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Teaching the History of Motherhood as "Big" History

Jacquelyn C. Miller
Associate Provost/Associate Professor of History Seattle University


      The History Department at Seattle University has made great headway in recent years with regard to introducing our majors at the 200-introductory level to many of the theoretical frameworks and methodologies used by world historians.  We have lagged far behind, however, with regard to our curriculum at the 300- and 400-levels.   Currently, we have only two courses being offered in our major that we can easily describe as world history courses.1   This small number of world history courses, however, has not kept us from being experimental in our approaches.  Tom Taylor's East Meets West course builds, in part, on the theme of cultural encounters that is developed in our 201-level methodology course, and my History of Motherhood course is an attempt to take a "big" history approach to world history.  This approach appears to be somewhat unusual in the field.  The purpose of this essay, then, is to discuss this uniqueness as well as to lay out how the various components of the course contribute to my claim of teaching motherhood as "big" history.  

      In his recent book, Maps of Time: An Introduction to Big History, David Christian notes that historians began to create courses in the late 1980s on the "big" history model.  Historians soon followed these courses with essays and books in order to shape an emerging historiographical perspective.  These courses and written works have attempted to organize intellectual content around a "grand unified story" that includes knowledge of the past at all scales from the molecular to the institutional.2   My history of motherhood course fits somewhat within this tradition in that it investigates motherhood from a variety of cross-cultural, cross-national, and cross-species perspectives from the beginning of time to the present.   Although I designed my course more around a thematic and comparative framework rather than offering a unified grand narrative, I've used the term "big" history to describe my effort.  I do so because I include both human and non-human experiences of mothering across millions of years of cultural and biological change as well as introducing students to a wide-range of beliefs, social practices, and somatic experiences with regard to mothering.

      The idea for this course grew out of an earlier course I was teaching on gender and sexuality in United States history.  Although the content of that course was anthropocentric, students kept bringing up stories or asking questions that involved other members of the animal kingdom, particularly within the context of discussions around homosexual behavior, monogamy, and gender issues regarding parenting practices. They also approached many of the topics under discussion from a cross-cultural and cross-national perspective.  I often felt I had inadequate knowledge to contribute to these discussions but was very intrigued by the idea of teaching a course that focused on a historical theme from a world-wide and cross-species perspective in order to understand human behaviors more thoroughly.  I chose the theme of motherhood for a variety of reasons.  While some were personal, the major factors had to do with the facts that motherhood is a universal experience--everyone has or has had a mother--and because there is a bounty of scholarly literature that could be broken down in an endless set of sub-themes that would easily fill a course syllabus.  Finally, I had learned from my gender and sexuality course that it was a topic that students found inherently interesting.

      To prepare myself for this new course challenge, I hired a student assistant to help me compile a bibliography on the history of motherhood. (Actually she did most of the work.)  That document currently contains a list of 643 dissertations, books, book chapters--which are often difficult to track down--and articles.  Because I also intended that students use this bibliography as a resource for research, we entered the bibliographic citations into an Excel spreadsheet with discrete sections for type of document,  author/editor, title, publication information, location of the study (i.e. U.S. Japan, etc.), and subject.  I devised a list of seventeen broad subject areas:  general/theory, con-traception/abortion/family planning, working/workplace/childcare, economics/welfare/ unwed, nationalism/war/identity, dynasty/queenship, infertility/menopause, imperialism/ post-colonialism, race, breastfeeding/wet nursing, politics/laws/activism/rights, infanti-cide/rejection, adoption/foster care, demographic developments, gay and lesbian par-enting, science/medicine, and technology/surrogacy.  Unsurprisingly, the boundaries be-tween categories are sometimes blurred and if I had it to do over, I would have added several more subject fields so that citations could have been entered under more than one category.  Also, at some future point, I would like to include a list of films in the bibliography.  I use a variety of documentary and feature films in the course that deal with the theme of motherhood, and I include some course content with regard to the ways in which Hollywood has constructed images of motherhood, particularly the working mother.  One caveat about the bibliography, however, is that although it does cover the histories of a wide range of topics, countries, and regions; I have limited it to English-language scholarship.  Consequently, it is not a truly global document.

