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2    Writing the Body

The Work of the Body in Women’s Childbearing Narratives


Elizabeth Drinker reflected in her diary in 1797, “I have often thought that women who live to get over the time of Child-bareing, if other things are favourable to them, experience more comfort and satisfaction than at any other period of their lives.”1 Having given birth nine times and watched her adult daughters suffer through pregnancies and difficult labors, she concluded that life was best enjoyed when the physical challenges of childbearing had passed. Although most women, like Drinker, seem to have been affectionate mothers who derived satisfaction from raising their children, the bodily trials of maternity forced them to approach motherhood with both joy and trepidation. The physical unwieldiness, discomfort, and suffering wrought by pregnancy and childbirth, as well as the lack of choice and control that many women experienced with respect to their reproductive lives, brought the body to the forefront of women’s understanding of motherhood. While physicians evaded the maternal body and its labor in their medical writings, women placed the work of their bodies at the center of their vision of motherhood. Although the lives of the women represented here spanned nearly a century of social, cultural, medical, and demographic changes, the testimonies they left behind attest to remarkable continuity in the importance they placed on the maternal body. Motherhood was hard physical work, and when women weighed in the balance the bodily challenges of childbearing and the emotional rewards of mothering, they were compelled to regard motherhood with ambivalence.

This perception of motherhood unfurled from generation to generation as older women ushered new mothers through their childbearing experiences. As Elizabeth Drinker mused in 1800, “I have never brought a child into the world without thinking how much my dear mother might have suffer’d with me.”2 She in turn bore witness to the suffering of her daughters in childbed. When one of her daughters was in labor in 1799, she noted, “This day is 38 years since I was in agonies bringing her into this world of trouble; she told me with tears that this was her bearth day.”3 In her diary, Drinker connected three generations of women within a history of their fraught relationship with motherhood. In her experience and imagination, the physical suffering and danger of childbirth linked mothers and daughters, providing a sense of continuity. Indeed, it was not until the second half of the nineteenth century that a significant generational disconnect developed as women began to unmoor childbearing from its association with suffering. Nancy Theriot has argued that the cohort of women who came of age in the late nineteenth century developed a new understanding of motherhood based on confidence and self-control, largely due to the fact that these women enjoyed more certain control over their fertility and a new vision of childbearing as healthy, safe, and potentially pain-free.4

This chapter explores the ways in which women portrayed the physical experiences of childbearing and focuses in particular on their remarks about fertility, pregnancy, and childbirth. Middle-class and elite white women left a more substantial archive of first-person accounts of childbearing than did lower-class women and women of color; consequently, their writings form the bulk of my evidence. I have examined the personal writings of women from multiple generations, ranging from women like Experience Richardson of Massachusetts, born in 1705, to Elizabeth Neblett, who began her childbearing years in Texas in the 1850s. Because of the greater population density along the Eastern Seaboard, the majority of these women lived in the Southeast, the mid-Atlantic, or the Northeast, with a few representatives of regions farther west, such as Oregon, Texas, and Louisiana. Some of the women were mistresses of southern plantations, where they found themselves living apart from close friends and family; others lived in urban areas such as Philadelphia or small towns such as Northampton, Massachusetts, where they circulated within a close local network of female companions. Nearly all enjoyed a significant degree of financial security and, in many cases, wealth. This meant that they had access to considerable resources during their cycles of childbearing: physicians to consult, nurses to care for them during and after childbirth, wet nurses to suckle their children if they were unable to breastfeed, and the leisure to recuperate in bed. Most of these women availed themselves of at least some of these options.

These women were also literate and often highly articulate. They bore children with regularity throughout their adult lives, and many of them wrote even more prolifically, peppering their personal writings with comments about childbearing and childrearing. For many, motherhood was the most important aspect of their lives, and they were full of advice, opinions, anecdotes, complaints, and concern for their children and for their childbearing friends and kinswomen. The language and narrative structures these women used to discuss their childbearing experiences are particularly important. They lived in a culture that increasingly emphasized the virtues of bodily restraint and the primacy of mind and spirit over matter. These women’s writings reveal a tension between the broader expectations of the culture in which they lived and their desire to write about their embodied experiences. The words they used and the stories they told often reflected this tension. Yet, in the end, their drive to record the bodily experiences of motherhood triumphed over the impulse to evade the messiness of corporeality.

Although we lack the same richness of documentation for less-privileged women, other types of sources provide important insight into their experiences and attitudes toward childbearing. The testimonies of enslaved women, in particular, offer a crucial counterpoint to the narratives of middle-class and elite white women. Published slave narratives provide a glimpse into the lives of these women, although the fact that these narratives were written for the public to raise awareness for the antislavery cause means that the experiences articulated in these texts were necessarily filtered through a particular ideological lens. Interviews with former slaves collected in the 1930s provide another means of accessing enslaved women’s stories. These interviews generally reflect only the recollections of individuals enslaved during the last years of slavery, so using information culled from these sources risks conflating earlier and later narratives of childbearing in slavery. But because the continuities in women’s depictions of childbearing have proved more striking than the differences, I use these sources carefully with the desire to bring at least the echoes of these women’s voices into my narrative.

Enslaved women’s stories are particularly significant because they confirm the centrality of the body to American women’s perceptions of motherhood. But they also reveal that the maternal body meant different things in bondage than in freedom. While more-privileged women emphasized the day-to-day physicality of pregnancy and childbirth, enslaved women’s testimonies tended to focus on the significance of their reproductive bodies within the larger context of their enslavement. Their words suggest that the discomfort of pregnancy or the immediate pain of childbirth was overshadowed by the knowledge that their bodies were defined as commodities to be bought, sold, and forcibly bred. Moreover, enslaved women understood that their reproductive labors were located at the crossroads between the work they did for their families and the work they did for their owners. Because of this, their ambivalence toward motherhood was profound.

Unfortunately for the historian, the richest expressions of embodiment almost certainly occurred physically and orally between women. Enslaved women tended one another during childbirth and undoubtedly shared advice about negotiating the combined demands of childbearing and forced labor. Middle-class and elite women’s writings referred often to their social interactions with their peers, to the times spent together chatting in the lying-in chamber, and to advice sought and received. In 1790 Sarah Logan Fisher, a member of Philadelphia’s large Quaker community, noted in her diary that she “went with Coz’ Waln to pay a Lying in visit to Becky Waln several were there, & we had a very agreeable afternoon.”5 We can only imagine the kinds of stories those women might have shared. Pregnant for the first time in 1840, Penelope Warren wrote to her husband, “I did not feel so well Thursday, every little pain frightened me … whenever I have any strange pains Cousin Annie says I must come to her & she will explain them to me.”6 In this way, women’s perceptions of childbearing were shaped by their peers and by the wisdom of preceding generations. Unfortunately, we can never be privy to the conversations between female relatives and friends or between women and their midwives and physicians. We can never see the gestures they made in describing their experiences, nor can we know the intimacy of women who used their bodies to comfort and support one another through repeated reproductive trials.


Fertility was one of the factors that defined women’s embodied experiences as mothers. The simple count of how often and how many times a woman became pregnant helped define her perception of motherhood as manageable or physically burdensome. Most women cherished the delights and demands of mothering children once they were safely born, but the physical challenges of repeated childbearing pushed many women to feel ambivalent at the prospect of each new pregnancy. Indeed, many women greeted pregnancy with dismay or regret, but once safely delivered they incorporated the new baby into the family with love. Fertility was something that women wished to regulate, but many found that it eluded their control. They lived their childbearing years in tension with their bodies.

The period from the mid-eighteenth century to the mid-nineteenth century is particularly significant for the study of childbearing patterns. Fertility rates in the American colonies peaked in the 1760s and then began a steady decline, nearly a century earlier than in western Europe with the exception of France.7 In 1800 white married couples had an average of just over seven children, by 1825 this had dropped to just under six children, and by 1850 white couples had an average of 5.42 children.8 Susan Klepp has located this downward trend within a broader Revolutionary-era emphasis on reason and restraint, which led white American women, particularly those of the middle classes, to engage in careful family planning and to shift their perception of childbearing from pride in a large family to a more negative view of frequent pregnancy. Unlike white women, however, enslaved women experienced an increase in fertility over this period, due to the coercive pronatalist measures that slaveholders employed in order to sustain the domestic slave trade. Not until after emancipation did birthrates among African American women begin to decline.9

In spite of the steady decline in rates of childbearing, middle-class and elite women’s personal writings remained consistent in their discussions of fertility from the later decades of the eighteenth century through the first half of the nineteenth century. Women presented fertility as a form of accounting. Numbers accounted for the children born to one woman, but they also represented a record of her physical labors as a mother, a record that might be inscribed on the body itself. Susan Klepp has argued that the practice of numeracy became prevalent in the Revolutionary era as American women began to rationalize childbearing through numbers.10 In 1779, for instance, Sarah Logan Fisher reported that she “walkd down in the morng to see Peggy Howell who is Lying in of her 6th Child, before she is 29.”11 Fisher was also in her late twenties, but had only just given birth to her third child. She frequently reported the pregnancies and deliveries of her friends, but she generally tallied the number of children only in situations when the numbers seemed noteworthy. Similarly, in 1782 Elizabeth Drinker took the time to note in her diary that an acquaintance had given birth to a son. She concluded by remarking that this was “their 10th Child; all living.”12 Not only did Drinker pause to record the safe birth of a new baby, but she emphasized that the woman had now given birth to ten children. When women recorded large numbers of children or children born very close together in time, they often implied awe at such a reproductive feat as well as concern for the well-being of the mother.

Generations of women continued to take note of reproductive histories. In 1841, on the twenty-fifth anniversary of her marriage, Sarah Hale of Massachusetts tallied the results of her childbearing years and recorded in her diary, “I have borne eleven children, and have been permitted to keep until this day seven.”13 Over the years, Elizabeth Perry of South Carolina took stock in her diary of her reproductive past. In 1843 she recorded, “I am now about to be a Mother for the fourth time.” In 1848 she noted that she had borne six children, two of whom were stillborn, and that she had endured four miscarriages. Finally, when her childbearing years had passed, she recorded the final score: “7 living children, two still born, & four miscarriages so have been 13 times pregnant.”14 These numbers, tallied over the years, were central to Perry’s life history and testified to the work she performed as a mother. Moreover, by tallying in her final sum the number of pregnancies she endured, rather than the living children she gave birth to, Perry emphasized that each pregnancy, whether or not it resulted in a living child, represented a record of her reproductive work.

For enslaved women, fertility was a particularly significant form of accounting because it signified not only the repeated challenges of childbearing but also the coercive circumstances in which they bore children. Frances Kemble, the celebrated British actress and antislavery writer, was the recipient of a host of petitions from enslaved mothers on her husband’s Georgia plantation in the late 1830s. Like the written accounts of Sarah Hale and Elizabeth Perry, the verbal accounts of these enslaved women were defined by a simple tallying of numbers—an account of the number of children born, the number of miscarriages endured, and the number of childhood deaths mourned by each woman—but for these women the numbers reflected the uniquely coercive patterns of motherhood in slavery. Kemble recorded the women’s histories:

Nanny has had three children; two of them are dead. She came to implore that the rule of sending them into the field three weeks after their confinement might be altered … Sarah, Stephen’s wife—this woman’s case and history were alike deplorable. She had had four miscarriages, had brought seven children into the world, five of whom were dead, and was again with child. She complained of dreadful pains in the back, and an internal tumor which swells with the exertion of working in the fields … Sukey, Bush’s wife, only came to pay her respects. She had had four miscarriages; had brought eleven children into the world, five of whom are dead.15

These women presented long histories of difficult childbearing and forced labor that took a terrible toll on their bodies. They begged Kemble for lighter workloads and for more time to rest after childbirth, forcing her to acknowledge that childbearing was hard physical work that became debilitating when combined with fieldwork. For these women, reproductive accounting referred to a history of simultaneous reproductive and productive labor.

