The Curse of Civilised Woman: Race, Gender and the Pain of Childbirth in Nineteenth-Century American Medicine

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7 Scopus citations

Abstract

Accounts of the easy, painless childbearing of 'primitive' non-white women in comparison to their 'civilised' white counterparts were ubiquitous in early modern travel literature. In the nineteenth-century United States, such narratives were increasingly taken up in medical and scientific literature, catalysing the production of new forms of knowledge about race and bodies. This article analyses several key medico-scientific theories produced to explain racialised parturient pain and argues that this knowledge dynamically interrelated with both racial ideas and racial practice in nineteenth-century society. The shifting character of this knowledge implicated changing ways of defining race, including the anchoring of racial identity in the physical body; the role of the physician as an arbiter of racial truth; and the imbrication of gender in racial classifications. Moreover, knowledge produced to explain racialised parturient pain - for instance, about race-specific sensory physiology, muscular mechanics and skeletal anatomy - circulated within numerous social institutions, among them slavery; gynaecologic and obstetric care; medical experimentation; anti-abortion crusades invoking the spectre of 'race suicide'; and eugenic projects. In this way, medical discourse on the gendered body of the parturient was enrolled in the changing articulation of race across the nineteenth century.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)57-76
Number of pages20
JournalGender and History
Volume28
Issue number1
DOIs
StatePublished - Apr 1 2016
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Gender Studies
  • Geography, Planning and Development
  • History
  • Arts and Humanities (miscellaneous)

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