Responsible Mothers and Well Born Children: Social Authorities and the Discourses of Nineteenth Century Pregnancy
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AbstractDuring the late nineteenth century, issues of pregnancy and reproduction were deeply political. Competing authorities converged and diverged in the ways they presented their messages regarding women's "proper place" and proper behavior as mothers of the race. This project provides a cultural mapping of the discourses of pregnancy, reproduction, and mothering during the late Victorian era (1870-1900). This cultural mapping demonstrates the ways in which three different social groups, physicians, The Lydia E. Pinkham Patent Medicine Company, and Free Love reformers, defined themselves and used their writings to legitimize their own authority. In articulating the standards Victorian women should strive for, each of these groups framed their messages within a discourse of fear and empowerment, where fears often focused on the potential racial decline of the nation and empowerment was generally equated with increased personal responsibility for individual women. By locating pregnancy discourse in the wider context of Victorian culture wars, struggles over the ideology and practice of the Cult of True Womanhood, and the growing, yet uneven, professionalization of medical authority, this research reveals the intertwined relationships amongst social authorities as they competed for power in a changing social world. Through analysis of the writings, speeches, and public dialogue offered by and about these social authorities, I argue that social discourse about reproduction pregnancy and motherhood produced by physicians, the Pinkham Company, and the Free Lovers, forms the basis for symbolic boundaries between various groups of people: between the three groups of social authorities; between men and women; and between good, moral women and their uncivilized, irresponsible counterparts. Specifically, through their advice, speeches, and advertising materials these groups created symbolic distinctions between the types of women whose reproduction would benefit society and those who would not, thus setting standards for ideal middle-class womanhood.