For enslaved women, moreover, fertility represented a literal form of economic accounting that defined their status as commodities in a way that was different from that of enslaved men. Fertility signified the growing value of women and their children, and slaveholders both encouraged and enforced high fertility rates.16 Hattie Rogers, a former slave in North Carolina, recalled that “Marster didn’t care who our fathers was jest so the women had children.… If a woman was a good breeder she brought a good price on the auction block. The slave buyers would come around and jab them in the stomach and look them over and if they thought they would have children fast they brought a good price.”17 Josephine Howell, whose family had been enslaved in Tennessee and Arkansas, testified that her grandmother bore twenty-one children in slavery and was highly prized as a result. She was a “breeding woman.” She also emphasized that when her own mother was still very young, her owner had “forced motherhood upon her.”18 Enslaved women lived with the awareness that slave owners regarded them as commodities of greater or lesser value depending on their reproductive histories and childbearing potential.

As commodities to be bought, sold, and bred, enslaved women were acutely conscious of their lack of control over their reproductive lives. Indeed, this lack of bodily integrity was central to their understanding of motherhood. Thus, when they accounted for the number of pregnancies they had experienced, they simultaneously accounted for a repeated history of forced breeding and sexual vulnerability.19 Indeed, references to sexuality and sexual coercion were more common in slave testimonies than were references to pregnancy or childbirth, suggesting that, at least in retrospect, women may have been more profoundly affected by the systemic trauma of sexual vulnerability than by the day-to-day challenges of pregnancy and childbirth. Elizabeth Keckley, for instance, recounted that she was “persecuted” for four years by a white man. “I—I—became a mother,” she confessed and explained that “if my poor boy ever suffered any humiliating pangs on account of birth, he could not blame his mother, for God knows that she did not wish to give him life.”20 Keckley’s attitude toward motherhood was distinctly ambivalent, torn as she was between love for her child and her horror of the system that forced motherhood upon her and entrapped her son. Another former slave, Ida Hutchinson, told a more unusual story of forced childbearing that had been passed down from older relatives. “Once on the Blackshear place,” she recounted, “they took all the fine looking boys and girls that was thirteen years old or older and put them in a big barn after they had stripped them naked. They used to strip them naked and put them in a big barn every Sunday and leave them there until Monday morning. Out of that came sixty babies.”21 The account of the births of those sixty babies was important enough to have been passed down from family members and eventually to a WPA worker in the 1930s. Thus, when enslaved women discussed childbearing, they also emphasized a parallel history of repeated sexual coercion and exploitation that undermined their bodily integrity.

When women, both free and enslaved, paused to account for a mother’s reproductive history, they gestured to the reality that each pregnancy and each delivery were fraught with risk. Indeed, women who bore many children often suffered an accumulation of problems that could become debilitating. Because of the limits of medical knowledge and technology, all childbearing women, regardless of social position, risked complications such as infections, uterine rupture, perineal tears, chronic incontinence, and abdominal and back pain. These complications could be compounded by hard physical labor, particularly in the case of enslaved women and lower-class women. Plantation records, for instance, show that many enslaved women suffered from uterine prolapse, mostly likely caused by a combination of debilitating work and too frequent childbearing.22 But reproductive injuries and chronic ailments were not unique to enslaved and working women, though they may have been more common. Wealth could not protect women from the dangers of childbirth, and even the best physicians that money could procure might make dangerous situations worse. Forceps might provide needed assistance to deliver a child in cases of maternal exhaustion or a difficult presentation of the fetus, but they could also cause irreparable tears in the vagina, leaving women permanently incontinent. Such bodily marks accumulated with each pregnancy and birth and followed women throughout their lives, perennial reminders of the inescapably corporeal dimensions of motherhood.

It is not surprising, then, that when middle-class and elite women commented on fertility they often expressed concern for women who bore what they deemed too many children. They knew firsthand the dangers of childbearing and, in spite of the delight that a new baby might bring, desired above all safety and health for the mother. Abigail Adams, future First Lady, worried in 1790 that “Sister Shaw was likely to increase her Family. I wish her comfortably through, but shall feel anxious for her feeble constitution.”23 In 1813 Rosalie Calvert of Maryland fretted about the well-being of her sister, writing, “I heard with much sorrow that my sister was so ill, and I hope that this will be her last child. After what she wrote me I did not think she would have this one.”24 The illness Calvert referred to was a difficult labor, and she therefore viewed any ensuing pregnancies as undesirable and potentially dangerous. These women feared for the health and safety of their female friends and relatives as they saw them increase their families, and they looked with trepidation at the risks involved in the long months of pregnancy and the “fiery trial” of childbirth.25

Some women were eager to bear their first children, but experienced a change in attitude with subsequent pregnancies. While pregnant with her first child in Texas in the early 1850s, Elizabeth Neblett saw motherhood as the ultimate fulfillment, writing, “I feel that my joy is not yet replete, that my cup of happiness is not yet quite full the time is not yet come, when I hope to feel a Mothers joy, a mothers love.” Yet by 1860, when she anticipated the birth of her fourth child, she lamented to her husband, “I have suffered ten times more than you have and ten times more than I can begin to make you conceive of … I feel different and am more afflicted now than ever before, and think it probable, (tho’ I fear not,) that my desire to die will be gratified, but oh the suffering that lies between me and the port of death.”26 Although Neblett’s growing horror of motherhood was unusually extreme, she poignantly illustrated how the physical and mental suffering wrought by repeated childbearing could turn women from happily anticipating motherhood to desperately hoping to avoid further suffering.

Although middle-class and elite women generally stopped short of describing the suffering that they feared, there were times when they could not escape the recognition that for many women, the rigors of their reproductive lives were inscribed in gruesome ways on the body itself. Frances Kemble recounted with shock her interaction with an enslaved woman whose body was ravaged by childbearing and fieldwork: “She was the mother of a very large family, and complained to me that what with childbearing and hard field labor, her back was almost broken in two. With an almost savage vehemence of gesticulation, she suddenly tore up her scanty clothing, and exhibited a spectacle with which I was inconceivably shocked and sickened.”27 The woman’s body exposed a long and terrible history of childbearing under the most coercive circumstances. Kemble could not bring herself to describe exactly what it was that she saw, yet she acknowledged the mute testimony of the woman’s body. Although such dramatic anecdotes were rare, even women who bore children under less dire circumstances carried on their bodies the marks and scars of their reproductive histories.

If bearing many children seemed dangerous, or at least exhausting, women worried even more about the problem of spacing. Middle-class and elite women expressed particular concern for women who bore children close together in time. Logically, of course, spacing pregnancies further apart would also help accomplish the goal of bearing fewer children overall. In 1790 Abigail Adams implicitly criticized women who bore children too quickly when she hoped that a friend would “not have children as fast as Mrs. Smith. It is enough to wear out an Iron constitution.”28 Around the same time, Elizabeth Drinker mourned the stillbirth of a grandson, not only because she was deprived of a “sweet, little grandson,” but also because she feared her daughter would become pregnant again a year sooner because of the lack of a baby to breastfeed.29 Mary Hubbard of Boston was more specific in her definition of good timing when she sent a message to her niece in 1799, hoping that “she may not have another in less than two years from the date of this.”30 Many women seemed to agree that a two-year interval was reasonable, although longer might be better. Laura Randall, struggling to keep house in Florida in the 1830s, complained to her friend that “three babies in less than three years are enough to make one tired of babies, I think.” She wrote that she was worn out by the combination of housekeeping and repeated cycles of childbearing, but apologized for her complaints, explaining: “I feel as if I were ungrateful in repining at the only thing really hard in my lot. The rapid increase of their number.”31 Many women understood the challenges of bearing children in such quick succession. Mary Lee of Massachusetts, a mother of six children, hoped rather sardonically in 1833 that babies would not become an “annual blessing” for her daughter; that, she suggested, would be a “calamity.”32 In accounting for rates of fertility, women insisted that bearing children without periods of rest undermined their health and strength.

Thus fertility was something that all women endeavored to control, though with varying degrees of success. Married women and enslaved women all lacked the legal right to refuse sexual intercourse (though for very different reasons), but they had other options that might help them limit their fertility. Women shared information among themselves about medicines and herbs that might prevent or abort a pregnancy. Plants such as savin, cotton root, tansy, rue, and pennyroyal, for instance, were thought to be abortifacients and were readily available to women with a little botanical knowledge, so much so that advice manuals for slaveholders warned about the common use of such remedies among enslaved women.33 In fact, some scientific studies have confirmed that a substance found in the cotton plant is effective at suppressing fertility.34 Moreover, thanks to a growing public dialogue about the benefits and methods of restricting fertility, by the 1830s literate women had increasing access to print information about the theory and practice of family limitation.35

Women also shared information about the efficacy of breastfeeding in limiting fertility, and there is evidence to suggest that women often relied on it as one of the most accessible means of controlling their childbearing.36 Elizabeth Drinker noted that she had reassured her thirty-nine-year-old daughter, in the throes of labor in 1799, that “this might possibly be the last trial of this sort, if she could suckle her baby for 2 years to come.”37 In 1843, shortly before her marriage, Caroline Dall noted that “after Sarah came we had a strange but earnest talk in regard to the law of increase,” and they puzzled over the fact that “Mrs. ___ is nursing and yet in the family way.”38 Not only did Dall reveal that the “law of increase” was a subject for earnest discussion among women, but she also intimated that women generally thought that breastfeeding would prevent pregnancy. Breastfeeding was often fraught with difficulty, but many women seemed to agree with Margaret Manigault, who wrote to her daughter in 1809, “I think it is less fatiguing to the constitution to nurse this one, than to bring forth another.”39

Although women might strive to use breastfeeding strategically, there were many obstacles that stood in their way. For enslaved women, work schedules made consistent breastfeeding almost impossible. George Womble, a former slave, recalled that on his plantation “those children who were still being fed from their mother’s breasts were also under the care of one of these old persons. However, in this case the mothers were permitted to leave the field twice a day (once between breakfast and dinner and once between dinner and supper) so that these children could be fed.”40 Breastfeeding with such infrequency most likely undermined the women’s supply of milk and their ability to breastfeed long-term, thus lessening the potential effects on fertility. In addition, breast problems such as abscesses and damaged nipples might prevent women of all walks of life from continuing to nurse, and husbands sometimes made the decision to employ a wet nurse or to wean the child. Even in the matter of breastfeeding, women’s bodies were not their own.

Other methods available to women included sexual abstinence, though, as with breastfeeding, the choice to avoid sexual relations was not exclusively in women’s hands. Rosalie Calvert wrote to her sister about her pregnancy in 1811, complaining that “it is a prospect which does not please me as I want no more children, and after this I believe I will adopt your way of not having any more.”41 Calvert referred to her sister’s use of abstinence as the only certain way to prevent pregnancy, though the fact that both sisters continued to bear children suggests that abstinence was difficult to maintain. Some women suggested that husbands ought to be and often were cooperative partners in the effort to limit fertility. Calista Hall, living in upstate New York in the 1840s, offered an oblique reference her husband’s cooperative measures, writing, “The old maid come at the appointed time. I do think you are a very careful man.” The old maid she referred to was menstruation, and she complimented her husband for the care he took to prevent conception. She did not specify her husband’s method (most likely withdrawal),42 but she followed up her remark by telling her husband that he should do his friend a favor and “take Mr. Stewart out one side and learn him [how to prevent conception].”43 No doubt she had Mrs. Stewart’s well-being in mind. As the marked decline in fertility among white women during this period shows, many women were able to limit their fertility to a certain extent. Yet the efforts of all women to control their fertility were constrained by circumstances such as enslavement, coercion, lack of cooperation from their sexual partners, the pressures of social expectations, and the lack of accurate medical knowledge and effective contraceptive technology.

