Abstracts

Below are the abstracts for the papers being delivered at the conference

L0038228 Diagram of a fetus, lying on its side, in an opened womb

Male discourses of contraception, pregnancy and fatherhood

Chris Orchard (Indiana University of Pennsylvania)

‘Masculine appropriations: the gendered discourse of pregnancy and childbirth in Early Modern England’

This paper proposes to examine how male writers in the mid-seventeenth century promoted the use of the metaphors of pregnancy and birth as exclusively masculine experiences to describe both imaginative and political processes. The gender fallout of this appropriation was a condescending dismissal of any suggested connection between female authorship and the experiences of pregnancy and birth.

When male writers talked about female literary conception, women writers were either perceived as birthing texts that were either not a similitude for the material realities of childbirth in the seventeenth century – multiple poetic births but without the risk of labor, pain, hemorrhaging and death ( for example, Katherine Philips) –   or exhibited a masculine presence within their texts ( an example was Anna Weamys who wrote a continuation of Sir Philip Sidney’s Arcadia but who was described as writing in a masculine style and who was delegated the role as the mid-wife to a text that Sidney, the male author, had begun).  In addition, arguing that women could not give birth to poetic texts themselves, male writers often demoted women to the position of readers who were encouraged to take the male poetic child and care for it, often when the ‘father’ was absent. Numerous male writers asked their female readers to ‘dandle’ the child on their laps, implying that their role was care-giver, an image that seemed to deny their ability to be the mother of the poetic child.

In contrast, male writers represented themselves as undergoing the whole range of experiences of pregnancy and childbirth. Writers would use specific vocabularly such as ‘tymphany’ (implying that they had read Nicholas Culpeper’s Directory for Midwives , a text that I will also talk about) to describe their anxieties about the early stages of writing, being ‘bigge’ and  feeling the ‘thumps and kicks’ of the pregnancy as the work proceeded. Furthermore, this male poetic body was negatively affected by the political upheavals of the Civil War that broke out in Britain in the 1640s. Several authors confided that they nearly aborted their textual offspring (unable to finish their work) or had imaginative miscarriages (unable to polish their work) because they were suffering pyschological stress from the war.

Moreover, the existence of this war saw male writers utilising these pregnancy metaphors in the wider public sphere of politics. Political affiliations –Parliamentarian or Royalist – were revealed by the extent to which authors believed that Parliament could produce legislation in the absence of the king. Given the commonplace familial metaphors of King as father and Parliament as mother, those hostile to Parliament figured its legislation in terms of abortions, premature deaths or illegitimate offspring of a sickly mother. Conversely, Pro- Parliamentarians saw legislation as healthy offspring whose maturation was a sign of the strength of their cause. In either case, like poetic productions, masculine political discourse appropriated exclusively female experiences and made them their own.

Katarzyna Bronk (Adam Mickiewicz University, Poland)

‘”Both arms full of children”: William Cobbett’s lessons on parenthood, motherhood and maternity’

William Cobbett (1763-1835) is remembered as a controversial politician, prolific writer and journal editor. Apart from writing on public, agricultural and educational topics, he is the author of a conduct manual, titled Advice to Young Men and (Incidentally) to Young Women in the Middle and Higher Ranks of Life. In a Series of Letters (1829-1830). In this conduct book Cobbett presents a detailed and well-reasoned description of a young man’s development, seeing himself as the ultimate proof for the effectiveness of his advice and suggestions. The manual is divided into seven parts, corresponding with the stages of life that a man needs to go through, and one of them is aimed at fashioning the ideal father, who actively engages not only in the raising and education of his children, but also supervises his wife in her preparation for becoming a mother and describes the proper performance of mother-identity.

Already in Letter IV, dedicated to the husband, Cobbett warns his prospective male reader: “There are, comparatively, very few women not replete with maternal love; and, by-the-by, take you care, if you meet with a girl who ‘is not fond of children,’ not to marry her by any means” (123). Such initial guidelines are followed, in the section for fathers, with detailed and expected lessons on fatherhood, but Cobbett also discusses breastfeeding and the dangers of ‘a hireling breast’; the value of women’s suffering; inoculations; childcare; as well as postnatal mental changes in women. The present paper offers a close reading of Cobbett’s lessons on fatherhood, but also, and most importantly, on maternity and motherhood, which were to guarantee the well-being of a family unit as well the future of the entire country. As such, the paper will contribute to scholarship on the adrocentric visions of femininity and masculine fantasies on the ideal woman, her role and duties in early Victorian society.

 Ben Mechen (UCL)

‘ “Bringing you closer together”: Durex condoms, men and contraception in 1970s Britain’

Condoms have remained understudied in histories of sexuality and contraception, despite their endurance over centuries as a common method of pregnancy and disease prevention. Their relative absence from such histories stands in particular contrast to the centrality of the Pill in works covering the postwar period, as well as more popular accounts of the “Sexual Revolution.” Drawing upon my research on the development of the Durex brand in the 1970s, this paper argues that the history of condoms can provide insights into how ideas about the purposes of sex, locations of contraceptive responsibility and proper components of masculinity changed in postwar Britain.

