The Maternal Body in 18th and 19th Century America


A review of Bodies at Odds: The Maternal Body as Lived Experience and Cultural Expression in America, 1750-1850, by Nora Doyle.

Historians of women and gender have long been fascinated by the relationship between social prescriptions and women’s lived experiences. From classic works on antebellum domesticity to recent texts on the complex factors that have shaped the lives of women from diverse racial, regional, religious, and socio-economic backgrounds, historians have explored both the deep rifts between prescription and practice and the considerable influence of gendered norms on women’s lives. Nora Doyle’s award-winning dissertation advances this scholarship in its subject matter and methodology. She pursues an understudied topic: the cultural representations and experiences of childbearing and childrearing in late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth-century North America. Following recent interdisciplinary work on embodiment, the body is a central category of analysis for Doyle—an approach, she notes, that feminist scholars have often avoided in their efforts to discount biological essentialism. The result is a compelling, carefully researched, and convincing study that has much to offer scholars of gender, race, class, sexuality, sentimentality, medicine, and the family in colonial and antebellum America.

Doyle argues that “perceptions and representations of corporeality were crucial to defining motherhood, both as an identity for real-life mothers and as a cultural symbol within American society” (p. 10). Although the body figured importantly in women’s experiences and cultural portrayals of motherhood, Doyle finds that it was perceived, represented, and understood very differently over time and across lines of race and class. While eighteenth-century prescriptive authors often acknowledged maternal corporeality as a central component of motherhood, nineteenth-century writers increasingly sought to refine, limit, and distance women from the maternal body in order to project an idealized and abstracted vision of sentimental motherhood.

Central to Doyle’s argument is that this move towards the elision of the body reflected and reinforced the redefinition of motherhood as a white and middle-class identity. Nineteenth-century enslaved, racialized, impoverished, and immigrant women, by contrast, were publicly defined almost exclusively by their bodies and thus failed to achieve the status of ideal mothers. Doyle couples this analysis of the changing and diverging representations of motherhood with the contention that, despite these cultural developments, women throughout the period continued to regard their identity as mothers to be “fundamentally defined by the work of their bodies” (p. iii). Acknowledging the physical tasks of childbearing and childrearing, women challenged cultural representations of motherhood and expressed ambivalence about the experience of motherhood in their own lives.

Bodies at Odds begins by discussing women’s personal narratives of pregnancy, childbirth, and childrearing and concludes by analyzing the cultural transition towards the disembodied mother ideal. In Chapter 1, Doyle draws on correspondence, diaries, slave narratives, slave interviews, and medical records to explore how women experienced and perceived motherhood. She argues that nearly all women stressed the physical labor of motherhood, but that white, middle- and upper-class women usually relied on conventional phrases and oblique language to chronicle their experiences until they faced the significant bodily changes of late pregnancy or traumatic births. At these times, Doyle writes, “the physicality of childbearing broke through the barriers of convention and women wrote about their fears of pain and about scenes of suffering they had witnessed and experienced” (p. 91). Interestingly, Doyle discusses women’s practice of “accounting” for their maternal labors by numerically representing “how often and how many times they became pregnant and gave birth” (p. 40). Although both black and white women used this strategy, Doyle emphasizes that “accounting” made it easier for white women to discuss pregnancy and childbirth without compromising standards of propriety. Meanwhile, she finds that enslaved women usually focused on the social conditions of birth rather than their physical experiences.

In contrast to these narratives of pregnancy and childbirth as recounted by mothers themselves, in Chapter 5 Doyle examines sentimental poetry to show how writers distanced white, privileged women from their bodies by portraying them “as a spirit, a smile, a memory, a voice, an essence of everlasting and infinite love and piety.” Drawing on antislavery literature and propaganda, she reveals that enslaved, racialized, and lower-class mothers, in comparison, were symbolically bound to their bodies through raw expressions of emotion, voyeuristic descriptions of physical pain, and as spectacles for white consumption (p. 233). By detailing the dissimilarities between cultural representations of black and white motherhood, as well as the ways these expressions diverged from women’s own descriptions and experiences, Doyle tells both an expected story about the chasm between prescription and practice and a textured and nuanced tale of how ideologies of the body construct and reinforce hierarchies of power.