It is important to recognize that women’s efforts to limit their fertility did not mean that they wished to reject motherhood as an experience and an identity. For one thing, most women were pragmatic and knew that motherhood was their “common lot” in life.44 But more importantly, children provided women with a source of affection and pride. As Katy Simpson Smith has argued, motherhood also afforded women a potential source of power in a society that largely restricted their autonomy and authority. As mothers, women were responsible not only for giving birth, but for feeding, clothing, healing, teaching, and protecting the interests of their children. These mothering activities garnered women considerable respect and authority in their families and communities.45 Even as mothers dreaded exhausting cycles of childbearing, they also recognized the emotional, intellectual, and social rewards of becoming mothers.

Even enslaved women, who bore children under the most coercive and physically brutal circumstances, often welcomed motherhood as a role that helped them resist the worst aspects of enslavement.46 The sparse records suggest that some enslaved women bore large families out of choice. Interviewed by WPA workers in the 1930s, former slave Josephine Howell spoke matter-of-factly of her enslaved mother’s distress when she could no longer bear children: “Mother married then and had five children.… Dr. Goodridge stopped her from having children, she raved wild.”47 How and why the doctor rendered her unable to bear children is unclear, but this woman’s despair attested to the importance of childbearing in her life. Children could be a practical asset to slave families, as with any other family, as well as a treasured part of the social and emotional fabric of the family and community. Their presence could mitigate the most inhumane aspects of slavery.48 Finally, some enslaved women might have seen large families as a kind of insurance against extremely high rates of infant mortality and against the terrible knowledge that some of their children could be sold away from them at any time.49

Moreover, in spite of coercive pronatalist practices, enslaved women were sometimes able to control the circumstances in which they became mothers. In this respect, childbearing may have provided a small feeling of autonomy to counteract the depredations of slavery. Some enslaved women managed to postpone childbearing until they deemed circumstances to be more favorable. Former slave Mary Grayson of Oklahoma recounted a story about her mother, who did not bear children until much later than was desired by her owners. She was bought in quick succession by at least three different owners and “married” to one of their slaves each time, but she did not bear any children until the third time, at which point she and her husband produced ten children.50 We cannot know whether Grayson’s mother did not initially bear children because of her own wishes, or whether other factors such as youth or poor nutrition and health prevented conception. It is possible, however, that she was able to control her fertility until such time as she saw fit to bear children. Similarly, Mary Gaffney recollected with some pride that “Maser was going to raise him a lot more slaves, but still I cheated Maser, I never did have any slaves to grow and Maser he wondered what was the matter. I tell you son, I kept cotton roots and chewed them all the time but I was careful not to let Maser know or catch me.”51 After emancipation, Gaffney began bearing children. The fact that these two stories were remembered and repeated to subsequent generations suggests that they carried an important message: they represented women’s triumph of will over the coercive pronatalist practices of slave owners. Such accounts demonstrate that for many enslaved women the tension between coercion and bodily control was at the center of their understanding of motherhood.

When women discussed rates of fertility, they alluded to an entire reproductive history that for many included pain, debility, and loss of control. It is no wonder that women, both enslaved and free, felt ambivalent toward the prospect of a new pregnancy. They cherished their living children and watched over them with pride and anxiety, but they also knew that repeated childbearing was a physical burden. In keeping accounts of their reproductive lives and those of friends and family, middle-class and elite white women emphasized the desire to ease the physical burden of motherhood. Enslaved women, too, kept careful track of their reproductive histories and even passed them down to subsequent generations, and in doing so testified to the coercive pronatalist system of slavery that transformed their reproductive bodies into commodities. No doubt many women, enslaved and free, would have sympathized with Rosalie Calvert, who rejoiced in 1819: “My little Amelia is two years old and a charming child. Don’t you deem me fortunate indeed to think that she is the last? I believe I am safe now from having any more children, and I am greatly delighted.”52 For Calvert there was no contradiction in expressing delight in her child while simultaneously hoping never to have another. Motherhood was defined by the tension between women’s love for their children and the ever-present fear of the physical consequences of childbearing.


In 1844 the writer and social activist Caroline Dall recorded her first pregnancy in her diary: “For the first time the conviction presses itself upon me—that I am myself a mother.”53 Though she had not yet given birth or raised a child, Dall made the physical fact of pregnancy the foundation of her new identity as a mother. The recognition of a new pregnancy marked the beginning of a period in which a woman’s body became increasingly central to her daily life and sense of self. Unfortunately, the testimonies of enslaved women are silent on their experiences of individual pregnancies, focusing instead, as we saw earlier, on the meaning and cumulative impact of repeated cycles of childbearing. Middle-class and elite women, however, sprinkled their letters and diaries with frequent discussions of pregnancy. These women’s personal writings were marked by a peculiar combination of explicitness and modest evasion that seemed to reflect their overall perspective on pregnancy.

In their letters and diaries, middle-class and elite women explored the boundaries of what bodily details they felt could properly be expressed. Some women were comfortable confiding the messy particulars of childbearing on paper; others felt a greater need for modest evasiveness while still seeking to record and share important information. Many women must have considered the fact that their letters and even diaries might be shared among friends and family. After keeping a diary for many years, Elizabeth Drinker explained that “as I don’t lay out for any one but some of my Children to read my silly writings, am the more free to mention bowels and obstructions, than I otherwise would do.”54 Clearly Drinker felt that bodily details could be shared within the family circle, though perhaps no further. Indeed, Drinker left quite a detailed record of personal and family health, and as she grew older she must have found more time to write, for she included lengthy records of her daughters’ childbearing experiences.

Other women seemed to experience greater difficulty in committing to paper the intimate physical details of their lives. In 1797 Esther Cox of Philadelphia, a contemporary of Elizabeth Drinker, wrote to her daughter, Mary Chesnut, in South Carolina, “This day two weeks ago I wrote you a long letter—to that I refer you for my opinion respecting your coming here, should a certain event call for peculiar attentions, which might not be easily had where you are—I will add no more on that head, seeing ’tis so difficult a talk for you to repose even in a Mother’s breast, the confidence of saying you are, or you are not in the way to become a Mother yourself. Your last [letter] left me as uncertain as I was before.”55 Cox’s daughter, pregnant with her first child, was evidently reluctant to put into writing the fact of her pregnancy. Yet even as Cox asked her daughter to be more explicit, she also shrouded the subject of pregnancy in layers of innuendo. As an experienced mother, she was perhaps more confident in asking for reproductive news, but still couched her inquiries with delicate evasion. In 1826 Eleanor Lewis offered a similarly veiled announcement of her daughter’s pregnancy when she wrote to her friend, “My Beloved Parke is much improved in health & strength, but (entrenous) I fear she will have more cares than she anticipated. She hopes not, but Mrs Gains thinks, that in 5 months.”56 Her coy “between ourselves” and strategic use of italics must have conveyed a clear message to her friend while emphasizing the desire to be discreet. Margaret Gregg indicated similar discretion when she inquired of a friend in 1857, “Dont Mary expect to be confined Soon also, I thought Mary intimated as much but I did not like to ask any more questions.”57 These correspondents perhaps found discussions of pregnancy better suited to intimate conversation among women. Indeed, their written exchanges lacked the knowing gestures, touches, and sights that might have eased the communication of reproductive news.

Other women, however, felt that the exigencies of childbearing justified discussions of bodies, bellies, and bowels. In 1833 Mary Lee of Boston responded to a letter from her daughter in New York, who was pregnant with her first child: “You seem to apologize for its being a medical letter as you term it.… Our correspondence for the present must certainly be of this character.” She went on to reassure her daughter that the physical sensations she had described in her letter were “nothing unusual” and took the opportunity to offer some advice for regulating her bowels.58 Most women’s writings forged a middle ground between the circumspection of women like Esther Cox and her daughter and the explicit attention to bodily functions exhibited by women such as Elizabeth Drinker and Mary Lee and her daughter.

In their personal writings women rarely referred to pregnancy as such. Instead, they used a coded vocabulary to signal news of pregnancy that seems to have been readily adopted by both women and men. Although medical texts during this time referred to “pregnancy,” and women occasionally let slip the word in their personal writings, overwhelmingly they used oblique phrases that obscured the corporeal nature of pregnancy.59 Hearkening back to an older and more corporeal vocabulary that evoked the changes a woman’s body underwent during pregnancy, women did very occasionally report being in a thriving condition, in the increasing way, or in a growing condition, but such phrases were uncommon by the late eighteenth century.60 Instead, the preferred vocabulary for pregnancy gestured vaguely to a predicament, a certain matter, a particular complaint, a situation, or even a peculiar situation.61 As Ebenezer Pettigrew wrote to his wife Nancy in 1818, “Write me in your next whether our suspicions as to your situation are correct.” Twelve years later, he again relied on this coded vocabulary, writing, “I should have been pleased to hear whether my lovely wife was in the situation which we both suspected.”62 This coded vocabulary evaded the concreteness of corporeality (of bigness), but nevertheless allowed women to convey their news to friends and family. Moreover, it may suggest a more circumspect view of pregnancy. Whereas earlier colonial descriptions of women as teeming, flourishing, growing, or thriving suggested a vision of pleasant abundance and good health, later remarks about being in a situation or having a particular complaint implied a dimmer view of pregnancy that may have reflected women’s growing desire to limit their fertility.

Although coded references to pregnancy were enough to communicate to friends and family the news of a baby on the way, such oblique phrases were inadequate when it came to articulating the bodily experiences of pregnancy. Women consistently pushed the boundaries of propriety by describing their bodies and the sensations wrought by pregnancy. Generally, women seemed to agree that being pregnant was unpleasant, often worrisome, and sometimes debilitating, and they commiserated openly with one another about their experiences. Exposing the physical burden of pregnancy, women complained often of the various unpleasant sensations they experienced and of the general awkwardness imposed by a growing belly. Whether writing in their diaries or corresponding with loved ones, women became more explicit in their personal writings as the physical symptoms of pregnancy increasingly intruded on their daily lives.

In the earlier stages of pregnancy, women made frequent note of morning sickness. Certainly there was nothing surprising about this symptom of pregnancy, nor was there much they could do about it, but it was evidently important to women to monitor the progression of their pregnancies through these symptoms. During several of her pregnancies, Sarah Logan Fisher recorded almost daily remarks about how she felt, particularly in the early and late stages of a pregnancy. In January and February 1781 she noted several days of morning sickness, remarking, “Very sick indeed” or “Very Sick all day, kept up stairs.”63 Her diary became a means of keeping track of the changes in her body, and she wrote sometimes with resignation and sometimes with concern about her symptoms. Esther Cox wrote to her daughter in 1805, “I wish I could tell you your Sister Kitty was well but she is in the family way again, & has been far above three months in a very distressing state with Sickness of Stomach added to many other complaints.”64 Communicating these kinds of concerns was just as important to women as simply conveying the news of a new pregnancy. Women could sympathize with one another and perhaps offer helpful tips for ameliorating symptoms. Pregnant in 1804, Rosalie Calvert complained to her mother about morning sickness interfering with her duties: “I have thought of writing you every day since the beginning of April, but something has always prevented it. For some time my house has been full of houseguests and before that, I was so sick every morning that I couldn’t do anything.”65 Two years later, she was pregnant and suffering again, and she complained to her sister, “I am so uncomfortable and sick every morning that I don’t know what to do, and I can’t eat anything. I hope this won’t continue for long, because it is most unpleasant and makes me good for nothing.”66 Women like Calvert acknowledged their physical discomfort openly to other women and in the privacy of their diaries, testifying to the ways in which their pregnant bodies intruded on their lives and shaped everything from their daily activities to their personal writings.