At the beginning of the Seventies, Durex, which had dominated the British contraceptive market for thirty years, faced the existential threat of a reliable female-use alternative, the Pill, becoming available through the NHS. Assisted by the relaxation of restrictions on condom advertising, Durex looked to secure its position by investing heavily in product design and marketing, and the creation of a recognisable “Durex” brand.

The paper traces this development of “contraceptive consumerism” through two stages: in the early 1970s, an emphasis on the condom’s “safety” compared to other methods (especially the Pill, characterised as replete with “side-effects”), and the implicit recapitulation of “safe sex” as the responsibility of men rather than women; in the later 1970s, the replacement of this emphasis by one linking condoms to enhanced, rather than diminished, sexual pleasure. Central was the development of new Durex lines, including flavoured and coloured varieties and the ribbed Durex Unison, which, with a sly wink, promised to “bring” partners “closer together.” By conceiving of a male sexual body improved by technology, the paper concludes by suggesting that these experiments with form, still central to Durex’s brand, give us a window onto how male bodies have been “posthumanised” in contemporary society.

 

 Religion, pregnancy and birth

Shaima Hassan (Liverpool John Moores University) 

‘A longitudinal study exploring Muslim women’s transition to motherhood within the NHS’

There are 800,000 Muslim women in Britain today and their health needs or experiences of health services have not been extensively researched (Laird et al., 2007; Maternity Alliance, 2004). Evidence in this area suggests that more could be done from a service provision perspective to support Muslim women through what some studies consider to be the most spiritually and culturally significant life event. Muslim women commonly observe certain religious and cultural practices during their motherhood journey, an appreciation of which provides unique insights into the lives of Muslims (Gatrad and Sheikh 2001). Much effort has been undertaken over several decades to change childbirth in the UK to enhance the experiences of those using maternity services. However, research indicates that the maternity services in the UK could improve on their provision of culturally/religiously appropriate care that could possibly help meet the needs of women from Islamic background and other diverse populations. Improving the understanding among NHS staff of certain aspects of Islamic beliefs and practices could greatly enhance maternity service provision and Muslim women’s experience of maternity care. It is important for NHS staff to demonstrate an understanding of Islamic beliefs/practices to help enhance Muslim women’s motherhood experiences. This study is part of a PhD project to investigate Muslim women’s perceived needs during their maternity journey and explore the factors that influence their health seeking decisions when engaging with UK maternity services. The study used a longitudinal approach, interviewing eight first time pregnant women from Muslim backgrounds at different stages of their maternity journey (antennal, labour and postnatal). Using thematic analysis four initial factors relevant to Muslim women’s experience were identified; 1) Beliefs of Motherhood 2) Fate and Medical interventions 3) Perceptions of Health professionals and Seeking support 4) Awareness of services and Information, a summary of themes identified will be presented.

Magdalena Ohaja (Trinity College Dublin)

‘Co-existing belief systems of pregnancy and birth in South-eastern Nigeria and their influence on women’s health-seeking behaviour’

In South-eastern Nigeria, the maternal body during pregnancy and birth is commonly perceived in indigenous socio-cultural and religious terms. In other words, perceptions about pregnancy and childbirth represent a set of socio-cultural and religious beliefs for women as well as for their care providers. These beliefs also play a major role in shaping women’s health seeking behaviour. However these indigenous ways of perceiving pregnancy and birth are considered neither legitimate nor authoritative in most contemporary societies where health care is biomedically driven.

The aim of this paper is to highlight the influence of women’s perceptions of pregnancy and birthing on their health seeking behaviour in South-east Nigeria. Data are drawn from on-going PhD research informed by hermeneutic phenomenology and poststructural feminist philosophy. Individual in-depth interviews were conducted on site following ethical approval from relevant institutions.

Formal and informal maternity care systems still exist alongside each other in Nigeria. Women’s decisions in relation to the place of care/birth are largely influenced by their perceptions of pregnancy. A majority of women in the rural area consider pregnancy as a natural life event; therefore they avail of the services of traditional birth attendants (TBAs). Moreover, even though many women in the urban area attend formal maternity settings during the antenatal period, this is not a guarantee that they will give birth in a formal setting. Despite encroaching western policies that aim to abolish indigenous maternity care practices, many women still prefer this option. The persistent existence and use of both formal and informal models of care exposes the inadequacy of obstetric models in addressing women’s needs. The experience of pregnancy and birth remains embodied, and embedded within socio-cultural and religious beliefs. Therefore any effort at improving pregnancy outcomes and reducing maternal deaths must understand, and address these issues.

Ailish Veale (Trinity College Dublin)

‘”For it is by example above all that the nuns influence these girls’: Contradictions and tensions in 20th century Catholic missionary maternities’

Much of the literature on female missionaries has focused on the experience of Protestant missionaries in the nineteenth century.  There has been considerable discussion of the role of missionary wives as examples of femininity, and missionary families, as models of ‘proper’ Christian family dynamics.  Despite their professional qualifications or evangelizing ambitions, the single lady-doctor’s missionary role was to closely resemble that of missionary wives.  She too was to serve as an example of appropriate Christian womanhood, instructing her female patients in mothercraft, feminine hygiene and propriety.  However this research has paid little attention to celibate Catholic medical missionary sisters, and their unique role in promoting Western methods of maternity, and Catholic family values to women in Africa and Asia from the early 20th century.

