publisher colophon



In Search of the Maternal Body Past and Present


Visions of the maternal body in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century America were complex and contradictory, marked by both change over time and profound continuity. The ways in which women placed the work of their bodies at the center of childbearing and childrearing changed little over the course of a century. They saw motherhood as hard physical work, and in their personal accounts they dwelled on the rhythms of pregnancy, childbirth, and childrearing that dominated much of their adult lives. For example, Esther Burr of Massachusetts wrote to her best friend in 1756: “Now I write with the Son at the Brest—When I had but one Child my hands were tied, but now I am tied hand and foot. (How I shall get along when I have got ½ dzn. or 10 children I cant devise).”1 For Burr, the constant physical demands of mothering limited her autonomy and defined her sense of self in ways that were at times claustrophobic, and she anticipated the ways in which the work of mothering would continue to structure her life. Hannah Heath echoed Burr’s thoughts when she wrote in 1796: “I have hardly been from home since you left Brookline,—my child is very troublesome! Does not like to have me gone at all. She is in my arms now; will not lay in the cradle,—I have put her in at least ten times this evg. & all to no purpose.”2 Women consistently made the labor of their bodies central to their perception of motherhood, and the discomfort, pain, fatigue, and frustration wrought by childbearing and childrearing, intertwined with the love they bore their children, caused them to regard motherhood with ambivalence. Sarah Hale was a fond and devoted mother, but she complained in 1822 of the “quarreling and screaming of so many little ones constantly about me” and noted, “My cares are never ceasing, and I sometimes think how comfortably it must be to have a moment to oneself.”3 At times, motherhood consisted of the “sweetest bliss & diversion” and pure “earthly bliss.”4 At other times, it was quite simply “very fatiguing indeed.”5 Women frequently expressed through both words and deeds their love and devotion as mothers, but they also emphasized the physical burdens of motherhood.

Cultural depictions of motherhood existed in tension with the lived experiences of childbearing women. Between the 1750s and the 1850s representations of motherhood in print culture gradually refined and even effaced the maternal body, portraying motherhood as moral and emotional work performed by an ethereal figure. In the mid-eighteenth century, medical descriptions of pregnancy and childbirth began this process of disappearance by replacing the reproductive labor of the white and socioeconomically privileged mother with the work of the uterus and the man-midwife, thus distancing the figure of the mother from the taint of sexuality and from the messiness of the reproductive body. By the late eighteenth century, advice manuals for mothers began to develop the ideal of the sentimental mother around the practice of maternal breastfeeding. The maternal breast was refined into a symbol of maternal virtue by erasing the very real physical challenges of breastfeeding. Describing the joy and pleasure that women derived from breastfeeding, prescriptive authors transformed childrearing from physical work into an effortless and delightful process that showcased the moral and emotional influence of the good mother. Finally, by the early decades of the nineteenth century, the disembodiment of the sentimental mother became complete in the popular poetry and images that permeated feminine print culture. Popular print culture erased the physicality of the mother, replacing the maternal body with more ethereal symbols of affection and piety to create the image of the transcendent mother whose spiritual power superseded her earthly labors.

Much was at stake in these varied depictions of the maternal body, for corporeality became a way of defining social value by identifying some women as good mothers and others as disorderly bodies. Cultural depictions of the ideal mother, whether in medical texts, advice manuals, or popular print, identified her as white and socioeconomically privileged, with a body so pure, lovely, and delicate that it could be refined away in order to free her more important moral and emotional qualities. At the same time, nonwhite and lower-class women became defined by their corporeality. Elite women who employed lower-class women as wet nurses began in the early nineteenth century to describe their nurses as animal-like, defined by their (re)productive bodies rather than by their capacity for maternal love and devotion. Similarly, antislavery print culture defined the enslaved mother in terms of her body and the violence done to it by the slave system. Although these texts were meant to elicit sympathy for enslaved women, the emphasis on corporeality also served to define them as symbols of disorder in American society. Above all, nonwhite and lower-class mothers came to be defined as laboring bodies that disrupted notions of womanly virtue and sentimental motherhood.