Women also highlighted the changing shape and feel of their bodies when they complained of the swelling and discomfort they experienced later in pregnancy. Pregnant in 1787, Sarah Logan Fisher recorded in her diary, “My Ancles Swell exceedingly which makes me uneasy.”67 Fisher found such symptoms important to track, as they provided her with a view of her overall well-being during pregnancy. By August she was feeling even worse, and noted, “Very Warm—felt very poorly all Day, the Air so trying, my Legs & Feet swell very much indeed four Weeks to Day since I was down Stairs, except one Morng a very few Minutes.”68 Fisher moved beyond the mere discomfort of swollen legs to record how the symptoms of pregnancy had interfered with her daily life. It was a common scenario. In 1837 Matilda Henry wrote to her friend about the progress of her pregnancy: “Everybody remarks it,” she complained, “I seem to fatten all over—my feet and legs swell considerably, and heartburn and acid continue, otherwise I feel pretty well.… You never saw such a sight as Mrs. Anderson is in your life. She says she knows she will have two. Her feet swell till she can’t stand on them.”69 Clearly, symptoms such as swelling and heartburn were problems that childbearing women frequently thought and wrote about—no doubt Henry and her friend Mrs. Anderson shared many such details when they visited one another. Women wrote of these physical sensations sometimes with concern, sometimes with resignation, but it was important to them to communicate how they were feeling and the ways in which their bodies were changing and challenging them.

As the weeks of pregnancy wore on, women became increasingly aware of their changing shape, and in the later months of pregnancy they frequently commented on the size and unwieldiness of their bodies. In August 1781, Sarah Logan Fisher was seven months pregnant and was still busy washing, ironing, visiting, and tending her children. She noted feeling “very poorly, heavy & painfull.”70 Two years later, pregnant again, she complained of feeling very anxious, for “I feel so very heavy & uneasy to myself, more so I think than ever I did by far.”71 Judging by her diary, the unwieldiness of her pregnant body had by this time engrossed her thoughts, and she wrote of little beyond the immediate concerns of her body. Her complaints of heaviness and discomfort became a familiar refrain, and with each pregnancy she seemed to suffer more. Ellen Coolidge revealed the extent to which these changes could disturb women’s equanimity when she complained of the suffering she endured during her pregnancy in 1830: “You may imagine how I get along under such circumstances with my three little ones, all babies together and so helpless and unwieldy as I am from my situation. Oh it is a ‘chien de métier que le mien’72 and I know not from what cause that at five months I am as great a sufferer as I usually have been at seven or eight.”73 Referring to motherhood as a “dog of an occupation,” Coolidge exposed the frustration she felt with her heavy and uncomfortable body. No doubt she spoke for many mothers when she revealed that childbearing was marked by irritation and suffering. As Eliza Robertson remarked in 1855, “I am getting so clumsy and uncomfortable.”74 Women may have felt obliged to circumvent the fact of pregnancy with vague phrases about their situation, but by the later stages of pregnancy their heavy corporeality intruded so fully on their physical and emotional lives that they abandoned conventional phrases for more individualized descriptions of the symptoms of pregnancy. At such times, women’s bodies became the main focus of their attention and concern.

Although middle-class and elite women seemed to feel comfortable articulating the physical sensations of pregnancy in writing, the reality of appearing pregnant in public sometimes posed a greater challenge to their sense of modesty. Catherine Scholten has noted that in the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries it was quite normal for women to appear in public when obviously pregnant.75 Yet by the second half of the eighteenth century, women’s writings reveal that they were often self-conscious about being visibly pregnant, reflecting a growing culture of bodily restraint in American society.76 Many women were reluctant to be seen by anyone beyond their circle of family and intimate friends. For example, Elizabeth Drinker noted in 1807 in her diary, “Poor Molly … has a fire upstairs as she is asham’d, she says, to be seen, she cuts such [a] figure.”77 Caroline Gilman of Massachusetts similarly commented in 1827 that she was “ashamed to put her head out of doors.”78 Remaining in the privacy of the upstairs was one way women with spacious homes could avoid the knowing eyes of friends and neighbors. Other women worried about being visibly pregnant in public. Penelope Warren, pregnant for the first time in 1840, wrote to her husband, “In two or three weeks my appearance will not be such as to admit of my going anywhere—for you know I am exceedingly particular & if I thought I showed hardly at all nothing could induce me to go out, but it is beginning to be quite perceptible what is the matter with me.”79 Yet a month later she was still going out to visit her friends, suggesting that practicality had won out over modesty. Many women were simply strategic in their use of clothing to conceal their pregnancy. In 1857 Tryphena Fox, a transplant from Massachusetts to the Deep South and eventual mother of ten children, rejoiced that she had so far hidden her pregnancy from public view: “You know one can dress admirably with, hoops & crinoline and I went to town feeling that I was not exposing myself in the least.”80 These women were motivated by a strong, yet conflicted, sense of propriety to keep their pregnancy hidden from public view, even as they strove to live their lives as usual.

Other women, however, indicated that the desire to conceal pregnancy was neither necessary nor universal. Esther Cox wrote to her daughter in 1809, “I have this day seen Mrs. Sumpter and am quite charmed with her easy agreeable manner.… I am very glad she consented to come, French Ladies don’t keep out of company, as ours do, when they are rather clumsily shaped.”81 Matilda Henry seemed to concur that being pregnant in public should not be seen as shameful, complaining to her friend in 1837 that she was unable to leave home because family opinion dictated that “it is shameful (in this mighty refined they think part of the world) for a lady to go out so soon before her confinement.” Her rather sarcastic comment on their pretensions to refinement suggests that she found their scruples excessive, and she openly regretted missing out on the season’s social amusements. But she bowed to popular opinion, noting that “I went to church till I heard of people laughing and now I stay at home all together.”82 Similarly, Eliza Robertson seemed unconcerned about visiting friends while pregnant; her diary revealed that she frequently walked out to visit friends even in the later months of pregnancy.83 Caroline Dall’s attitude toward the matter in 1845 was more anguished and morally complex. She believed it was her God-given duty to her unborn child to get healthful exercise during her pregnancy—yet her mother, her husband, and acquaintances repeatedly insisted that she should remain indoors to avoid “attracting observation” because of her size. She was criticized for impropriety, yet she felt that her first duty was to promote the health of her child. In anguish at what she viewed as lack of support from her family, she wrote in her diary, “When will my own sex learn—that the child within their bosoms—is as precious and pure in his sight as that they lead by the hand?”84 Viewing pregnancy as a physical state blessed by God, Dall could not understand why being visibly pregnant in public should be construed as improper.

Although the evidence is sparse, these scraps of women’s writings suggest that the imperative for women to conceal their pregnant bodies from public view may have grown stronger over time. Whereas women writing in the late eighteenth century and the beginning of the nineteenth century seemed to suggest that staying at home was an option rather than a necessity, women living with pregnancy later in the nineteenth century seemed to experience greater pressure to keep their bodies out of view. This trend may have reflected the evolving vision in genteel print culture of the mother as a disembodied figure, which will be explored in subsequent chapters. If the ideal mother was increasingly defined as an ethereal and transcendent creature, then a parade of pregnant bellies would have posed significant ideological problems. Moreover, as succeeding generations of women began to bear fewer children than their foremothers (and thus spent less of their lives pregnant), it was perhaps more feasible to obey increasingly stringent notions of propriety. Yet what did not change over time was women’s ambivalence toward this imperative to conceal their bodies. On the one hand, middle-class and elite women sought to conform to the social norms of their peers and to present an image of feminine modesty by downplaying their physicality; on the other hand, they were distinctly practical about being pregnant and carrying on with their lives. Women’s personal writings reveal that they were often out and about when heavily pregnant, even though they may have felt embarrassed about being in public view.

Whether desired or not, pregnancy was a recurring part of life for most married women in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. When referring to pregnancy, they used a coded vocabulary that obscured the bodily changes involved; but at the same time, they frequently discussed and recorded the physical symptoms of pregnancy and commiserated with one another over their bodily discomfort. Women might hesitate to go out in company when visibly pregnant, but they still wrote letters to friends and family detailing their symptoms and complaining about problems such as swollen ankles and the general awkwardness of a growing belly. Their depictions of pregnancy were thus constrained by propriety but were also driven by a real desire to articulate their experiences and to receive advice and consolation, a trend that also characterized their descriptions of childbirth.


Over the course of the late eighteenth century American women began to experience gradual changes in childbirth practices. Prior to this time, childbirth was an exclusively female realm. Women gave birth at home with the assistance of female family and friends and a female midwife who relied on herbal remedies and a noninterventionist approach. But in the second half of the eighteenth century male physicians gradually began to enter the lying-in chamber. Between 1750 and the early nineteenth century Americans began to see childbirth as the purview of both female midwives and male physicians. Midwives oversaw normal births, while doctors attended those with complications. By the early decades of the nineteenth century, the medical profession came to see childbirth as requiring greater intervention, and some middle- and upper-class women concurred, demanding the expertise of formally trained physicians.85 Judith Walzer Leavitt has estimated that in 1800 roughly 20 percent of births were attended by physicians, while by 1900 that proportion had risen to roughly 50 percent.86

This shift toward male practitioners was experienced unevenly, depending on a woman’s socioeconomic status, whether she lived in proximity to a doctor, her beliefs about childbirth practices, and the advice of family and friends. Access to doctors was more readily available to women who lived in towns and cities, where wealthy women and poor women were the most likely to encounter male practitioners, the former because they could afford the services of medical experts, the latter because they sometimes gave birth in hospitals for the poor rather than at home.87 Enslaved women also sometimes encountered physicians in cases of complicated or prolonged deliveries.88 Nevertheless, the majority of births through the 1850s were attended by a female midwife. Thus most women continued to give birth much as their foremothers had, in a female-centered environment. Even when a physician was present, he was often there in case complications arose, and most of the support for the laboring mother came from female friends and kinswomen. Although references to developments in medical practice and technology appear in some women’s personal writings, these changes seem to have had little impact on the ways in which women recounted their childbearing experiences. While doctors made themselves the heroes of their own medical narratives, women placed the labor and the sensations of the mother at the center of their birth narratives.

As with pregnancy, some middle-class and elite women were torn between their sense of modesty and their desire to relate the circumstances of childbirth. For example, Agnes Cabell wrote to her stepdaughter in 1825, “I should have taken a great interest in learning the particulars of your accouchment, but as they cannot well be committed to paper I must wait until I see you.”89 Ellen Coolidge’s attitude was somewhat more ambiguous when she wrote at some length of the pains and rewards of childbirth in response to her sister’s queries. She concluded her letter by exclaiming, “What an abominable letter! Throw it in the fire & drive away all your blue devils.”90 Her sense of propriety required such an exclamation, yet it did not prevent her from responding to her sister with considerable candor. Other women were more comfortable sharing information about childbirth. When Rosalie Calvert wrote to her sister in 1807 to describe the recent birth of her daughter, she explained, “You asked me, dear Sister, for a complete account of the birth of my little Eugénie.”91 For Calvert and her sister, sharing reproductive news was normal, and frankness was appreciated. Matilda Henry was similarly direct when she inquired of her friend, recently brought to bed of a daughter, “Well how do you come on? … What sort of a time had you?”92 Such questions were essential for ascertaining the well-being of loved ones.