Using anthropological accounts, missionary publications and correspondence, this paper will focus on the early work of the Medical Missionaries of Mary (MMM), an Irish congregation of medical missionary nuns founded in 1937.  In particular, this paper will focus on the congregation’s initial medical mission work in Nigeria, between 1937 and 1945.  During this period the MMMs were exclusively composed of sister-nurses, many of who staffed a small missionary maternity hospital in South East Nigeria.  There they worked to promote Western methods of maternity, and Catholic family values, alongside Irish priests and a Catholic German doctor.  This paper will aim to tease out the various tensions that occurred within this gendered medical missionary encounter between Nigerian women and the Irish missionary sisters.  In particular it will seek to highlight the complex nature of the local women’s engagement with the MMM maternity services, and the missionaries’ own understandings and misunderstandings of local customs and beliefs surrounding maternity and childbirth.

 

Perceptions of the female body in literature

 Abigail Boucher (University of Glasgow)

‘The Monk and the Menopause’

Matthew Lewis’s 1796 novel, The Monk, highlights a thorny point in the Gothic field where the female body, medicine and horror intersect. What Lewis portrays as disturbing is also inescapable: the process of aging and, more specifically, a woman’s transition away from her childbearing years. Though aged women in this text are conveyed as a minor point of horror amidst Lewis’s grander contemplation of religious fanaticism, torture and rape, his barely-concealed disgust and overt ribaldry at women who can no longer become pregnant illustrates a deep discomfort with the stage of life he did not understand and therefore feared.

Using Jeannette King’s Discourses of Ageing in Fiction and Feminism and 18th-century medical treaties on menopause, this article will show that Lewis and the environment in which he operated believed women to be victimised by their bodies, the body’s value determined by its ability to produce children and thereby, from a patriarchal perspective, to remain attractive. After such time as a woman is unable to fulfil these duties, she is no longer considered a woman and is barely considered human. In an era where fewer than 30% of women lived to see menopause, those who did became outliers in society, without the bodily imperative of pregnancy to dictate their position or purpose.

While Lewis’s depiction of female bodies of all ages is, at best, problematic for a modern reader, his specific treatment of older women is a harsh regurgitation of contemporary medical discourse, showing this issue originates from and influences a much larger sphere. Despite the first minor stirrings of menopausal research which began around the time of Lewis’s writing, the majority of socio-medical rhetoric had remained unchanged since antiquity and remains under-explored to this day.

 Olivia Gunn (Pacific Lutheran University)

‘Babies, Artworks, Executioners: Bourgeois perceptions of pregnancy in Ibsen and Sandel’

This paper compares Norwegian bourgeois perceptions of pregnancy and the tensions between biological and aesthetic reproduction in Henrik Ibsen’s contemporary plays and Cora Sandel’s Alberta trilogy (1926, 1931, 1939). In Ibsen, the bourgeois parlor and reproductive family are threatening to and threatened by individual freedom. Unlike Ibsen’s women and their babies, Sandel’s Alberta escapes the bourgeois parlor of her youth, becoming a free(er) agent in Paris. She does not, however, escape her horror of sexuality – perceiving pregnancy as its inevitable, freedom-destroying end – and cannot escape the prison of her female body in a masculine world. In addition to taking an interest in pregnancy and (in Ibsen’s case doomed) babies, both Ibsen and Sandel make use of the reproductive metaphor, wherein the artist is conceived as the parent of the artwork; and both suggest that babies and independent personhood are conflicting – if not mutually destroying – entities. But whereas Ibsen’s women are just waking up to conflicts between maternal and universal/normative identity, Sandel’s novels use their female protagonist to comment more explicitly on problems of sexual difference. While Nora longs to be “first and foremost a human being,” Alberta longs to “give birth” to poetry and sees the midwife as an executioner, but cannot shake the feeling that worldly fulfillment comes only through attachment to a man. I will consider the extent to which it makes sense to refer to Ibsen’s depictions of reproduction in terms of early equality feminism, exploring Sandel’s work as potentially in conflict with this mode of understanding the world. Finally, then, this paper addresses literary perceptions of pregnancy, with particular attention to class, and uses Ibsen’s and Sandel’s works as critical sites for exploring approaches to gender and the reproductive metaphor in distinct feminisms and queer theory.

 Francesca Chiappini (University of Milan)

‘”I shall die this time”: Motherhood as sin in Djuna Barnes’ Ryder

This paper aims to explore how the idea of sinful motherhood is textualised in twentieth-century women’s literature. In particular, I will focus on the novel Ryder by Djuna Barnes (1897-1987), as a case of remediation of themes and forms dating back to the Middle Ages and Renaissance. Formally, Ryder (1928)claims to be an illustrated family biography; in fact, it stands in the balance between a virtuous late-modernist experiment, and a post-modernist fragmented collage. Djuna Barnes attempted discussing traditional artistic forms and subjects, as immediately evident in the drawings: within the frames of 15th and 16th-century style woodcuts, she set irreverent scenes performed by characters in puritan clothes.

