CLIO TALKS BACK: Do Mothers Have a History?

The illustration above is possibly the first and oldest illustration of a birth by Caesarian section.   Not all mothers give birth the usual way.

Clio found this illustration in the first comprehensive history of motherhood, written by her colleagues Catherine Fouquet and Yvonne Knibiehler.  Their lavishly illustrated volume, which spans the centuries from the Middle Ages to the later twentieth century, is a book that women’s historians ever since have admired, envied, and tried to supplement.  It is a book from which we can all learn a great deal.

Here are the authors’ thoughts from the Introduction to their history of motherhood, as translated from the French by Clio. Their observations are still worth pondering as the International Museum of Women prepares to launch its online exhibition “Mama.”

Do Mothers - and Motherhood -  have a history?

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"Historians have hardly paid attention to mothers. If a Blanche of Castille, a Catherine de Medici have attracted their attention, it is especially because they were queens and their motherhood carried political weight. Traditional history hardly entered into private life: first defined as the expression of human collectivities, it cristallized around the State and the Nation. Why did Herodotus write his Histories? To tell how the Greek people, despite their small number, triumphed over a great king with innumerable troops: thanks to this triumph, the Greeks became conscious of their national identity and their freedom. It was there that history was born, as consciousness of liberty: born of the idea that the human being was achieved through a collective destiny. In order to enter the field of history, it must, one thought, shed its individual dimension, the intimate and personal part of its existence. In this perspective, there can be no history except political history, at the civic level. . .].

"Mothers, with very rare exceptions, belong to private life, and even to the most intimate aspects of private life. They do not have history: at least this is what one might think, given the silence of historians. But, in our time, private life falls with a great clamour into the public domain, and everything becomes political. Could one go so far as to say that the recent laws on abortion and contraception have granted mothers this liberty which is the first condition of history? This would be false: they have acquired there an entirely negative, entirely individual liberty, the liberty for each to not be a mother, but not that of existing as mothers, collectively and actively. In fact, it was the public powers which constituted mothers as a homogenous but passive group, when they began to get nervous about the drop in the birth rate. Then we witnessed [the advent of] Mother’s Day, Motherhood Medals, assistance to mothers, protection of mothers. At the end of the nineteenth century and especially in the interwar period [of the twentieth century], one could suddenly measure the political importance of anonymous mothers in the nation. It is from there that the historians have taken up the issue: by interrogating the origins of dénatalité, they began to be concerned with mothers, but only indirectly, without placing them at the center of their inquiry. These first investigations, however, sufficed to make it clear that maternity lay neither outside time nor outside history.

"Once admitted as a subject of history, one must define it and locate its limits. To begin with, where does maternity begin and where does it end? The young woman who has just conceived for the first time – is she already a mother? And the grandmother who knits for her children’s children, is she still one? Does a mother who loses her children cease to be a mother? Maternity has no end. She who abandons her little ones, she who slays them, becomes an “unnatural mother,” a “criminal mother” – she does not cease to be a mother in the eyes of society. Further, who is a mother? She who gives birth to the infant? She who raises it? She who cherishes it and will love it always whatever else happens? In other words, is motherhood a biological function, a social function, a psycho-affective function? In one period, in one collectivity, one of these functions has been accented without the others necessarily disappearing. And how can we account for the cruel stepmother [marâtre], the godmother, the mother-in-law, the big sister who takes care of the little ones? Finally, motherhood is not the result of parthogenesis. The material and moral situation of the mother, her relationship to the infant, depend to a very great extent on the father, for better or worse. Can one speak of mothers, even of unmarried mothers, without thinking of love, marriage, laws and norms, of mentalities and family customs?

"Thus it is a vast subject, of indecisive form, this history of mothers. It spills over into the history of medicine and health by the birth process and care to newborns, into the history of demography by rates of birth and death, into that of material life and techniques with housework, into that of mentalities with regard to the carving up of masculine and feminine roles and generational conflicts, that of education, that of feelings. The quest for sources, indispensable materials for the historian, is not so easy. The historian quickly discovers that the consultable documents fall into two categories: on the one hand those that contain concrete information on maternal behavior, and on the other those who talk about maternity or who depict it. The first group are particularly of the demographic or ethnographic sort. By looking at documents from the civil registry and parish registers, demographic historians have been able to establish, for example, the age of mothers when their first child is born, the spacing of births, the total number of children born and surviving, the number of illegitimate births, of foundlings, of babies put out to wetnurses. Other sources provide information on traditional means of preventing births, the rate of infanticides, the closing of ranks by families around children. The ethnologists, for their part, explore the concrete environment of maternity and traditional practices about giving birth, breastfeeding, and infant care. All these phenomena can vary considerably with respect to the time, place, and surroundings: economic, political, and cultural factors that underlie these differences begin to be discernable little by little, attesting to the fact that mothers certainly do have a history. As for the discourses and representations that motherhood has inspired, they are for the most part produced by men. Theologians and moralists who announce the divine will, physicians and anthropologists who reveal the order of nature, jurists and statesmen who formulate the needs of society, artists who translate a sensibility: all speak abundantly about what a mother is and what she should be.

"During this time, paradoxically, the women, the mothers keep still. They have written poems and novels about love: they have not written poems or novels about maternal love. Even their letters are often lacking on this subject, apart from those of Madame de Sévigné. Nor do they describe their specific experiences: neither giving birth nor nursing have been the objects of any sincere and profound accounts until very recently. At the dawn of the nineteenth century one can see, at the same time as a decisive progress in the reduction of the birthrate among those in the higher levels of society, the arrival of a number of texts by women about little children. This is no accident, insofar as it is true that the act of writing is above all else the expression of a freedom. As long as babies were simply something one submitted to, the sign of biologic destiny, they were not discussed. The silence of women is a fact of civilization which scarcely lends itself to simple interpretations: the history of mothers is mysterious and difficult.

"Then why try to write it?

"History is memory. Individuals who lose their memories lose their identities at the same time. The same thing goes for human groups: inasfar as a group has no history, it has no identity, it does not exist as a group, however numerous it might be. But if it gives itself a history, it begins to exist; at the same time as its past, it has the possibility of constructing its future. The authors of this book, mothers and women historians hope to aid women in constructing theirs."

Source: “Les Mères ont-elles une histoire?,” Introduction to Yvonne Knibiehler and Catherine Fouquet, L’Histoire des Mères du moyen-âge à nos jours (Paris: Editions Montalba, 1980), pp. 4-6. Transl. from the French by Karen Offen