Just as pregnancy could be signaled through coded language, childbirth had its own vocabulary that alluded to the panoply of experiences revolving around labor and its aftermath. Variations of the phrase “brought to bed” were particularly common in the eighteenth century and offered a comforting way of referring to an anxiety-inducing experience.93 Mehitable Amory noted in 1812 that she was “most Gratefully & most Comfortably put to bed.”94 This phrase also highlighted the fact that women who could afford to do so might spend as much as a month in bed recuperating from their ordeal—they were brought to bed first to suffer and then to heal. By the nineteenth century, references to a woman’s “confinement” were more common and provided a quick reference to a lengthy and complex experience. A woman’s confinement referred both to childbirth and to the time she spent in bed recovering, suggesting that women continued to place childbirth within a broader context of rituals of recovery and healing. In addition, women consistently used terms such as “unwell,” “sick,” or “ill” to refer to a woman in labor, highlighting the fact that women saw childbirth as worrisome and even dangerous.95

Some women simply listed in their letters and diaries the friends and relatives who had been brought to bed, but many gave more detailed accounts of childbirth. In doing so, they relied on stock phrases to convey a wide range of meanings. In 1788 Abigail Adams reported that her daughter “Mrs. Smith & my young Grandson are as well as usual at this period.” Mary Hering used similar language when she reported to her daughter that her sister had delivered a baby and “both Mother and Child are as well as we could possibly expect at this time.” In 1839 Sarah Lindley Fisher, daughter-in-law of Sarah Logan Fisher, reported that a younger kinswoman had given birth and was “as well as could be asked, under the circumstances … no other difficulty than what is necessarily connected with such occasions attended her.” Persis Black wrote of her own confinement in 1856 and announced, “I was dreadfully sick for some hours after the birth—but since then I have got along as well as common in such cases.”96 These oft-repeated phrases referred obliquely to the pain and messiness of childbirth, something with which most adult women would have been familiar. To announce that a woman was “as well as could be asked” conveyed a successful outcome but also hinted rather grimly at the difficult experiences that were an expected part of the childbirth process. Such stock phrases both alluded to the body and permitted it to remain veiled, allowing women to decide how far they wished to go in elaborating the physical experiences of childbirth.

In addition to using stock phrases to announce the outcome of a birth, women often followed a consistent narrative structure. This basic narrative was the most common description of childbirth to appear in middle-class and elite women’s personal writings throughout the period in question. When women announced a birth they tended to focus on three key points: the outcome for the mother, the outcome for the infant, and an assessment of the birth in terms of its duration and the severity of suffering (often in that order). Sarah Logan Fisher, for instance, recorded in her journal in 1779 that she “was poorly all the morning & taken worse about Noon, & in between 8 & 9 was favord to be deliverd of a very fine Son, after a very hard difficult Labour, yet I was safely put to bed & everything right, which was a mercy I wish to be thankful for.”97 Martha Dyer of Virginia recorded a very succinct memorandum in 1824, noting, “I had a severe chill & fever before day sent for Mrs. Harrison I kept about all day till an hour by sun was taken & presented by the decrees of a kind providence with a fine daughter at quarter past 6 and as well if not better than usual.”98 In 1826 Georgina Lowell of Massachusetts sent a more detailed account to her closest friend, to whom she often wrote in French, announcing: “Il faut que je vous dise que notre cousine Catharine Codman a donné naissance samedi dernier à quatre heure du matin, à une petite fille. Ella n’a souffert que très peu: elle ne fut malade que quatre heures, et l’enfant vint au monde [sans] qu’aucune personne de la famille excepté Mme Stevens sa nourrice, eut appris ce qui se passait. Elle se porte à present très bien: la petite demoiselle est fort petite, mais se porte à merveille.”99 Lowell’s announcement offered a bit of extra detail—she noted that one woman attended the birth—but followed the basic narrative structure. In these brief narratives many women noted with considerable relief that they were recovering from the trials of childbirth. Rachel Lazarus, a Jewish woman in North Carolina, wrote to her friend in 1828, “You do not yet know that my illness was subsequent to the birth of another daughter (my 3rd child). I was for some days at the point of death, and my infant was also despaired of; but through the goodness of the Almighty, it has nearly recovered, and I find myself, too, happy in being restored to my beloved husband and family.”100 Similarly, in 1850 Mary Fox recorded: “I was very very sick until the 6th March when my son was born at 10 o’clock. He was a very thin delicate baby he received the name of his Grandfather Joseph M. Fox. I did not suffer much and my recovery was gradual, but very sure.”101 The brief memorandums written by Fisher, Dyer, Lowell, Lazarus, and Fox were typical.102 They did not evoke the physical intensity of the birth experience, but they did communicate the key results and characteristics of the delivery. In such textual moments, the sensations of the mother’s body receded into the background of the narrative while the focus shifted to the outcome of her reproductive work.

Some women, however, employed very different narrative strategies in describing birth experiences. Instead of focusing solely on the outcome of a delivery, they described the series of events as they unfolded, noting moments of surprise, fear, pain, and triumph. These detailed birth narratives were highly individualized, but they shared a strong focus on the physical sensations of childbirth. Moreover, these detailed narratives became more common by the end of the eighteenth century. There are a number of possible reasons for this, the simplest being that we have more examples of women’s personal writings at this time to draw from, and these writings tended to be more detailed in many respects. Yet it may also show that women were becoming more insistent in their depiction of childbearing as difficult and dangerous physical work. In their work on the Virginia gentry, Jan Lewis and Kenneth A. Lockridge have argued that women began to discuss childbearing with more trepidation and with more individualized detail beginning around the 1790s.103 My findings likewise reflect some of these patterns, yet it should be emphasized that the more formulaic language and the basic narrative remained strongly in evidence into the nineteenth century.

Young and inexperienced women in particular sometimes described their experiences in greater detail. For instance, Mary Walker, one of several missionaries in Oregon, wrote candidly of her first birth in 1838, during which she was attended by two women and a physician. She began her birth story with a tone of surprise and a frank recognition of her body’s functions: “Awoke about five o’clock A. M. As soon as I moved was surprised by a discharge which I supposed indicated approaching confinement. Felt unwilling it should happen in the absence of my husband. I waited a few moments. Soon pains began to come on & I sent Mrs. Smith who lodged with me to call Mrs. Whitman.”104 Walker’s explicit reference to the discharge of fluid that was a part of many women’s birth experiences was unusual. But this was Walker’s first child, and her birth story evoked the surprise, uncertainty, and anticipation of a woman going through this event for the first time. The moment when Walker’s waters broke was an important physical memory, for it marked the moment of no return. Her birth narrative was remarkably complete in that it combined a sense of both the emotional and the physical experience of birth. She concluded her story with the sequence of emotions that marked her first delivery: “Almost nine I became quite sick enough—began to feel discouraged. Felt as if I almost wished I had never been married. But there was no retreating, meet it I must. About eleven I began to be quite discouraged. I had hoped to be delivered ere then.… But just as I supposed the worst was at hand, my ears were saluted with the cry of my child. A son was the salutation. Soon I forgot my misery in the joy of possessing a proper child.”105 Walker’s narrative ended on a triumphant note, showing her transition from suffering and discouragement to the satisfaction of giving birth to a healthy infant. Walker eventually recorded five more deliveries, but with each subsequent birth she used the more basic narrative structure to simply announce the outcome and the nature of the birth. No doubt she had less time to write as her family grew, but her diary also illustrates that for many women the first childbearing experience warranted more extensive commentary. Women who were living through their first pregnancy and delivery (often in their early twenties) were, in a sense, encountering their bodies as adults for the first time, and many found it important to record the experience.

More extreme corporeal experiences also prompted women to push the boundaries of narrative convention. Indeed, women’s most explicit representations of childbirth centered on intense experiences of suffering. In 1794, for instance, Elizabeth Drinker narrated the circumstances of her daughter-in-law’s labor. Focusing on the woman’s physical suffering, Drinker narrated the birth as a dramatic sequence of events that began when “John came in for liquid ladanem for his wife.” Drinker then recounted her own participation in giving her daughter-in-law several doses of laudanum, “in hopes it would still those useless pains that she suffer’d—it appear’d to have little or no effect.” The drama of the birth became more intense, and Drinker recorded that “the mid-wife inform’d me that le enfant est fort grand, et la mere bien pitit, it was her opinion que l’enfant [sont] [sic] mort,106 that she wish’d I would send for a Doctor I wrote a note to Dr. Bensal of Germantown and sent Sam with the Chaise for him.… I left John and Hannah … and went with the Doctor to poor Mary—terrible was the succeeding hour to me, how must it have been to the poor sufferer?” Finally, continuing in the same hasty and scattered style that evoked the intensity of the situation, Drinker recounted the denouement of the scene: “The Doctor confirm’d what the mid wife had said, et avec ses instruments et beaucoup de deficility, ill la delivera d’enfant mort,107 the first male child of seven, a very fine lusty baby—6 of the 7 dead born—Je n’etoit pas dans le chamber a le moment Cretical,108 poor Mary appear’d very thankful that all was over—I think her a patient well inclin’d woman.”109 The immediacy of the passage appears in Drinker’s initial focus on the suffering mother and her quest for relief from pain. Next Drinker highlighted the medical urgency of the situation—the concern of the female midwife, the arrival of the doctor, and the use of the instruments (forceps) both dreaded and welcomed by laboring women. Only then did Drinker reveal the final outcome—the death of the baby and the survival of the mother. This was childbirth at its most dramatic, and it warranted a different kind of storytelling, one that brought the physicality and danger of childbirth closer to the surface of the text.

Indeed, Elizabeth Drinker was often more frank than many of her peers in describing the physical challenges of childbirth, although this may have been partly due to the fact that she seemed to encounter more than her fair share of difficult births. According to her estimation, she and her daughters were prone to difficult deliveries and regularly sought the aid of physicians. Her narratives were more explicit when describing her daughters’ labors than her own—in part at least because she had more time as a grandmother to write in her diary, and the longer entries in later years reflected as much. But she also wrote about her daughters’ deliveries with empathy generated by the recollection of her own difficult experiences with childbirth. As Drinker recorded when her daughter Sally was in labor in 1799, “This day is 38 years since I was in agonies bringing her into this world of trouble.”110 Drinker was quick to record the suffering her daughters experienced. When her daughter Molly endured an agonizing birth in 1797 due to the wrong presentation of the child, Drinker noted that “Docr. Way said her labour was very severe indeed, that he never knew a young woman pass through so much, with equal fortitude and patience.”111 The next day Drinker reported that she had found her daughter the next morning “awake and feverish—she lay very still most of this day, but very sore, and complain’d of her left side being brused by lieing so long on it, and straining so hard—the blood was settled in the ends of her fingers, by hard pulling, and her nails blue.”112 This was a picture of struggle and physical anguish that cut to the heart of women’s experiences of childbirth.