In the novel, the core of Barnes’ attention lies in a bitter denunciation of motherhood and of its implications. Pregnancy is configured as the most undesirable condition for a woman in Ryder – especially when legitimate. It is both sinful because it is identified as the main cause of death among women, and because it disguises a criminal act: generating life in a corrupted world means condemning innocents to perpetual suffering. Legitimate pregnancy is even more criminal to Barnes, since it is intentional and legally accepted – if not encouraged. Men and women are recognised as equally guilty in the act of procreation. Men, victim of their beastly instincts, pursue satisfaction of their sexual desire; women, passive and listless, are incapable of resisting seduction. If marriage is nothing more than a legal front for authorising rape and disguising domestic prostitution, pregnancy is the inconvenient incident which incriminates the co-culprits. However, parenthood most affects the woman, who eventually pays for her sin. In feministic tones, Barnes shows how, even in the twentieth century, women could not get free from motherhood, a form of submission imposed and justified within the frame of a manly historical institution.

 

Infertility in medieval and early modern England

Catherine Rider (University of Exeter)

‘Defining and Perceiving Infertility in Medieval England’

Medieval sources – both medical texts and writing in other genres – generally present infertility as a problem, but what exactly did they mean by infertility?  How far was it distinguished from other conditions which might cause a couple to be childless, such as sexual dysfunction, repeated miscarriage, or the death of children in infancy or later?  Recent work on perceptions of pregnancy in the early modern period has suggested that the early stages of pregnancy were a time of uncertainty, when women were often unsure about whether they were really pregnant or not, and this is likely to have implications for how they defined and perceived the absence of an obvious pregnancy.  However, these issues have not been much explored, especially for the Middle Ages.  This paper will examine how infertility is defined in a range of medieval sources, including medical texts, Bible commentaries and miracle narratives which describe the birth of a child after a couple has prayed for a saint’s assistance.  It will ask how infertility was defined and how far it was distinguished from other causes of childlessness.  It will also explore the range of different views found in the learned discourses of medieval England, asking in particularly whether medicine viewed this issue differently from non-medical writing.

Amanda Capern (University of Hull) and Judith Spicksley (University of York)

‘”The most severe Affliction that can attend a Family”: infertility and its consequences for perceptions of the female body, 1650-1750’

For a number of years the changing construction of the female body, apparent during the shift to modernity, has been interpreted through a masculine lens. Much of this relates to the developing sphere of medical knowledge, in which men were the primary contributors. It is now nearly thirty years since Angus McLaren argued that ‘the rights of women to sexual pleasure were . . . eroded as an unexpected consequence of the elaboration of more sophisticated models of reproduction’. Five years later Thomas Laqueur outlined a move from a ‘one-sex’ to a ‘two-sex’ body model, which he too characterised as a consequence of developments in knowledge about reproduction, employed by men to ‘justify their dominance of the public sphere’. Change was neither swift nor linear, but the construction of woman that began to emerge in this period not only withdrew from the idea of women as overtly libidinous but championed a distinction between masculine and feminine attributes that rendered women naturally inferior to men. Here we argue that shifts in the way the female body was represented were not a response to new forms of knowledge, nor – at least initially – a political response to modernity by a worried masculinity; instead, they were driven by heightened concerns about barrenness. In other words, it was not so much the nature of conception that occasioned a reworking of the body, sexuality and gender after c. 1650, as the problem of infertility.

Sarah Toulalan (University of Exeter) 

TBC

 

Pregnancy loss and miscarriage

Jennifer Evans (University of Hertfordshire)

‘”Before midnight she had miscarried”: women, men and miscarriage in early modern England’

The possibility for miscarriage to occur in early modern England was great, and medical texts at the time warned women of the signs of impending danger. Medical treatises included information on how to prevent and treat miscarriages. Included in these discussions and in the discussions of the wider populations, were treatments to help women recover from miscarriages. Reproduction and childbirth have both been the subject of extensive historical scholarship, however, miscarriage appears to have received far less attention. Laura Gowing has discussed the openness of the pregnant body to the community and Janine Hurl has looked at the ways in which women constructed narratives of miscarriage in court to gain power. This paper seeks to add to these discussions by considering the gendered nature of the experiences and treatment of miscarriage. It is evident that although birth may have been an experience dominated by the presence of women, miscarriage was far less gendered and that men could have an active role to play in the care of women in this situation. The paper will therefore suggest that more attention should be paid to the gendered nature of reproductive medicine. Moreover, it will build on recent scholarship that seeks to address the tendency to assume that domestic medicine was provided by female members of the household.

Sara Read (University of Loughborough)

‘”I did not think I had bine with childe”: perceptions of miscarriage and God’s Will’

Miscarriages, or spontaneous abortions, were a familiar experience for many in early modern times.  The way that many women found to rationalise this event was often through recourse to religion. This was something many women found comfort from since for the majority of early modern people God was a very real tangible presence in their lives. So for some women like Lady Mary Carey, the idea that God had gathered her baby to be with him was something she could take solace from. Indeed it was a miscarriage that inspired Lady Mary’s last and most famous poem, ‘Upon the Sight of my abortive Birth the 31st of December 1657’. In this poem Carey could make the extraordinary claim that ‘I also joy, that God hath gained one more / To praise him in the Heav’ns, then was before’. An additional rationalisation suggested that miscarriage could be deemed a punishment from God for some apparent misdemeanour. Carey alludes to this when she suggests that God might have taken this baby as a lesson to her: ‘May be the Lord looks for more Thankfulness, / And high Esteem forthose I do possess’ or in other words, to show her that she should be more grateful for the living children she has been blessed with.