Although I have chosen to conclude this study in the 1850s, the history of the maternal body cannot properly be said to have an ending. The 1850s provide a logical end point, for this decade marked the beginning of a gradual transition into a time when women’s childbearing experiences and opportunities in life began to change more rapidly than ever before. These changes brought about new perceptions of the maternal body, both in American culture and in women’s private writings, although many older ideas and attitudes remained. As Judith Walzer Leavitt and Nancy Theriot have shown, the women who began to bear children in the 1860s and beyond, as well as the medical practitioners who tended them, gradually created a different reproductive world than previous generations had experienced. During the second half of the nineteenth century, anesthetized childbirth became increasingly available, particularly for middle-class and elite women, and childbearing women did not hesitate to demand relief from pain. The possibility of evading the pain of childbirth helped to reshape women’s perceptions of childbearing. Simultaneously, a better understanding of contraceptive methods and a growing emphasis on family limitation made it possible for women to restrict their childbearing more effectively than their foremothers had done. Average birthrates for white native-born Americans continued to drop, from roughly 5.42 children in 1850, to 4.24 children in 1880, to 3.56 children in 1900, so that many women no longer spent the majority of their adult lives pregnant and caring for young children. It is important to emphasize, though, that immigrant women and African American women continued to experience higher rates of fertility than native-born white women, suggesting diverse attitudes toward family limitation and varying access to contraceptive methods depending on region, race, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status.6

Ideas about women’s bodies also began to change. A growing culture of health and physical education pioneered by college-educated women in the late nineteenth century spread to the population at large and offered a new view of women as healthy rather than inherently diseased.7 Emphasizing that motherhood was natural and healthy, one female physician wrote in the 1880s, “If woman was made for maternity, then it is evident that the proper exercise of this function should be attended by the highest health, enjoyment and happiness.”8 Few Americans questioned the fact that women were biologically formed to be mothers, but they did begin to think about motherhood, particularly its physical aspects, in new ways. Women increasingly believed that they should claim control over their bodies and reproductive lives. As one woman complained in the 1870s, “Strange that, while the law recognizes rape as a crime punishable by severe penalties, there is no recognition whatever of a married woman’s right to control over her own person.”9 Supported by the moral arguments of feminist advocates of “voluntary motherhood,” women increasingly asserted the right to make their own decisions about if and when to bear children.10 Assertions of women’s right to refuse intercourse, combined with greater awareness and wider availability of contraceptives, made such control increasingly possible.11

Women writers, reformers, and medical practitioners were at the forefront of many of the changes that occurred in ideas about reproduction and women’s bodies, but personal writings show that in the privacy of their own lives and homes women were also beginning to think about and describe childbearing in different ways. For over a century women had made the physical aspects of childbearing central to their understanding of motherhood, and this remained largely true. But whereas previous generations of mothers had written tersely of the suffering they anticipated and endured, indicating a somewhat bitter acceptance of circumstances they could not change, by the second half of the nineteenth century women wrote more explicitly and more evocatively of their physical experiences. As one mother wrote of her birth experience in 1885, “Between oceans of pain there stretched continents of fear; fear of death and dread of suffering beyond bearing.”12 Perhaps as women came to feel that they had the right to bodily control, they also became more insistent in describing the physical sensations of childbearing. Elaborating the experience of pain helped explain the need for greater control over their reproductive experiences. In 1866 the wife of a physician wrote to the Boston Medical and Surgical Journal on behalf of childbearing women: “One great reason for the aversion to child-bearing is the thousand disagreeable and painful experiences which attend the long months of patient waiting, and the certain agony at the end—agony which is akin to nothing else on earth—agony which the tenderest susceptibilities and sympathies of the noblest physician can but faintly imagine—agony which, in not one case in a hundred, is mitigated by anesthesia.”13 Relentlessly emphasizing the pain and suffering of childbearing, this woman boldly articulated the physical trauma that women faced, but suggested that it did not have to be inevitable if the medical profession would step in to do its part. It seems likely that frequent medical discussions of pain in childbirth and the possibility of painless deliveries created a culture in which pain could be discussed more openly, and women vociferously demanded freedom from physical suffering and harm in the process of childbearing.

The words and experiences of such women illustrate that since the late nineteenth century women have increasingly challenged the assumption that biology is destiny. In the late nineteenth century women began to question whether motherhood was inevitable; today, many American women choose not to bear children and find inspiration and fulfillment in aspects of life that were formerly reserved for men. Yet the figure of the mother continues to be a potent symbol in American culture. Conflicts about the appropriate qualities, use, and visibility of the maternal body have demonstrated time and again that diverse perceptions of the maternal body continue to shape our view of women’s role in society. Indeed, we are haunted in America today by the same vision of the maternal body as simultaneously virtuous and disruptive that characterized eighteenth- and nineteenth-century American culture and society. On the one hand, the figure of the mother represents everything that is wholesome. Bright images of (predominantly young, white, middle-class) mothers fill magazines, advertisements, films, and television programs and signal to the viewer that all is well with the world. But when the maternal body is too visible, or contradicts ideas about maternal virtue, or is not quite the right kind of body, it signifies a disruption of social order and a source of shame or fear. Just as in the past, women today are beset with images and admonitions of how they should look, feel, and act as mothers.

