15 Pages

‘Knowledge is power’: risk and the moral responsibilities of the expectant mother at the turn of the twentieth century

WithHelga Kristin Hallgrimsdottir, Bryan Eric Benner

The notion that ‘older’ mothers experience elevated risks during pregnancy and childbirth has proliferated since the mid-twentieth century. In this article, we take the contemporary concern with age as a starting point from which to historicise and contextualise the concept of maternity risk. To this end, we examine maternal hygiene manuals (self-help guidebooks on motherhood and pregnancy) published between 1880 and 1920 in Canada, the United States and the United Kingdom. Our analysis of these manuals indicated that pregnancy during this period was presented as a potentially dangerous affair that required constant surveillance by the self (and others) to ensure favourable pregnancy outcomes. A dominant theme that emerged from the manuals was that the expectant mother was morally responsible for mitigating a range of risk factors, including adequate exercise, sleep, fresh air, as well as for choosing an appropriate father and ensuring his health. At the same time, the manuals indicated that the failure to seek out expert advice and take up responsible practices was linked to adverse consequences for the expectant mother’s health, and her newborn’s health and moral character later in life. We conclude this article by discussing how findings from our historical data can provide an important context for understanding risk discourses around pregnancy as historically specific and culturally contingent, especially with respect to risks associated with maternal advanced age.