This paper examines accounts of miscarriage both in literary texts and in personal writings,  and views them from a context which shows the way that women’s bodily health was conceived as being inextricably linked to her spiritual health. The paper will show that the perception of the successful outcome of any pregnancy was linked to God’s will and that even miscarriages could be rationalised as a successful event if it taught the mother to submit more closely to God, as Lady Carey wrote: ‘Let not my hart, (as doth my Womb) miscarry’.

Ortal Slobodin (Duivendrecht, the Netherlands)

‘The aborted time: a temporal view on the trauma of pregnancy loss’

During the last years, our understanding of abortions (spontaneous or induced) as a potential trauma has increased. Recent studies revealed that many women suffer from post-traumatic symptoms long after the miscarriage, including anxiety, avoidance, re-experiencing, helplessness, shame, and guilt. The traumatic element of pregnancy loss was previously attributed to thethreat to the physical integrity, the sudden loss, and the lack of control.

This paper explores the trauma of pregnancy loss from a temporal view. It is known that traumatic incidents effect and distort the normal perception of time. However, the association between time and trauma was never examined in the context of pregnancy loss.

The dimension of time has a unique importance in pregnancy. On the one hand, the passage of time reflects a healthy development of the baby and the mother. On the other hand, the medicalization of childbirth and the technological advances dictate a linear, rigid timelines that dramatically affect time-perceptions of pregnant women.

During the weeks of pregnancy, the mother gradually establishes an image of herself as a mother to a new baby. This intensive mental and physical activity, composed of fantasies, dreams and plans, is highly necessary for the psychological birth of the mother (Stern, 1998). However, when a pregnancy is abruptly terminated, the sense of development, coherence, and continuity is compromised. The vital movement towards the future is replaced by feelings of atrophy, emptiness, and ‘freezing’. The basic assumption of this paper is that because the concept of time carries an extraordinary meaning for pregnant women, a sudden loss of a pregnancy causes a painful breach in the continuity of being that might explain the complex emotional reaction.  Clinical examples are used to illustrate how traumatic interferences to time-experience are reflected in narratives of women who lost their pregnancies.

 

 Medical developments and frameworks

Laura Neff (Royal Holloway)

‘The surgical exploration of maternal medicine 1860-1890’

Surgeons and physicians believed that abdominal operations were unmanageable in the mid-nineteenth century; yet, within a mere fifty years abdominal surgeries were routinely executed.  Male abdominal surgery was rare and considered outside the applied practices of internal surgery as growths such as tumours or cancers were linked to reproductive development.  A cohort of influential surgeons began their careers only performing such operations on women in extreme cases.  Indeed, the surgeons themselves combined the treatment of the diseases of women with the development of abdominal surgery. Thus, women as patients experienced dangerous and exploratory procedures with instances of difficult deliveries, complicated pregnancies or reproductive tumours each presenting what clinicians perceived as urgent and necessary entry into the abdominal cavity.

Within these texts, surgeons imagined a female form that was unpredictable and abnormal. In turn, this led surgeons to construct female bodies as in a state of constant flux, requiring surgical intervention to avoid danger—yet, many of these procedures exposed women and their unborn children to infection, disease and untimely death. Abdominal surgeons in the late-nineteenth century fluctuated between surgical specialisms. The narrative around the social and cultural anxieties surrounding surgery and the diseases of women lacks a somewhat cohesive and traceable history. Nevertheless, this complexity requires in-depth and careful analysis as the bodies of women are constantly renegotiated by social and cultural norms.

This talk will examine how obstetric surgeons, recognized by the Royal College of Surgeon’s Charter in 1884, as well as general surgeons, practised risky abdominal operations on the bodies of women.

Olivia Ekman (Umeå University Sweden)

‘Preventing the unexpected: the role of eclampsia in the formation of prophylactic care in the 20th century’

This is a story about how prophylactic care came to succeed in fighting one world history most dreaded pregnancy complication – eclampsia.

Eclampsia is a disease that affects pregnant women. It has been known and studied for centuries but no cure has been found. It is still responsible for thousands of deaths annually in the developing countries. In Sweden, however, the death rate of eclampsia drastically decreased over the 20th century. Here, prognoses from the beginning of the century referred to a death rate of about 18 % of the affected. Today this number is even lower. In 2013 only one women died from this disease in Sweden. Hence, despite the fact that no cure has been found, something significant happened during the century that reduced the mortality statistics.

In the early 20th century, medical science had gone through a larger change. The enigma of puerperal fever had been solved due to Semmelweis, which made finding a cure for eclampsia the next biggest challenge. This cure has so far not been found. Instead prophylactic care played a crucial part. It was this development that was to drive down mortality rates to the low level we have today.

When arguing for prophylactic care, Sweden and England took different roads. Eclampsia got a rather prominent role in the medical discussion in both England and Sweden, but the disease is hardly mentioned in the Swedish official political discourse. While fighting eclampsia was a main reason for establishing prenatal care in England this was not the case in Sweden. My aim is to show what role eclampsia came to play in the development of prenatal care in Sweden.