Periodic controversies over breastfeeding illustrate one aspect of the maternal body that has consistently raised tensions in late twentieth- and early twenty-first-century America. The social media website Facebook has made controversial decisions to remove photos of breastfeeding mothers in accordance with its policy that forbids users to post obscene or sexually explicit material. As one reporter noted in 2009, “Facebook has said that it has no problem with breastfeeding, but that photos showing nipples are deemed to be a violation and can be removed.”14 Breastfeeding mothers have consistently encountered problems because the female breast has been sexualized to such a degree that the maternal function of breastfeeding cannot be enacted without raising the specter of inappropriate sexuality.15 When the breast is seen as predominantly sexual, mothers cannot publicly make use of it for infant nourishment without being exposed to accusations of indecency. The medical profession recommends breastfeeding as the healthiest choice for both mothers and babies, and forty-nine states have laws that allow women to breastfeed in any public or private location, yet mothers are often made to feel uncomfortable or unwelcome when they breastfeed in public spaces.16 In Cindy Stearns’s sociological study of breastfeeding mothers in 1999, she discovered that “women were keenly aware that the activity of breastfeeding in public might result in negative feedback, or worse yet, legal action.”17 Indeed, responses to the removal of breastfeeding photos from Facebook indicate that few Americans object to the practice of breastfeeding, but they do not want to see it. The visibility of the maternal body is frequently perceived as disgusting or immodest. As one commenter responded online, “I classify breastfeeding as a personal and PRIVATE matter and do not wish to be exposed to such material.”18 In American society today the act of breastfeeding signifies good mothering, just as it did in the past, but we no longer embrace the varied pleasures linked to the act of nursing, fearing instead the confusion of sexuality and maternity. In the end, women are expected to be good mothers by breastfeeding their children while simultaneously keeping the physical aspects of motherhood invisible.

Equally problematic are present-day assumptions about what kinds of bodies are suitable for motherhood. We have seen how the prejudices of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Americans led them to view nonwhite women and lower-class women as useful bodies at best, disruptive bodies at worst. In either case, these women were rarely valued for their social role as mothers. In contemporary America there continues to be an ongoing perception that lower-class women and women of color are less valuable as mothers and should be subject to reproductive control. African American women in particular have been devalued as mothers and perceived as hypersexual, too fertile, and in need of government regulation. Dorothy Roberts has explored the history of efforts to control black women’s reproduction, from exploitative pronatalist practices during slavery, to eugenic sterilization measures in the first half of the twentieth century, to late twentieth-century government programs that paid for poor women to receive Norplant, a contraceptive implanted under the skin that was shown to have severe side effects.19 Such measures have allowed race and class to define which women will be valued as mothers and which will be viewed as disorderly reproductive bodies.

In American society today there seem to be two conflicting strains of thought about the maternal body. First is the view that the figure of the mother is virtuous and culturally palatable only when her physical functions are subordinated to her moral and emotional role. This perception predominates in mainstream American culture and, as we have seen, has its roots in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Today’s ideal mother does not exactly resemble the disembodied sentimental mother that emerged in early America (though there are strong similarities), but she does represent a continuing drive to refine the raw physicality of the body. The ideal mother of today is healthy, youthful, beautiful, usually white and well educated, and has many talents and interests, but ultimately derives her joy and sense of self-worth from the emotional bonds of motherhood. A 2011 article in an online parenting magazine summed up the ideal mother by juxtaposing the feelings of mothers and fathers. The expectant father thinks, “I’m afraid of what having a baby is going to do to our relationship,” while the mother-to-be thinks, “It’s going to be the best thing in the world!”20 In many ways, expectations for mothers have changed little since the nineteenth century, for American society still often demands that women be child-centered and that they find their greatest fulfillment as mothers.

