Nora Doyle’s Maternal Bodies:Redefining Motherhood in Early America (University of North Carolina Press, 2018) has won the 2019 Mary Kelley Prize in the History of Women, Gender, and Sexuality. The prize committee, including Stacey Robertson (Chair), Kate Haulman, and Leigh Fought, were “wowed” by Doyle’s work which, they believe, will change how we think about and teach the early American republic.
This book is a fascinating exploration of how women struggled with shifting intersections of sexuality, purity, motherhood, their own physical bodies, and power. Centered in the late eighteenth and first half of the nineteenth century, it convincingly shows that the maternal body, increasingly idealized as white and elite in this period, “disappeared” in cultural terms in the United States, even as corporeality still very much defined the experience of pregnancy, childbirth, and mothering for women. Widely researched in an array of sources, yet tightly argued and written, the book expertly juxtaposes the ideal and the “real,” the discursive and the experiential. Doyle utilizes cultural forms such as print and images in addition to women’s own voices, analyzing them in the same frame to sketch cultural change in the face of continuities.
Chief among the author’s contributions is highlighting the ongoing embodiment of enslaved women as well as women of the servant class, made to labor in so many ways—among those as wet nurses—against the effacement of more privileged women’s physicality. And related, that antislavery literature and imagery, intended to create affective bonds among women, in fact helped to reinforce difference and separation through reproducing the spectacle of the racialized maternal body. Likewise did ideas about breastfeeding and wet nursing separate mothers by class and race. There are sharp insights on nearly every page, and the book is in deep conversation with other scholars.
Many thanks to the prize committee members for their hard work in selecting Doyle’s book in what they say was a very competitive year for the Mary Kelley Book Prize, and for drafting this citation.