Malgorzata Stach (Trinity College Dublin)

‘The technological imperative as a continuing preoccupation in relation to childbirth’

The use of medical technology in birth has been intensifying in Western maternity care (Wagner 2006, Walsh et al., 2008). A high-tech approach to birth has become a socially accepted reality, technology considered a necessary part of the birthing process. The criticism of such approach to maternity care is increasingly apparent in public debate (Davies et al. 2011) and some concessions to its demands have been made (Davis-Floyd et al. 2009). However, the procedures which are the most powerful manifestations of women’s dependence on technology (e.g. Ceasarean section, induction of labour, electronic fetal monitoring) are on the increase (Davis-Floyd 1992).

The aim of this paper is to explore continuing preoccupations with the technological imperative in maternity care and its power to authoritatively conceptualise the birthing process. I would argue that this imperative is not only supporting an ever increasing presence of technology in birth but also provides a general framework for thinking in technological terms about birth and maternity care which is difficult for women to challenge.

I would like to distinguish two understandings of this imperative at work. The first is a preference for the latest, most technologically complex equipment and procedures which once made accessible, are considered necessary. The second, more comprehensive understanding resonates with Bauman’s notion of technology as a closed system of self-corroborating beliefs (Bauman 1993), where the technological imperative allows for the very definition of certain aspects of the world as “problems” which must then be managed technologically. Thus, within this paradigm it is possible to conceptualise birth as susceptible to standardisation and rationalisation, as well as division into separate technical “problems” each of which has technological solutions. This is the understanding of the technological imperative which needs to be challenged, if thinking about birth and maternity care is to be de-technologised.

 

Early modern pregnancy and childbirth

Anna Andreeva (University of Heidelberg)

‘Pregnancy and childbirth in early modern and medieval Japan’

In early and medieval Japan (985-1336), pregnancy and childbirth were risky affairs that spelt danger for both unborn child and woman, and caused much anxiety to the relatives, physicians, midwives, and many religious specialists involved in these events.

In the elite households, the expectations of pregnancy would be dependent, on the one hand, on the physicians’ theoretical knowledge of women’s bodily matters and practical help of female attendants and midwives. In large part, the physician’s actions would rely on prescriptions outlined in Japan’s earliest medical collection, the “Ishinpô”, particularly, the volumes related to pregnancy, childbirth and general women’s health. On the other hand, a number of religious specialists, usually, high-ranking Buddhist clerics, diviners, and mediums would be invited to communicate with and expiate malevolent spirits who often interfered during pregnancy and labour, and to provide ritual protection to both foetus and woman. The religious framework set specific boundaries to the ways the female body were conceptualised and understood; it often diverged from the medical view, creating tensions between the prescriptions of a doctor and recommendations of a diviner or exorcist.

Focusing on the visual and literary sources, court records, diaries, ritual documents, and Japan’s early medical collection, “Ishinpo,” this talk will reconstruct a part of the cultural history of pregnancy and childbirth as it unfolded in aristocratic households of Heian and Kamakura Japan. As part of a larger ongoing research project, this talk will also introduce a series of medical and ritual prescriptions for women, regarding menstruation, infertility, conception, pregnancy, easy or complicated birth, and safe child rearing. Some of these prescriptions continued to circulate until the early modern period and reflected a diverse array of ideas regarding women’s bodies.

Anna French (University of Birmingham)

‘”The godly counsaile of a gentle-woman”: fear, pregnancy and early motherhood in Reformation England’

Various editions of a tract entitled ‘The Mothers Blessing’ were published throughout the seventeenth century, in which the dying mother, Dorothy Leigh, described her fears for her children; “I beeing troubled and wearied with feare, lest my children should not find the right way to heauen”. Indeed, being a mother, being a parent, during the early modern period was a time of life fraught with anxiety, and both the physical and spiritual welfare of children were seen to be at great risk. This paper will look in particular at the spiritual aspect of being a mother in early modern England, during the time of the Reformation, a period of huge religious and spiritual change. The paper will explore both how and why early modern pregnancy and early motherhood was such a time of fear, looking at the ways in which society, and in particular the Protestant Church, responded to the lives of women and children. The paper will explore how religious perceptions surrounding beliefs about sin and salvation were able to shape the experiences of pregnancy and infancy. During this time pregnancy was seen to be a precarious and dangerous, although necessary, journey – but the fact of pregnancy itself was also an admission of carnal sin – for which both the mother and child were at risk. Infants, born of this carnal desire and also inheriting the stain of original sin, were seen to be corrupted vessels whose spiritual status and physical lives were potentially in danger. The paper will explore how the much debated early modern ‘cleansing’ rites of churching and baptism attempted to negotiate the murky waters of pregnancy and infancy, and will consider the connections between fear, pregnancy and motherhood, as well as the associated relationships between pregnancy, motherhood, sin and salvation.

 

Infanticide and neonaticide

Julia Allison (University of Nottingham)

‘Illegal pregnancy in Tudor, rural East Anglia: perception, consequences and outcomes’

This paper considers illegal pregnancy among married and unmarried women in the coastal counties of Elizabethan rural East Anglia. A wide range of contemporary archive documents have been searched and the rate and outcomes of illegal pregnancy are disclosed. Likewise the incidence and means of infanticide among unmarried and married mothers is also discussed.