While this vision of motherhood privileges its affective bonds, feminist scholars and writers in the aftermath of the second-wave feminist movement of the 1970s have offered an alternative way of regarding motherhood by rigorously contesting the tendency to evade the fullness of maternal corporeality. More women have begun to explore the physicality of experiences such as pregnancy, childbirth, and lactation, both in private and in public texts and images. The feminist poet Alicia Ostriker, for instance, has pointed out the possibilities of pleasure while breastfeeding: “I don’t believe I have ever seen a discussion of this experience; or indeed, any mention of the idea that we can be sexually aroused by being suckled.… Why do we not say this? Why are mothers always represented sentimentally, as having some sort of altruistically self-sacrificing ‘maternal’ feelings, as if they did not enjoy themselves? Is it so horrible if we enjoy ourselves: another love that dare not tell its name?”21 Asserting the validity of physical experience over and against sentimental constructions of motherhood, Ostriker’s work dwells on those aspects of maternity that tend to cause shame and discomfort. Similarly, the works of the poet Sharon Olds have explored the very facets of childbearing that American society most seeks to avoid, describing pregnancy with heavy physical imagery:

my belly big with cowardice and safety,

my stool black with iron pills,

my huge breasts oozing mucus,

my legs swelling, my hands swelling,

my face swelling and darkening.

From the grotesqueness of corporeality Olds moves to celebrate the maternal body, exulting,

I and the other women this exceptional

act with the exceptional heroic body,

this giving birth, this glistening verb.22

In a more scholarly vein, Della Pollock’s analysis of childbirth narratives has offered a glimpse into the most intimate bodily experiences of childbearing. Pollock describes one mother’s tortured memories of her body during pregnancy: “Furious with the instruments and procedures that had repeatedly, painfully penetrated her body to no avail, she also seemed now to want to claw open her belly herself, to break through the uterine wall, to see once and for all this baby and its fate, to know what to do.”23 These feminist texts, among many others, have asserted the need to view the maternal body without shame and without artifice, proclaiming its centrality to women’s experience and insisting on the validity of that experience.

This feminist approach to representations of childbearing constitutes a radical departure from a long history of efforts to valorize the emotional aspects of motherhood while suppressing the physical. Following in this vein, this book seeks to restore the body to its rightful place in the history of motherhood by showing that prescriptions for how the maternal body was supposed to look, act, and feel have structured visions of ideal motherhood, while the physical labor of women’s bodies has shaped their attitudes toward childbearing and childrearing. Looking for the maternal body in the distant past also helps shed light on many of the forces that shape women’s experiences today. Many elements of the past are present in contemporary America, if in altered forms: the privileging of certain kinds of bodies and certain kinds of mothers; the constraint of women’s choice and bodily autonomy in the service of motherhood; and uneasiness in the face of female corporeality. Putting the body at the center of the history of motherhood reveals the important ways in which corporeality has structured and continues to shape both women’s lived experiences as mothers and cultural visions of motherhood.

. April 13, 1756, in Burr, The Journal of Esther Edwards Burr, 192.

. Hannah Heath to Ann White, January 23, 1796, Letterbook, Hannah Williams Heath Diaries, 1805–1832, permission of MHS.

. Sarah Preston (Everett) Hale to Alexander and Lucretia Everett, September 14, 1822, folder 6, box 9, Hale Family Papers, 1787–1988, SSC.

. Gertrude Gouverneur Ogden Meredith to William Meredith, February 26, 1797, folder 1, box 51, Meredith Family Papers, HSP, and April 16, 1854, folder 1, Jane Evans Elliot Diaries, 1837–1882, SHC.

. January 27, 1784, vol. 13, p. 5, Sarah Logan Fisher Diaries, HSP.

. For birthrate statistics, see D’Emilio and Freedman, Intimate Matters, 58. See also Leavitt, Brought to Bed, 19.

. Theriot, Mothers and Daughters, 81–82.

. Saur, Maternity, 195.

. Duffey, What Women Should Know, 117.

. For more on the philosophy of voluntary motherhood, see Gordon, Woman’s Body, Woman’s Right.

. For more on contraceptive technology and availability, see D’Emilio and Freedman, Intimate Matters, esp. pt. 2.

. Quoted in Leavitt, Brought to Bed, 33.

. Quoted in Wertz and Wertz, Lying-In, 118.

. Wortham, “Facebook Won’t Budge on Breastfeeding Photos.”

. See, for example, Cindy Stearns’s discussion of sexuality and motherhood in “Breastfeeding and the Good Maternal Body,” 309.

. “Breastfeeding Laws,” National Conference of State Legislatures.

. Stearns, “Breastfeeding and the Good Maternal Body,” 311.

. Marty, online comment, January 2, 2009.

. Roberts, Killing the Black Body.

. “Modern Family.”

. Ostriker, The Mother/Child Papers, 33.

. Olds, “The Language of the Brag,” in Satan Says, 44–45.

. Pollock, Telling Bodies Performing Birth, 29.

Additional Information

MARC Record
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Back To Top

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. Without cookies your experience may not be seamless.