Today, we welcome a guest post from Nora Doyle, author of Maternal Bodies: Redefining Motherhood in Early America, publishing this month from UNC Press.
In Maternal Bodies, Nora Doyle shows that depictions of motherhood in American culture began to define the ideal mother by her emotional and spiritual roles rather than by her physical work as a mother. As a result of this new vision, lower-class women and non-white women came to be excluded from the identity of the good mother because American culture defined them in terms of their physical labor.
Maternal Bodies is now available in both print and ebook editions.
Breastfeeding and American Culture: Idealizing Maternal Virtue in the Eighteenth Century and Today
“Breast is best” has become a common mantra among parents and medical professionals in America today. A quick internet search or a cursory glance at popular parenting magazines reveals that breastfeeding is much discussed and much celebrated. Some discussions focus on medical benefits, telling women that breastfeeding will improve the health of their children and enhance their own physical well-being; others promise psychological and emotional benefits stemming from the act of nursing. Glossy photos of radiant breastfeeding mothers suggest to readers that nursing fosters maternal joy, while articles about celebrity mothers tout the experience as one of ultimate fulfillment. Maternal virtue and satisfaction, these sources imply, revolve around the lactating breast.
This cultural interest in breastfeeding that has emerged in the last several decades is in fact nothing new in American history. Beginning in the second half of the eighteenth century American mothers became increasingly exposed to medical and cultural discussions that presented breastfeeding as their highest duty and their greatest pleasure. Just like today, women could peruse a number of magazines and advice manuals intended to help them be better mothers, and breastfeeding often took center stage in these publications.
Physicians were at the forefront of the push for maternal breastfeeding, and they marshalled a range of arguments. Breastfeeding was women’s divine duty, they asserted, for why else would God have provided women the means to nourish their children? Moreover, they pointed out that breastfeeding was healthiest for babies. Babies who were handfed at that time rarely thrived, for in the days before refrigeration it was difficult to ensure that the baby’s milk was not laced with harmful bacteria. Moreover, physicians argued that employing a wet nurse was equally dangerous, for parents could not guarantee that a hired nurse would tend an infant as tenderly as its own mother. Thus they encouraged women to ignore the potential challenges and inconveniences of breastfeeding so that they could dedicate their bodies to their infants.
In addition to practical arguments about maternal and infant health, these discussions of breastfeeding also began to focus on maternal pleasure. Articles and advice books emphasized the delights of nursing, promising women that if they faithfully suckled their infants they would experience both physical and emotional rapture. By dwelling on the pleasures of nursing, maternal advice literature naturalized an image of motherhood as women’s greatest fulfillment in life, both physically and emotionally. Their logic was clear—breastfeeding was natural and gave women their greatest pleasure in life; therefore, maternity was nothing less than the ultimate achievement of women’s happiness.
In one key respect, however, these early conversations about breastfeeding differed sharply from discussions today. While Americans today tend to react with horror to anything that blurs the line between motherhood and sexuality, maternal advice writers in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries portrayed breastfeeding as a sensual, even erotic, experience that could be enjoyed by mother, infant, and spouse. They drew subtle (and sometimes not-so-subtle) parallels between the experiences of breastfeeding and sexual satisfaction, and they counselled women that by breastfeeding they would enhance their personal charms and become ever more attractive to their husbands. In effect, while representations of the female body today tend to draw clear lines between the maternal breast and the sexual breast, these earlier discussions made the maternal breast a focal point both for maternal virtue and for romantic love. Motherhood and sexuality intertwined around the lactating breast, making the physical experience of breastfeeding a potent cultural symbol for female happiness and fulfillment.
Nora Doyle is assistant professor of history at Salem College.