Questions addressed include the identity and family background of the women who gave birth to bastards, their marital status, occupation, circumstances of the pregnancy and the inequity of punishment is outlined. In some cases the midwife who delivered them has been identified and the consequent evidence given at the court hearing in cases where the putative father denied responsibility is disclosed.  Likewise the rate of base birth and outcomes to mother and child are compared to those of married women.  The opinion of priests and magistrates involved at the baptism or bastardy hearing are revealed through entries in parish registers and court reports of bastardy cases. Finally the consequence to mother and child of a base birth, in terms of mortality will be disclosed and discussed.

The findings highlight the dire plight of both mother and child in cases of illegal childbirth in Elizabethan, rural East Anglia and serve as a measure of the perceived place of women in Tudor society.

Silvia Chiletti Max Planck Institute)

‘Ignored pregnancies: dissimulations, doubts and errors in medical and medico-legal knowledge about pregnancy in 19th century France’

At the turn between eighteenth and nineteenth century, pregnancy is one of the privileged objects of attention for French medicine, especially forensics. From this moment on, the texts of this new discipline represent a place of production and circulation of knowledge about this female condition, sometimes anticipating issues, which are not yet considered by other medical branches. A specific question arises at this time, in the context of forensic discussions about the crime of infanticide: is it possible that a woman ignores her own pregnancy? The topic is nowadays addressed especially by psychology and psychiatry, under the name of ‘pregnancy denial’, but during 19th century medical answers to this question had nothing to do with the concept of ‘denial’ and rather considered multiple points of view, both physical, moral and psychological explanations, which came across different medical disciplines. Even though, during the whole 19th century, it was still not very clear if the issue had to be dealt with from a medical or a juridical point of view.

My talk intends to explore how this question emerges in a specific historical context and undergoes different medical and scientific discourses during the whole 19th century. Obstetrics, forensics and psychiatry tried to formulate a consistent and satisfying explanation for such incredible cases. How does the rise of such disciplines contribute in creating new scientific objects? How does the perception of pregnant body change thanks to the emergence of a new scientific gaze?

Sylvia Murphy Tighe (Trinity College Dublin) and Joan Lalor (Trinity College Dublin) 

‘Concealed pregnancy and Neonaticide: A changing knowledge base.’

This paper presents a critical review of the literature in relation to concealed pregnancy and neonaticide. Concealed pregnancy is a complex phenomenon and a significant public health issue which has implications for the health and wellbeing of women and their babies. The impact of concealment on maternal-infant attachment is unknown and recurrence may be a feature in future pregnancies.   Further more serious risks for the infant may include newborn abandonment  and neonaticide. Neonaticide may occur in response to intense emotional distress, fear and shock following many months of concealment. Recent high profile cases of concealment and neonaticide will be used as context to assist in the exploration of this issue. This paper will also explore judicial responses to neonaticide following concealment.

A systematic search of the literature was performed using the Cinahl, PsychArticles, PsychInfo and PubMed databases using “concealed pregnancy”, “denied pregnancy” and “neonaticide” as key words from the years 1990-2013. Websites hosting professional guidelines were reviewed and the grey literature was searched using Index to Theses.  A thematic analysis of these papers will be presented which identify the links between concealed pregnancy and neonaticide.

A critical review of the literature and thematic analysis has indentified that a clear link exists between concealed pregnancy and neonaticide. The literature indicates that women who conceal their pregnancies experience fear, emotional isolation, panic, denial and dissociation. Neonaticide may be an impulsive response rather than a premeditated act of aggression. In addition relational and cultural factors may impact on an individuals’  behaviour. Safeguarding children is important, however it is essential that women are not viewed as offenders when they are concealing their pregnancies. Care pathways and supportive services for women who choose to conceal their pregnancies are essential. Understanding the concept of concealed pregnancy and its’ association with neonaticide is important for developing research, healthcare policy and maternity and infant services.

 

Visualising pregnancy and the unborn child

Sarah Griffin (Independent Scholar)

‘The anatomy of creation: a thirteenth-century schematic uterus diagram of MS Ashmole 399 in the Bodlian library Oxford’

The schematic uterus diagram of MS Ashmole 399 in the Bodleian Library was created between the first surge of medieval medical texts and the normalisation of human dissection. This begs the question: how was such a sophisticated image of the organ produced? A visual deconstruction of the image identifies the various sources of the diagram: a combination of medieval medical texts, first-hand experience of pig dissection and the measurements of the male reproductive system, uniting the Galenic theory that the male reproductive system was an everted uterus with a schematic image of the penis within the same manuscript. The diagram’s creator, however, intended not only to capture the organ’s physiognomy, but also its physiological function: reproduction. In order to visualise a process unobservable to a medieval viewer, the creator displayed the narrative of reproduction within a single image: depicting both conception and pregnancy. They also used a schematic language which was contemporaneously used to express the intangible mechanisms that lie behind the universe, from science to theology.

In an evaluation of the diagram’s use, two trends within fourteenth-century medicine are revealed: the recognition of a medicine specifically for women and the use of images and therefore manuscripts within practical medicine.  The few surviving contemporary representations of the female reproductive system demonstrate the effect of human dissection on the form and function of medieval medical images from the fourteenth century onwards and show the changing perception of the female body as secret and ‘non-generic’. The rare and highly sophisticated image of the uterus is depicted with an accuracy that prefigured modern medical diagrams, whilst representing it as the miraculous site of human creation.