      The students use this bibliography as an aid for their major assignment for the course which has been to research a topic on motherhood not covered in the course materials and to make a class presentation based on their research.  Because they can search the bibliography by field, it has been an important starting point and allows them to search by topic, region, author, or keywords in the titles.  Students tend towards topics that are comparative in nature.  For example, they have been able to compare adoption or abortion laws in the U.S. and a variety of other countries, or the experience of menopause, the preference for particular contraceptive methods, or childcare practices.  Students have also contributed to the thoroughness of the bibliography because they continue to discover citations from more obscure sources or from other disciplines that fit the criteria for inclusion. I even had a student who did a study of humanities databases to determine the feasibility of putting together a similar bibliography on the history of fatherhood.

      I have structured the course so that we spend the first two weeks of the ten-week quarter building on some of the feminist and post-colonial theories to which students have been exposed in History 200, or in some cases, on courses they have taken in the Women Studies minor.  A major topic of discussion is how motherhood and womanhood have been defined historically in terms of what is considered "natural" or "unnatural" and the roles that race and class play in defining motherhood in essentialist ways.  We begin with an excerpts from Patricia DiQuinzio's The Impossibility of Motherhood: Feminism, Individualism, and the Problem of Mothering and Gerda Lerner's The Creation of Patriarchy as a way of introducing students to two feminist theorists who approach motherhood from very different historical perspectives—one by looking at the history of feminist writings on motherhood and the other from an historical analysis of early human societies.  We also investigate these texts, as we do all others, for evidence of essentialist thinking.  Then, we read a few chapters from Dorothy Robert's Killing the Black Body: Race, Reproduction, and the Meaning of Liberty and a short selection from Phyllis Schlafly's The Power of the Positive Woman to provide students with alternative perspectives that challenge much of modern feminism from, on the one hand, a post-colonial framework and, on the other, an anti-feminist perspective. This approach also produces a heated discussion before we jump into the content of the course. 

      One of the keys to the success of this course has been the central text I currently use, which is Sarah Blaffer Hrdy's 1999 work entitled Mother Nature: Maternal Instincts and How They Shape the Human Species.  I've taught the course three times and I used a different text the first time--Susan Allport's A Natural History of Parenting: From Emperor Penguins to Reluctant Ewes, A Naturalist Looks at How Parenting Differs in the Animal World and Ours.  Allport's book went out of print very quickly and was not available the next time I taught the course.  I had decided to change texts for a few reasons, primarily because it didn't have the scholarly weight of Hrdy's book. Hrdy's text is more than twice the length--weighing in at close to six hundred pages of text and a hundred fifty of notes and bibliography--and is much denser than Allport's work. Students have found this book so fascinating, useful, and provocative, however--which means they read it and think about it--that I don't intend to give it up any time soon.  What eighteen to twenty-two year old student would reject a book that includes sections on the history of female orgasm or includes an illustration and caption that compares the male genitalia of apes and humans?3   But it's not just the more "racy" sections of the book the students find fascinating.  It's everything from her discussions of Charles Darwin's relationship with his parents to her analysis of why human babies are so plump.

      Hrdy takes an evolutionary ethnological approach to understanding the history of motherhood, eschewing both a biologically deterministic and a socially-constructed framework.  Biology matters to Hrdy—she is a trained as a primatologist and is well-versed in evolutionary theory—but she doesn't believe that biology explains everything.  She is also an anthropologist, and it shows.  One of her major arguments is that "nature cannot be compartmentalized from nurture" even though—and this she says tongue in cheek—"the need to organize information into neat binary oppositions like Nature versus Nurture may well be."4   The text forces students to think deeply and critically about their own assumptions of what is "natural" and what is "cultural," providing for many wonderful discussions and disagreements among members of the class.

