roles emerge from Smith’s investigation of five categories to describe southern motherhood across racial or cultural divides: survival, education, spirituality, social networks, and the limits of control.
Smith finds that women across the South worried about the loss of their children to illness and disease, attempted to educate children in ways the women deemed appropriate, and often relied on networks of other women to help care for children. Sometimes southern women chose not to become mothers by suppressing fertility, through the use of abortifacients, or by practicing infanticide. These women acted to protect their communities, preserve scarce resources, or prevent children, and perhaps themselves, from experiencing difficult lives. Thus, there were moments of congruence in Native, white, and black women’s experiences; however, Smith also illuminates the instances when one woman’s ability to act as a mother contradicted and even undermined another woman’s ability to do so, instances perhaps most visible in the lives of the enslaved. In one poignant example, the author describes the...