Roughly half a century after Elizabeth Drinker’s daughters had suffered in childbed, Caroline Dall eloquently recounted her own agonizing birth experiences. “I was just on the point of preparing my bed, when I felt a sudden relief—from the breaking of the water,” she recalled in 1848. “I undressed & threw myself hastily on the bed, from which I was not destined to rise again, till all was over.… Two pains rending—splitting—tearing me asunder—with inconceivable rapidity, followed quick upon the first, and while my girl went to the head of the stairs, to call Mrs. P. I fell back exhausted by agony and my child was born.”113 Although she recorded this birth experience five weeks after the fact, Dall was clearly preoccupied with evoking the immediacy of pain. She recounted her next childbirth in 1849 in a similar fashion: “I slept quietly till a little after eleven when I woke with pains so severe that they drove me out of bed like a rocket. I bore them quietly as I could till ten minutes of twelve when I hurried Mr. Dall to wake Mrs. Rowe and Mrs. Gardiner. There was no interval between my pains, they overlapped, and my agony was almost too great for human nature. Thank Heaven, they did not last long.”114 With that, her second living child was born. Dall’s evocation of pain was more urgent than in most women’s birth narratives; yet other mothers would have recognized the consuming nature of the physical suffering she depicted.

For enslaved women, the unique trauma of giving birth in slavery was another factor that could shift the pattern of storytelling. We lack sufficient numbers of childbirth narratives from the lips or pens of enslaved women to trace narrative patterns in the same way that we can for middle-class and elite white women, but two powerful stories from Harriet Jacobs’s memoir intimate that the social trauma of childbearing in slavery may have held greater resonance in the minds of enslaved women than either the outcome of the birth or the physical suffering of the mother. Jacobs told the story of her first pregnancy and delivery in considerable length: “For some weeks I was unable to leave my bed. I could not have any doctor but my master, and I would not have him sent for. At last, alarmed by my increasing illness, they sent for him. I was very weak and nervous; and as soon as he entered the room, I began to scream. They told him my state was very critical.… When my babe was born, they said it was premature. It weighed only four pounds; but God let it live. I heard the doctor say I could not survive till morning. I had often prayed for death; but now I did not want to die, unless my child could die too.”115 Jacobs’s narration emphasized two key facets of her experience: her terror of being in the presence of her owner and tormentor and her view of death as a means of escape for both her and her infant. Of secondary importance in her narrative was the actual outcome of the birth—the survival of both herself and her infant. Rather than offer narrative resolution, Jacobs evoked unresolved tension between life and death in the context of enslavement. Because this childbirth story was published as part of Jacobs’s larger narrative condemning slavery, it is perhaps not surprising that she should emphasize the social conditions surrounding her reproductive experiences as a way of furthering her argument against slavery.

Another birth story recounted by Jacobs further highlighted the ways in which social conditions could supersede physical experience in enslaved women’s narratives. Jacobs wrote: “I once saw a young slave girl dying soon after the birth of a child nearly white. In her agony she cried out, ‘O Lord, come and take me!’ Her mistress stood by, and mocked at her like an incarnate fiend. ‘You suffer, do you?’ she exclaimed. ‘I am glad of it. You deserve it all, and more too.’ ” As with her own delivery, Jacobs emphasized the emotional trauma of giving birth in slavery. She again highlighted an understanding of death as escape from servitude rather than as a personal and family loss: “The girl’s mother said, ‘The baby is dead, thank God; and I hope my poor child will soon be in heaven, too.’ ‘Heaven!’ retorted the mistress. ‘There is no such place for the like of her and her bastard.’ The poor mother turned away, sobbing. Her dying daughter called her, feebly, and as she bent over her, I heard her say, ‘Don’t grieve so, mother; God knows all about it; and HE will have mercy upon me.’ ” Jacobs consistently portrayed death as a welcome release from slavery, a common trope in antislavery literature, but she also used the physical suffering of the young mother to underscore the immorality of slavery. She described how the young mother’s sufferings “became so intense, that her mistress felt unable to stay; but when she left the room, the scornful smile was still on her lips. Seven children called her mother.”116 Jacobs used the intensity of the mother’s suffering to show how the institution of slavery destroyed what should have been an empathic community of mothers. For her, the corrupting influence of slavery appeared in the fact that a loving white mother of seven children could not empathize with the physical anguish of another woman passing through the throes of childbirth. These two birth stories told by Jacobs signal that, at least in the more public context of the published slave memoir, the narrative patterns developed in white women’s private writings were less useful in conveying the experiences of enslaved mothers. Jacobs used maternal suffering not to highlight the dangers of motherhood but to make a broader point about the failure of American social relations.

But the physical suffering of women in childbirth was nevertheless a constant theme in all childbirth narratives. Women’s testimonies revealed that pain was often at the heart of their understanding and experience of childbirth. In many women’s minds, the maternal body was above all a vessel for suffering. Hannah Heaton wrote passionately in her diary of her fears of pain when giving birth in the mid-eighteenth century. “Now there came a turn of extreme fear and terror upon me about the hour that i cannot escape and now it draws near,” she wrote. “I got into a fit of extream crying. i was alone begging for mercy. O how fraid i am of the pain tho i believe i shall not die till i have seen them promises fulfild in the building up of zion.”117 Heaton was a deeply religious woman, yet her fear of the pain of childbirth temporarily overwhelmed her faith. Sarah Logan Fisher, another pious woman, recorded a fervent prayer in her diary in anticipation of childbirth that revealed her anticipation of suffering: “Be a stay & support to my mind during this fiery trial, which sometimes appears to be more than my nature can support & in the painfull Hour that is approaching, sustain & strengthen me by thy Love.”118 For Fisher, pain was a regular companion throughout repeated cycles of childbearing, and she noted it consistently but with varying degrees of resignation and anguish in her diary. Other women were less inclined to bear pain with resignation. In 1804 Jane Williams described her daughter as an extremely fond mother, but reported that “Hill declares she does not think she could or would undergo the same Pain that brought it to save its life, it so far exceeded her belief or expectation.”119 For Williams’s daughter, the pain of childbirth was shocking and impossible to bear, and she refused to regard it with resignation. Similarly, the physician James Anderson described how Mary Owens, whose child he delivered in the Philadelphia almshouse, was overcome by the pain of labor. He noted in his records that she exclaimed that “she could not support herself thro’ the gloom, and that death would inevitably release her from these sufferings, which had become unsupportable.”120 For many women, the pain of childbirth seemed more than they could bear, yet it was an experience they could not avoid.

For many first-time mothers in particular, pain loomed especially large in the imagination. Ellen Coolidge replied to her sister’s queries in 1826 by explaining, “To your question whether the birth of a baby is as bad as having all your teeth drawn at a sitting I can only remind you of what Napoleon said to O’Meara, that the worst of all pains is the one under which we happen to be suffering.” Her sister was pregnant with her first child at the time and anxious about impending childbirth. Coolidge continued to reassure her, “I do not attempt to deceive you as to the pain, but upon the whole you get through it infinitely better than you could possibly conceive without having experienced the strength & support that is granted to a woman even in the hardest part of the operation.”121 Coolidge was calm and confident from experience, but she admitted to her sister that pain was at the heart of childbirth. Sidney Carr, like Coolidge’s sister, had concerns about pain. Pregnant for the first time, she wrote plaintively to her sister in the 1820s, “My dear Jane how can I ever get through[.] I feel as though I would rather die than bear so much pain.”122 In 1853 Elizabeth Neblett counted the days until the birth of her first child and wrote, “I know I have no conception of the pain nor can have none, until I feel and experience it.”123 For many women, pain defined their expectations of childbirth and caused them to regard impending motherhood with fear.

Even for experienced mothers who had survived childbirth before, pain was foremost in their thoughts when they anticipated childbirth. In 1837 Matilda Henry wrote to her friend, “I sometimes wish it could have been ordered that women could bear children easily but then I remember it is a decree of Heaven to be otherwise and I no longer repine.… All I want is to be well over it and never, no never be so again.”124 Henry’s emphatic wish never to be pregnant again spoke volumes about women’s fear of pain. Even when childbirth passed smoothly, women still highlighted pain in their recounting of the events. Mary Scott reported to her sister in 1826 that “my confinement which as you may have perceived I dreaded exceedingly was a more fortunate one than I ever had. My child was born almost without pain.”125 To give birth almost without pain was indeed an occasion worthy of note, and other women also noted with pleasant surprise when the event passed with less suffering than expected. Pain was assumed to be part of the birth experience. As Mary Middleton wrote to her daughter in 1840, “God grant you may not suffer more than Mothers usually do!”126 Most women understood the pain of childbirth to be inevitable, as decreed in the Bible and made real by experience.

By the 1850s, however, medical technologies began to evolve, and some women and their physicians began to question the inevitability of pain. On January 19, 1847, the Scottish obstetrician James Young Simpson administered ether to ease the delivery of a woman with a deformed pelvis. This was the first known use of anesthesia in childbirth, and it quickly prompted debates on both sides of the Atlantic about the advisability of tampering with the pain of childbirth. Physicians such as Charles Meigs thought that anesthesia interfered with the natural process of childbirth, but such ideas were soon overshadowed as physicians such as Walter Channing became proponents of anesthetized childbirth and women became vocal in demanding it.127 On April 7, 1847, Fanny Longfellow was the first American woman to give birth under the influence of ether, and she immediately became a champion of anesthetized birth. After the birth she wrote to family, explaining, “I am very sorry you all thought me so rash and naughty in trying the ether. Henry’s faith gave me courage, and I had heard such a thing had succeeded abroad, where the surgeons extend this great blessing much more boldly and universally than our timid doctors. Two other ladies, I know, have since followed my example successfully, and I feel proud to be the pioneer to less suffering for poor, weak womankind. This is certainly the greatest blessing of this age, and I am glad to have lived at the time of its coming.”128 Longfellow identified suffering as the essence of women’s childbearing experience and declared that anesthetized childbirth was surely the greatest blessing for women. Many women seemed to agree. The physician Samuel Butler, for instance, recorded a case in 1857 in which “the labor was protracted, and the pains severe. The mother was very desirous to take chloroform, but I did not think best to administer it.”129 Although Butler chose not to administer chloroform, his record reveals the mother’s knowledge of available treatments and her strong desire to transform her experience of childbirth. The enthusiasm for anesthetized childbirth on the part of women and some physicians suggests that this new technology may have prompted a turning point in perceptions of childbirth. Indeed, Nancy Theriot has argued that women who bore children in the late nineteenth century came to have a more optimistic view of childbearing than their foremothers. They enjoyed a greater degree of control over their fertility, and they incorporated the possibility of painless childbirth into their vision of motherhood.130 Further research in women’s personal writings beyond the 1850s might reveal gradual changes in the ways women represented the physicality of childbearing as the possibility of painless birth became more common, influencing both the lived experience of childbirth and women’s attitudes toward it. But throughout the period in question here, pain was an expected and feared aspect of childbirth.

As if the fear of pain were not bad enough, childbearing women were also acutely aware of the dangers of childbirth and the ever-present possibility of death. In their diaries and letters women regularly reported the survival or death of friends and relatives in childbirth. Elizabeth Ball wrote to her friend in 1760, “It gives me reall pleasure to hear you are the living Mother of a living Child the Lord has now been kinder to you then your fear.” Her friend, she noted, had been preserved by God from the “dark borders of the grave.”131 Other women were not as lucky. Rebecca Shoemaker recorded in 1785 that “Becky Jones, Late Waln, was removed almost as Suddenly, to the great grief of her frds. She was ill but 48 hours & died yesterday in child Bed.”132 Similarly, Hannah Sansom noted in her diary in 1785 that “this day died Rebecca Jones, wife of Esra Jones, a young woman with her first child.”133 Eleanor Lewis most likely spoke for many women when she wrote in 1826 that “death has ever been more terrible to me in that shape than in any other.”134 So fearful was she of the dangers of childbirth that upon her daughter’s marriage she earnestly prayed that the latter would never become a mother.135 The threat of death was particularly gruesome in the context of childbirth. Death might come during the agonies of a difficult childbirth or sneak up on a mother in the following days. A woman’s body could become her greatest enemy.

