Ph.D. Octopus

Politics, media, music, capitalism, scholarship, and ephemera since 2010

Don’t Kill Your Baby!

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by Luce

I’ve written before about the evolving discourse in the twentieth and now twenty-first centuries surrounding women’s individual responsibility for the health of her child, whether during gestation or after birth. Such an individualistic focus (in that grand American tradition) of course tends to obscure environmental and socioeconomic factors that do much to harm the child or constrain a mother’s (or how about family’s) ability to care for a child.

“Better mothers” began to become synonymous with “better babies” in the early twentieth century with the rise of Progressivism and its focus on maternal reform. I’ve recently been reading Richard Meckel’s Save the Babies: American Public Health Reform and the Prevention of Infant Mortality 1850 – 1929. (It’s been fun to carry a book around that loudly declares in bold script “Save the Babies!!!!” on its cover — exclamation points obviously implied and the press, Johns Hopkins, really took a coward’s course in leaving them out). Previous reform efforts in the mid to late nineteenth century had focused on infants’ environment and then the milk they were fed, initially advocating cow’s milk as better than the physically and morally suspect qualities of a mother’s breast milk (I love all the various ways people have historically imagined a woman’s body contaminating her children.)

In any case, I came across this great image in Meckel’s book:

I think this really says something about the genealogy of the discourse of maternal responsibility in which we still operate and, given a huge amount of reform just a couple decades earlier pushing for mothers to use cow’s instead breast milk, the fact that our minds are never really made up about what exactly is best for baby. Also it should be noted that this was pasted on walls and fences in Chicago’s tenement districts in the Progressive era, highlighting the way these campaigns often targeted a specific immigrant urban population.


Written by Kristen Loveland

November 1, 2010 at 21:19

Posted in Uncategorized

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