      Although Hrdy's text introduces students to a wide range of human and non-human experiences with regard to mothering, it is not encyclopedic, nor is it a complete chronological account.  Instead, the text is divided into relatively short thematic chapters with two major historical threads running through the text.  One thread focuses on the history of scientific thinking on mothering and child development during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, beginning with Charles Darwin, continuing through John Bowlby's work on attachment theory and his critics who followed, and ending with Hrdy's own research on infanticide among langur monkeys in India with much in between.  The other thread deals with the long duree of human evolutionary adaptation within the context of social and cultural change as well as the remnants of the Pleistocene era humans are still coping with today. For example, the low fat content of human milk fit the lifestyle of early hominids in which mothers and infants were in close contact but creates havoc for working mothers in the modern world. 

      Hrdy also analyzes a myriad of motherhood and child development topics.  These topics include the maternal instinct, conception, gestation and maternal/fetal conflict, pregnancy, breastfeeding, bonding, the agency of infants, kinship, allomothering, abortion, infanticide and neonaticide, sex selection, and sibling rivalry.  What students really appreciate about the text is that the author discusses these topics within specific cultural and historical contexts in which she relies on a large body of historical, psychological, and anthropological studies done over the past thirty to fifty years.  For example, her discussions of abortion, neonaticide, and infanticide include: brief histories of foundling homes in Europe from the fifteenth century onward; sudden-infant-death-syndrome; sex selection in favor of boys in China, India, and Bangladesh; scientific discoveries of skewed sex ratios among other mammals, particularly wood lemmings whose ratios often match that of honey bees, wasps, and ants; and the ability of the female coypu, a large guinea pig-like animal, to spontaneously abort female fetuses in order to produce small male litters.  The information Hrdy provides is never merely anecdotal but is used to support her larger historical arguments about maternal behavior that often grows out of competing objectives among various interested parties.  In this sense, she herself practices "big" history.

      One of the major problems I had when I taught this course the first two times is that although students are typically very engaged with the subject matter, their personal experiences are often limited to that of their immediate family, social class, or ethnic or racial group.  They lived experience of history was "small."  They also often had very idealized views of mothering and the mother/child relationship and, as a result, were quite judgmental with regard to cultural behaviors outside their own experience.  Consequently, in order to provide them with a "big" experience of history,  I revised this course both to build on some of the historical topics and themes raised in the course readings and to expose students to "real life" mothering experiences in a couple of ways including adding a film component and service-learning project to the syllabus.  I know that some individuals may balk at using film to get at "real life" experiences," but I have found films a good way to encourage students to consider complicated and controversial ideas and to feel more empathy for an individual than by only reading written documents.  When I taught the course in the fall of 2005,  I used the films "Hideous Kinky," about a young, single English mother in search of spiritual enlightenment who travels to Marrakech in the 1970s with her two young daughters; "Rabbit-proof Fence," a story about government efforts to acculturate half-caste children from Western Australia to "white" Australian society and the efforts of three girls to return to their mother after being taken to an orphanage fifteen hundred miles away; "The Official Story," about the wife of an Argentinean businessman who suspects that her adopted daughter had been stolen from a family who were among "the disappeared"; "Raising Isaiah" about an African-American crack baby who is adopted by a white couple; and "Citizen Ruth," a satire about a pregnant drug addict who becomes a pawn in the culture wars between pro-choice and pro-life factions. 