Childbearing women in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries left a wide variety of birth narratives, some following long-established conventions, others depicting highly individualized experiences of childbirth. Across the generations women employed familiar phrases and narrative structures to announce the outcome of childbirth while maintaining a genteel distance from the messiness of the body in labor. At the same time, women giving birth for the first time or experiencing or witnessing extreme suffering wrote more individualized accounts. Pain in particular forced the body to become more prominent, and it shaped women’s attitudes toward motherhood. Pain and death also connected women from one generation to the next. As Maria Flagg noted in 1793: “I can’t reflect without pain, that I was the innocent cause of her death. I always thought & think now, that if I am ever married, what she suffer’d for me, I shall for another, believe me in such a case it will comfort me to think I am paying the debt I owe.”136


The textual evidence illuminating women’s physical lives as mothers in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries is often fragmentary at best, offering fleeting glimpses of a panoply of experiences that shaped the life cycles of most adult women. Women’s narratives of childbearing reveal the complex situations in which they found themselves as mothers. The testimonies of enslaved women emphasized that their bodies represented a battleground on which they fought for bodily integrity and struggled to embrace or reject motherhood on their own terms. For these women, their reproductive labor was only one facet of the demands made on their bodies, and their testimonies reveal that they understood motherhood as part of the broader context of their enslavement.

Middle-class and elite white women, on the other hand, lived with the expectations of a culture that valued white feminine purity, physical delicacy, and moral superiority. Beginning in the late eighteenth century, genteel society increasingly valued restrained and orderly bodies that retreated into the background and allowed the soul and the intellect to shine forth.137 In short, mothers lived and labored in a society that increasingly privileged the ethereal over the material. The tension between lived experience and cultural prescription appears in the language and patterns of middle-class and elite women’s personal writings. They gave accounts of their reproductive lives by deploying a conventional vocabulary that veiled the corporeality of childbearing. They wrote discreetly of being in a particular situation and wrote hopefully of the emotional pleasures of motherhood. But then the physicality of childbearing broke through the barriers of convention, and women described the daily annoyances and discomforts of pregnancy that seemed at times to dominate their lives and thoughts. Less often, but with more drama, women also wrote about their fears of pain and death, and they described scenes of suffering in childbirth. Although these women often embraced the idealization of motherhood that began to emerge in the second half of the eighteenth century, they ultimately took their own physical experiences as the foundation for their perception of motherhood.

In spite of the often incomplete nature of women’s childbearing stories, taken together, women’s letters, diaries, and testimonies provide a rich well of information that reveals the extent to which they understood their lives to be shaped by the repeated rhythms of pregnancy, childbirth, and childrearing. They saw their life histories in the number of pregnancies endured, the number of children born, and the changes these experiences wrought on their bodies. For some women these events represented a history of joy and completion, but many women became mothers under the shadow of fear, suffering, danger, and coercion. By recognizing the centrality of the body to women’s understanding of maternity, we also acknowledge the ambivalence that shaped many women’s attitudes toward motherhood.

. February 26, 1797, in Drinker, The Diary of Elizabeth Drinker, 2:893.

. February 27, 1800, ibid., 1279.

. October 23, 1799, ibid., 1227.

. Theriot, Mothers and Daughters, chap. 4.

. March 25, 1790, vol. 18, p. 22, Sarah Logan Fisher Diaries, HSP.

. Penelope Skinner Warren to Dr. Thomas Warren, August 8, 1840, folder 22, box 1, Skinner Family Papers, Southern Historical Collection (hereafter SHC).

. Klepp, Revolutionary Conceptions, 5.

. For birthrate statistics, see D’Emilio and Freedman, Intimate Matters, 58. Klepp shows that birthrates among white Americans differed somewhat by region. Birthrates declined most rapidly in New England, followed by the Mid-Atlantic, the South, and finally the frontier. She also notes that the poor tended to marry later and have smaller families. See Klepp, Revolutionary Conceptions, 15.

. Klepp, Revolutionary Conceptions, 7.

. Klepp uses the diaries of Elizabeth Sandwith Drinker to demonstrate a shift to numeracy in the late 1770s. Ibid., 115–117.

. [Date unmarked], 1779, vol. 8, Sarah Logan Fisher Diaries, HSP.

. January 1, 1782, in Drinker, The Diary of Elizabeth Drinker, 1:395.

. Sarah Preston (Everett) Hale Common-Place Book, September 5, 1841, folder 3, box 9, Hale Family Papers, 1787–1988, SSC.

. April 6, 1843, June 6, 1848, May 6, 1868, folder 1, box 1, Elizabeth Frances Perry Diary, SHC.

. February 28–March 2, 1839, Kemble, Journal of a Residence, 229–230. It should be noted that such high fertility rates were not necessarily universal among enslaved women. Richard Follett’s analysis of birthrates on Louisiana sugar plantations, for instance, demonstrates that different cycles of labor over the course of a year, as well as other factors such as nutrition, climate, and disease, could have a significant impact on enslaved women’s ability to conceive and/or carry a child to term. See Follett, “Heat, Sex, and Sugar.”

. For a discussion of the techniques that slave owners used to increase and enforce childbearing, see Schwartz, Birthing a Slave, esp. chaps. 1 and 3.

. Rogers, North Carolina Narratives, vol. 11, part 2, 229.

. Howell, Arkansas Narratives, vol. 2, part 3, 339–340.

. For an analysis of slave breeding as a controversial concept in American historical writings, see Smithers, Slave Breeding.

. Keckley, Behind the Scenes, 39.

. I. Hutchinson, Arkansas Narratives, vol. 2, part 3, 374.

. Slave owners often noted gynecological problems, such as “falling of the womb” (uterine prolapse). See, for example, Slave Records 1844–1864 and Slave Records 1844–1865, Glover Family Papers, South Caroliniana Library (hereafter SCL).

. Letter to Mary Cranch, January 5, 1790, in Adams, New Letters of Abigail Adams, 36.

. Letter to Charles Stier, February 24, 1813, in Calvert, Mistress of Riversdale, 255.

. This was a common phrase used to evoke the suffering of childbirth. See, for example, September 1777, vol. 3, Sarah Logan Fisher Diaries, HSP; Mary Hubbard to Sally Townsend, September 11, 1799, Townsend Family Papers, 1676–1877, permission of MHS.

. November 11, 1852, and January 22, 1860, in Neblett, A Rebel Wife in Texas, 62, 75.

. January 1839, in Kemble, Journal of a Residence, 67.

. Letter to Mary Cranch, June 27, 1790, in Adams, New Letters of Abigail Adams, 52.

. June 15, 1797, in Drinker, The Diary of Elizabeth Drinker, 2:929–930.

. Mary Hubbard to Sarah Townsend, September 11, 1799, box 1, Townsend Family Papers, permission of MHS.

. Laura Randall to Louisa Elizabeth Cabell Carrington, May 23, 1831, Laura Henrietta Wirt Randall Papers, 1819–1857, Virginia Historical Society (hereafter VHS).

. Mary Jackson Lee to Mary Cabot Lee Higginson, October 2, 1833, folder 7, box 1, Higginson-Lee Family Correspondence, 1825–1840, American Antiquarian Society (hereafter AAS).

. Catherine M. Scholten notes the widespread understanding in colonial America that savin could serve as an abortifacient. See Scholten, Childbearing in American Society, 14. For slave owners’ suspicion of women who used plants such as cotton root, see Fett, Working Cures, 65. For more on enslaved women’s use of abortifacients, see Perrin, “Resisting Reproduction.”

. Perrin, “Resisting Reproduction,” 262–263.

. See Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz’s discussion of the rise of reform physiology and newly invigorated debates about sexuality and family limitation in the 1830s. Lefkowitz, Rereading Sex.

. See, for example, Jan Lewis and Kenneth A. Lockridge’s analysis of efforts on the part of elite women in Virginia to limit their fertility. In calculating the intervals between children, they identify breastfeeding as a successful method that most likely allowed women to exert some control over their childbearing. J. Lewis and Lockridge, “ ‘Sally Has Been Sick,’ ”10.

. October 23, 1799, in Drinker, The Diary of Elizabeth Drinker, 2:1227.

. October 10, 1843, in Dall, Daughter of Boston, 76.

. Margaret Izard Manigault to Elizabeth Manigault Morris, December 16, 1809, Louis Manigault Papers, Duke University (hereafter DU).

. Womble, Georgia Narratives, vol. 4, part 4, 183.

. Letter to Isabelle van Havre, July 15, 1811, in Calvert, Mistress of Riversdale, 240.

. Daniel Scott Smith suggests that withdrawal or coitus interruptus was one of the most common contraceptive measures in nineteenth-century America. See D. S. Smith, “Family Limitation,” 44, 50.

. Kammen, “The Letters of Calista Hall,” 232.

. January 19, 1847, in Dall, Daughter of Boston, 90.

. K. Smith, We Have Raised All of You, 2.

. For more on childbearing, motherhood, and family life among enslaved mothers, see, for example, Fett, Working Cures; Jones, Labor of Love, Labor of Sorrow; Schwartz, Birthing a Slave; Stevenson, Life in Black and White; and D. White, Ar’n’t I a Woman?

. Howell, Arkansas Narratives, vol. 2, pt. 3, 340.

. Schwartz, Birthing a Slave, 11.

. John Campbell calculated a 35 percent infant mortality rate for a large plantation in South Carolina between the 1830s and 1861. See Campbell, “Work, Pregnancy, and Infant Mortality among Southern Slaves,” 795. Jacqueline Jones estimates that overall infant mortality for slaves was roughly twice that of whites in 1850. See Jones, Labor of Love, Labor of Sorrow, 35.

. Grayson, Oklahoma Narratives, 13:115–116.

. Quoted in Perrin, “Resisting Reproduction,” 262.

. Letter to Isabelle van Havre, January 11, 1819, in Calvert, Mistress of Riversdale, 341.

. December 10, 1844, in Dall, Daughter of Boston, 83.

. December 13, 1805, in Drinker, The Diary of Elizabeth Drinker, 3:1885.

. Esther Bowes Cox to Mary Cox Chesnut, June 11, 1797, folder 3, box 1, Cox-Chesnut Family Papers, 1792–1858, SCL.

. Letter to Elizabeth Gibson, August 3, 1826, in E. Lewis, George Washington’s Beautiful Nelly, 182.

. Margaret Gregg to Susan [?], May 2, 1857, vol. 1 (typescript), Cox Family Papers, SCL.

. Mary Jackson Lee to Mary Cabot Lee Higginson, June 30, 1833, folder 6, box 1, Higginson-Lee Family Correspondence, 1825–1840, AAS.

. Elite Virginian Eleanor Lewis used the word “pregnant” in one letter, but she generally referred to approaching motherhood rather than to pregnancy as such. See letter to Elizabeth Bordley Gibson, April 13, 1828, in E. Lewis, George Washington’s Beautiful Nelly, 193. See also the diary of Martha Heywood, a Mormon transplant to Utah, who consistently used the words “pregnant” and “pregnancy” during her childbearing years in the 1850s. Heywood, Not by Bread Alone, 59, 62, 86.

. Letter to Mary Chesnut, September 4, 1797, folder 3, box 1, Cox-Chesnut Family Papers, 1792–1858, SCL; Ann Warder Diary, September 24, 1786, vol. 5, Ann Head Warder Papers, HSP; Matilda Henry to Sarah French, July 27, 1837, Sarah Scarborough Butler Henry French Papers, 1824–1914, VHS. For a discussion of an earlier colonial vocabulary for pregnancy, see Klepp, Revolutionary Conceptions, 3. See also Klepp, “Revolutionary Bodies.”

