Motherhood Writ Large: Transgressive Maternity and American Poular Print, 1768-1868
My dissertation examines the figure of the transgressive mother in American print culture from the 1760s to the 1860s. Not unlike today, women in this period were inundated with advice on how to birth and raise their children, and “proper” motherhood was envisioned as a social necessity, crucial for the moral development and strength of the young nation. In popular literature, idealized mothers were routinely depicted as white, Protestant, and middle-class, and motherhood was portrayed as an all-encompassing vocation. Historians have analyzed these ideals and the mothers who exemplified them, yet they have paid less attention to the many women who were either unwilling or unable to live up to the demands of white, Christian maternity – those who sought to avoid motherhood through infanticide and abortion, mothers whose religion and ethnicity marked them as inhumane, and women whose enslavement prevented them from keeping their families together. Moreover, ordinary Americans eagerly read tales of these mothers’ social and legal transgressions, which filled the pages of newspapers, pamphlets, religious tracts, magazines, and novels, and readers deliberated the morality of their actions by retelling and sometimes reinventing their stories. By shifting the focus away from ideals, my research brings to the fore those mothers who either could not or would not conform, explores how and why they were judged by the public, and reveals a considerably more complex history of motherhood in America than has previously been acknowledged.