      I also provide students with short readings to provide some historical context for the films.  For example, for "Hideous Kinky" we read an outstanding piece by Elizabeth Puttick from her book Women in New Religions: In Search of Community, Sexuality, and Spiritual Power that deals with mothers who are on religious journeys that often conflict with their child rearing responsibilities. For "Rabbit-proof Fence" we read Fiona Pailey's article, "'Unnecessary Crimes and Tragedies: Race, Gender, and Sexuality in Australian Policies of Aboriginal Child Removal."  All these films and readings focus on mothers (or potential mothers) and their relationships with larger social institutions including the family, the state, reform and service organizations, and religious organizations within particular historical contexts.  Although much of our discussion time was spent untangling these relationships and the power dynamics inherent within them, our discourse centered to a large degree on a particular open-ended question: What constitutes a good mother?  Focusing on this question often revealed students' own prejudices and assumptions about this very controversial topic and provoked many animated and sophisticated conversations that led to an awareness on the part of many that the ultimate answer to this question is contingent on many complex economic, political, cultural, and social factors.  In other words, being a good mother didn't necessary mean being a June Cleaver clone.

      To press this point further, to impress on students the variety of cultural practices with regard to mothering in their own community, and to help students see that the past continues to be lived in the present, I also designed a service-learning component for the course the last time I taught it.  Over the course of the quarter, students worked twenty-hours at one of three possible organizations—the Family and Adult Service Center, Providence Hospitality House, and the Church of Mary Magdalene—whose missions were to serve the needs of homeless mothers, homeless mothers and their children, or homeless families, respectively.  By working with women who are poor, abused, or, in some cases, unwilling mothers; students were given an opportunity to link theory with practice by investigating what they experienced at their service organization in light of the course materials and vice versa.  Over the quarter, students made these intellectual links by participating in three debriefing sessions and by giving a class presentation about the organization where they worked including an analysis of its stated mission, the values expressed by the staff, the role the mothers played in decision-making activities, the staff's expectations regarding the mothers' behavior, and other topics along these lines.  Because so many of the mothers the students encountered were from backgrounds very different from their own, including a large number of immigrant women from all over the world, students had some very profound cultural encounters that resulted in much reflection on their own roles within these social institutions.  As a result, they were able to frame their own interactions with these women within a post-colonial understanding of cultural exchange in some fairly sophisticated ways.

      Despite my fear when I designed this course along a "big" history model that it would be overwhelming for me and my students, I've actually discovered that students have found the general framework I've worked out for the course to be quite manageable as well as extremely interesting and challenging.  Taking a meta-level approach actually provided them with better analytical tools to deconstruct some of the micro-histories they read for their research papers at the end of the course.  Consequently, I hope my success with this course will inspire others to think both "small" in terms of focusing on a particular theme or topic for a future world history course but also to think "big" in the way you present the subject matter.  While daunting at first, it was well worth the anxiety and effort in the end.

Biographical Note: Jacquelyn Miller received her Ph.D. from Rutgers University in 1995 in early modern European and early American history with a teaching field in World History.  She has been at Seattle University since 1994, serving as Chair of the History Department from 2001-2005 and as Associate Provost for Academic Affairs since 2006.  Her most recent scholarship has focused on early American racial and gender identities, including  "The Wages of Blackness: African American Workers and Meanings of Race during Philadelphia's 1793 Yellow Fever Epidemic" Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 129 (2005): 163-194 and "Narratives of Manhood:  Exploring the Language of Health and Sickness in the Journals of the Lewis and Clark Expedition" Proceedings of the Conference on Health and Medicine in the Era of Lewis and Clark, (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, forthcoming, 2007).



1 All is not all doom and gloom in our department, however.  A couple of our faculty are moving in more of a world history direction in that they are creating courses that take a comparative perspective.  These faculty include Hazel Hahn who is currently developing two courses—one on European and Colonial Cities and the other on Film and History—and Tom Murphy who is planning to teach a course on the origins and development of the United States and Australia in the near future.

2David Christian, Maps of Time: An Introduction to Big History (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004), 4.

3 Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, Mother Nature: Maternal Instincts and How They Shape the Human Species (New York: Ballantine Books, 1999), 219, 222-223.

4 Hrdy, 147-148.








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