. For commonly used vocabulary, see, for example, May 24, 1797, in Drinker, The Diary of Elizabeth Drinker, 2:921; January 1, 1781, vol. 10, p. 25, and July 24, 1786, vol. 15, p. 49, Sarah Logan Fisher Diaries, HSP; Madaline Selima Edwards Diary, May 8, 1844, folder 16, Charles William Bradbury Papers, SHC; Matilda Henry to Sarah French, July 27, 1837, Sarah Scarborough Butler Henry French Papers, 1824–1914, VHS; July [?] 1848, p. 32, Juliana Paisley Gilmer Diary, 1840–1850, DU.

. Ebenezer Pettigrew to Nancy (Ann) Pettigrew, March 6, 1818, folder 19, box 1, and January 5, 1830, folder 34, box 2, Pettigrew Family Papers, 1776–1926, SHC.

. January 20, 1781, and January 25, 1781, vol. 10, p. 31, Sarah Logan Fisher Diaries, HSP.

. Esther Bowes Cox to Mary Cox Chesnut, May 31, 1805, folder 11, box 1, Cox-Chesnut Family Papers, 1792–1858, SCL.

. Letter to Marie-Louise Stier, May 12, 1804, in Calvert, Mistress of Riversdale, 82.

. Letter to Isabelle van Havre, April 20, 1806, in ibid., 141–142.

. May 23, 1787, vol. 16, p. 50, Sarah Logan Fisher Diaries, HSP.

. August 9, 1787, vol. 16, p. 70, Sarah Logan Fisher Diaries, HSP.

. Matilda Henry to Sarah French, July 27, 1837, Sarah Scarborough Butler Henry French Papers, 1824–1914, VHS.

. August 12, 1781, vol. 10, p. 64, Sarah Logan Fisher Diaries, HSP.

. September 21, 1783, vol. 12, p. 71, Sarah Logan Fisher Diaries, HSP.

. Translation: “mine is a dog of an occupation.”

. Ellen Coolidge to Martha Jefferson Randolph, June 6, 1830, box 2, Correspondence of Ellen Wayles Randolph Coolidge, University of Virginia (hereafter UVA).

. Eliza Robertson, July 5, 1855, p. 101, folder 2 (typescript), Eliza Ann Marsh Robertson Papers, 1843–1872, SHC.

. Scholten, Childbearing in American Society, 16.

. For more on the emergence of a culture of restraint and refinement in Revolutionary-era America, see Klepp, “Revolutionary Bodies.”

. January 15, 1807, in Drinker, The Diary of Elizabeth Drinker, 3:2002.

. Caroline Gilman to Harriet Fay, December 17, 1827, folder 11/154/1, Caroline Howard Gilman Papers, 1810–1880, South Carolina Historical Society (hereafter SCHS).

. Penelope Skinner Warren to Dr. Thomas Warren, August 16, 1840, box 1, folder 22, Skinner Family Papers, SHC.

. Letter to Anna Rose Holder, June 8, 1857, Fox, A Northern Woman in the Plantation South, 53.

. Esther Bowes Cox to Mary Cox Chesnut, October 10, 1809, folder 17, box 2, Cox-Chesnut Family Papers, 1792–1858, SCL.

. Matilda Henry to Sarah French, July 27, 1837, Sarah Scarborough Butler Henry French Papers, 1824–1914, VHS.

. See, for example, June 15, 1855, p. 96, folder 2 (typescript), Eliza Ann Marsh Robertson Papers, 1843–1872, SHC.

. August 16, 1845, in Dall, Daughter of Boston, 84.

. Wertz and Wertz, Lying-In, 44. See also Bogdan, “Care or Cure?,” 92–99; and Leavitt, Brought to Bed, esp. chaps. 2 and 3.

. Leavitt, Brought to Bed, 12.

. See Leavitt’s discussion of poor women being delivered by physicians in hospitals or charity institutions. Ibid., 74–77. Physicians’ records also show that they occasionally treated poor women in their homes. See, for example, the obstetric records of the New Jersey physician Samuel Worcester Butler, in Samuel Worcester Butler Record Book, 1849–1858, HSP.

. Most enslaved women were tended by midwives, but physicians might be called in for a complicated delivery. Marie Jenkins Schwartz argues that it became more common over the course of the antebellum period for slave owners to call in physicians. See Schwartz, Birthing a Slave, chap. 5.

. Agnes Gamble Cabell to Louisa Cabell Carrington, November 2, 1825, Cabell-Carrington Papers, UVA.

. Ellen Coolidge to Mrs. Nicholas Trist, May 9, 1826, box 2, Correspondence of Ellen Wayles Randolph Coolidge, UVA.

. Letter to Isabelle van Havre, April 2, 1807, in Calvert, Mistress of Riversdale, 162.

. Matilda Henry to Sarah French, March 24, 1835, Sarah Scarborough Butler Henry French Papers, 1824–1914, VHS.

. See, for example, the diary of Mary Holyoke, who kept a record of friends and kinswomen who were “brought to bed.” See Dow, The Holyoke Diaries.

. October 16, 1812, vol. 1, case vol. 41–47, Mehitable Sullivan Cutler Amory Diaries, permission of MHS.

. See, for example, a letter to Mary Cranch, November 24, 1788, in Adams, New Letters of Abigail Adams, 3; February 2, 1794, Elizabeth Cranch Norton Diaries (1781–1811), permission of MHS; letter to Elizabeth Gibson, February 7, 1796, in E. Lewis, George Washington’s Beautiful Nelly, 24; Friday, June 28, 1850, box 131, Diary of Lucy Cocke, Papers of John Hartwell Cocke / Papers of the Cocke Family, UVA.

. Letter to Mary Cranch, November 24, 1788, in Adams, New Letters of Abigail Adams, 3. Mary Hering to Mary Hering Middleton, September [?], 1800, folder/box 24/63/01, Hering Family Papers, 1674–1960, SCHS; Sarah Lindley Fisher to Elizabeth Rodman, February 9, 1839, folder 2, box 11, series 6, Logan-Fisher-Fox Family Papers, HSP; July 6, 1856, Persis Sibley Andrews Black diaries, 1842–1864, permission of MHS. For further examples, see also S. Dulles to Joseph Dulles, April 10, 1829, folder/box 12/58/14, Ann Heatly Reid Lovell, Estate and Family Papers, 1780–1854, SCHS; Thomas Kennedy to Nancy Kennedy, March 12, 1833, folder 5, box 1, Kennedy, Moore, and Southgate Family Papers, SHC.

. September 1779, vol. 8, p. 74, Sarah Logan Fisher Diaries, HSP.

. October 9, 1824, Diary of Martha Tabb Watkins Dyer, UVA.

. Translation: “I must tell you that our cousin Catharine Codman gave birth last Saturday at four in the morning to a little girl. She suffered but little: she was only sick for four hours, and the baby came into the world without anyone in the family except her nurse Mrs. Stevens knowing what was happening. She is doing very well: the little miss is very small, but is doing marvelously.” Georgina Margaret Amory Lowell to Anna C. Lowell, August 15, 1826, folder 2.3, box 2, John Lowell Papers, 1808–1851, permission of MHS.

. Rachel Lazarus to Maria Edgeworth, November 3, 1828, in MacDonald, The Education of the Heart, 176.

. Mary Rodman Fisher Fox Diary, April 23, 1850, vol. 19, p. 53, series 9, Logan-Fisher-Fox Family Papers, HSP.

. For additional examples, see, for instance, October 13, 1851, Penelope Eliza Howard Alderman Diary, 1851–1856, SHC; March 26, 1756, in Burr, The Journal of Esther Edwards Burr, 188–189; Ann Cameron to Paul Cameron, March 8, 1834, folder 727, box 34, Cameron Family Papers, 1757–1978, SHC; Sarah Lindley Fisher to Elizabeth Rodman, February 9, 1839, folder 2, box 11, series 6, Logan-Fisher-Fox Family Papers, HSP; Sarah Evelina Ker, January 17, 1841, folder 73, box 7, Ker Family Papers, 1776–1996, SHC; Georgina Margaret Amory Lowell to Ann Tracy, September 9, 1827, folder 2.7, box 2, John Lowell Papers, 1808–1851, permission of MHS; February 2, 1794, Elizabeth Cranch Norton Diaries (1781–1811), permission of MHS.

. J. Lewis and Lockridge, “ ‘Sally Has Been Sick,’ ” 6–8.

. Mary Richardson Walker, December 7, 1838, in Drury, First White Women over the Rockies, 2:136.

. Ibid.

. Translation: “The child is very big, and the mother very little, it was her opinion that the child is dead.”

. Translation: “and with his instruments and much difficulty, he delivered her of a dead child.”

. Translation: “I was not in the chamber at the critical moment.”

. September 17, 1794, in Drinker, The Diary of Elizabeth Drinker, 1:594–595.

. October 23, 1799, ibid., 2:1227.

. June 15, 1797, ibid., 930.

. June 16, 1797, ibid.

. April 21, 1848, in Dall, Daughter of Boston, 102.

. October 16, 1849, ibid., 119–120.

. Jacobs, Incidents, 53.

. Ibid., 15–16.

. Heaton, The World of Hannah Heaton, 74.

. September 1777, vol. 3, Sarah Logan Fisher Diaries, HSP.

. Jane Williams to Eliza Haywood, January 30, 1804, folder 41, box 4, series 1, Ernest Haywood Collection, SHC.

. November 2, 1805, James Anderson Casebook, 1804–1806, HSP.

. Ellen Coolidge to Mrs. Nicholas Trist, May 9, 1826, box 2, Correspondence of Ellen Wayles Randolph Coolidge, UVA.

. Sidney Carr to Jane Randolph, quoted in J. Lewis and Lockridge, “ ‘Sally Has Been Sick,’ ” 7.

. April 4, 1853, in Neblett, A Rebel Wife in Texas, 67.

. Matilda Henry to Sarah French, August 23, 1837, Sarah Scarborough Butler Henry French Papers, 1824–1914, VHS.

. Mary Scott to Hannah Fox, January 6, 1826, vol. 1, series 1, Fox Family Papers, HSP.

. Mary Middleton to Eliza Fisher, May 31, 1840, in Harrison, Best Companions, 140.

. For more on the discovery and use of anesthesia, see Caton, What a Blessing She Had Chloroform; Pernick, A Calculus of Suffering; Wolf, Deliver Me from Pain.

. Letter to Anne Longfellow Pierce, [date unknown],1847, Longfellow, Mrs. Longfellow, 129–130.

. Case 28, June 28, 1857, Samuel Worcester Butler Record Book, 1849–1858, HSP.

. Theriot, Mothers and Daughters, chap. 4.

. Elizabeth Byles Ball to Anna Potts, July 18, 1760, Letterbook, 1757–1783, Ball Family Papers, HSP.

. Rebecca Shoemaker, July 31, 1785, p. 366, Rebecca Shoemaker Papers, 1780–1786, HSP.

. July 29, 1785, in Sansom, The Diary of Hannah Callender Sansom, 300.

. Letter to Elizabeth Gibson, March 19, 1826, in E. Lewis, George Washington’s Beautiful Nelly, 175.

. Letter to Elizabeth Gibson April 5, 1825, ibid., 165.

. Maria Flagg to Lydia Nightingale, August 17, 1793, Maria Magdalen Flagg Letters, SL.

. See, for example, Susan Klepp’s analysis of women’s portraits in the eighteenth century, showing a transition from a visual emphasis on women’s fertility to images that highlighted their moral and intellectual capacity. Klepp, Revolutionary Conceptions, chap. 4.

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