In the middle chapters of Bodies at Odds, Doyle examines medical approaches to female reproduction and women’s experiences and cultural perceptions of breastfeeding. In Chapter 2, she demonstrates that “physicians writing and practicing in the mid-eighteenth century began to turn their attention away from the whole woman and to the inner workings of female reproduction” (p. 95). By focusing on anatomy and distancing women from their reproductive processes, doctors alleviated their anxieties about women’s sexuality and modesty and justified their intrusion into a previously female realm. Importantly, Doyle discusses how doctors’ refusal to recognize the femininity of racialized and lower-class women enabled them to view, represent, and experiment on these women’s bodies without feelings of impropriety.

Chapters 3 and 4 look closely at breastfeeding. Drawing on nineteenth-century prescriptive and sentimental texts, Doyle argues that these authors found breastfeeding “neither frightening nor disruptive” (p. 151). Rather than rejecting the physicality of maternity, these writers embraced nursing as a physically, emotionally, and even sexually pleasurable act that was essential to maternal, marital, and familial happiness. Doyle discusses how wet nurses, who were usually impoverished, enslaved, or women of color, were excluded from these idealized visions and often portrayed as bad mothers for not committing their bodies to their own infants. Studying women’s own writings, she also suggests that most women balanced the pleasures of breastfeeding with accounts of frustration, pain, and ambivalence. Doyle’s explorations of nursing and medical procedures and perspectives neatly encapsulate her central argument: that women experienced motherhood vastly differently from social prescriptions and that maternal cultural perceptions created and bolstered social distinctions.

The strengths of Doyle’s dissertation are numerous; three in particular stand out for their potential to inspire and shape future work. First is Doyle’s successful analysis of the embodiment of white motherhood alongside and together with women of color. In her introduction, she discusses how “nineteenth-century Americans saw white women and men as less defined by corporeality than lower class Americans or women and men of color” and how historians have risked reinforcing the “historical disembodiment of whiteness” by focusing on nonwhite bodies (p. 29). Following Doyle’s approach, scholars of the body might more closely attend to the intersecting and mutually constitutive ways that corporeality was represented and experienced by individuals from diverse racial, social, and economic backgrounds. Second, historians of women, gender, and sexuality will gain from Doyle’s discussion of the sensual and sexual pleasures associated with nursing. “Scholars have tended to treat motherhood and sexuality as separate phenomena with distinct histories,” she declares, “despite the obvious fact that, biologically speaking, they are necessarily linked” (p. 174). By integrating the histories of motherhood and sexuality and flexibly and capaciously approaching both topics, Doyle just begins to suggest the ways that historians might advance and expand their analyses in these areas. Finally, Doyle’s skillful attention to the visibility and invisibility of the body serves as a model for scholars across the humanities. Her ability to draw significant conclusions from sources in which the body “cannot be found” reminds scholars to listen to both the noises and silences in their own work (p. 4).

Bodies at Odds convincingly demonstrates that mothers’ “individual identit[ies were] founded on embodied experience in all its messiness and complexity, while motherhood as a cultural institution was predicated on the evasion of the body and the privileging of abstract moral and emotional qualities” (p. 11). More than simply revealing the disparities between lived experience and cultural expression, Doyle provides a richly textured account of the complex ways that the maternal body figured in colonial and antebellum American culture and society.

Laurel Daen
Department of History
College of William & Mary

Primary Sources
Women’s Diaries and Correspondence
Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936-1938. Library of Congress.
Midwifery and Obstetrics Manuals
Godey’s Lady’s Book
Antislavery Literature

Dissertation Information
University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. 2013. 324pp. Primary Advisor: Jacquelyn Dowd Hall.

Image: “The Unlooked for Return,” painting by Miss L. Sharpe, engraved by J. Goodyear, published by Longman & Co., London, 1833

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