Leah Astbury (University of Cambridge)

‘”For all children are not bred alike”: Visualising the unborn child in seventeenth-century England’

In 1637 when the Northamptonshire lawyer, Robert Woodford, attended the baptism of his new-born son, he remarked ‘Mr Readinge named it John; the name by which I and my wife used to call it before it was borne.’ Such a reflection has led me to consider the perception of the unborn infant in seventeenth-century England. If Robert and his wife were already visualising and attaching an identity to their infant during pregnancy, what kind of other visualising processes were parents engaging in in the early modern period?

How then did women and their families envision the body of the unborn infant? How was the child thought to manifest its identity through bodily signs on the mother? How were these signs read and what kind of deciphering process did expectant parents engage in awaiting the arrival of a new life?

Consulting manuscript letters of middling and upper sort families in seventeenth-century England reveals that women often characterised themselves as suffering or breezing through pregnancy. Anne, the Countess of Arundel, for example, wrote to Gilbert Talbot about his daughter: ‘she breeds them very painfully.’ This paper will investigate how these assumptions shaped how women perceived the progress of their preganncy, labour and their own and their infant’s health after brith. To what extent could these earlier stages in parturition be read as a divine key to the future of the infant and mother – could one tell from how one was breeding whether the infant and mother would live or die?

Lucy van de Wiel (Univeristy of Amsterdam)

‘Ageing in the Egg: a visual analysis of time-lapse embryo imaging’

As evidenced by the significant cultural impact of fetal imagery on the politics of abortion, embryo images on stem cell debates and the iconic visualization of ICSI’s technoscientific penetration on the popular imagination of IVF, reproductive technologies are also visual technologies. The advent of new reproductive technologies accompanies the production and distribution of new forms of imagery within the clinic and beyond. In this exploratory talk, I address a new technology of embryo selection in IVF and its mediation through medical imaging techniques: the time-lapse imaging of fertilised eggs. As the images co-created in this procedure circulate in the public sphere, they are the means for communicating a set of culturally specific narratives about reproduction in general, and the embodiment of reproductive ageing in particular.

Tentatively hailed by the scientific and clinical community as a paradigmatic shift in IVF, time-lapse imaging produces new visual mediations of extracorporeal fertilised eggs and foregrounds temporal parameters as key indicators in embryo selection (Cruz et al. 2011; Walsh 2013). Although there has been scholarly attention to time-lapse microcinematography—most notably by Landecker (2005; 2006; 2007; 2012)—the routine use of the technology in fertility clinics and the resulting imagery have as yet received little critical reflection. The palimpsest aesthetics and cinematography of time-lapse embryo imaging reflects—or communicates—the integrated reproductive practices of selection, culturing, diagnosis, imaging and preservation of gametes and embryos.

I examine these specific visual mediations of the fertilised egg to think of “what new kinds of bodies are being constructed right now” in practices of assisted reproduction (Braidotti 2006, 198). It seems to me that, alongside a spatial reconfiguration of reproductive embodiment through in vitro fertilisation and embryonic development, the operationalisation of the temporality of cellular reproductive life in time-lapse imaging similarly offers an occasion for reimagining bodily ageing (Landecker 2012, 378). I draw on philosophy of photography and studies of visual culture on the one hand and works on medical anthropology and critical gerontologies on the other to think about these images as expressions of a contemporary moment in which the manipulation of biological time changes what it means to age as much as culturally specific ideas about ageing change what it means to manipulate biological time.

 

Pain, pregnancy and childbirth

Paula Michaels, (Monash University)

‘”Primitive” childbirth and “Natural” childbirth: race and class in twentieth-century discourse on childbirth pain’

This paper will explore the Western understanding of pain in childbirth as filtered through twentieth-century European notions of civilizational hierarchies. Based on archival research in the former Soviet Union, France, and Great Britain, I explore the encounter between natural childbirth’s proponents and the colonial subject. In the USSR, advocates of psychoprophylaxis, popularized in the U.S. as the Lamaze method, came up against cultural norms in Soviet Central Asia that challenged their expectations for women’s comportment in childbirth and their ability to evaluate the efficacy of this psychological approach to labour pain. Trained under French obstetrician Fernand Lamaze, proponents of psychoprophylaxis working in North Africa understood their observations, too, through the lens of colonialism and the Orientalist pecking order among Berbers, Arabs, and Pied-Noirs. Even before working for several years in South Africa, British physician Grantly Dick-Read had come to conceptualize “civilization” as the source of women’s pain in labour. He believed that uneducated British women from the lower classes and “primitives” from Africa shared a similar ignorant bliss that allowed them to birth their babies without pain, as nature had intended. Only the degenerative influence of civilization and fear had, over time, led women of upper classes to suffer in childbirth. Several scholars have addressed the history of the idea that childbirth is painless for so-called primitive women, most notably in the excellent work of S. Nestle and O. Moscucci. This paper will, however, breaks new ground by putting those ideas into a comparative, international context in order to discern pan-European phenomena and national idiosyncrasies.

Whitney Wood (Wilfrid Laurier University) 

“That splendid book on Natural Childbirth”: Childbirth Without Fear, The Read Method, and the Beginnings of the Natural Childbirth Movement in Postwar Canada

 

After the North American publication of Grantly Dick-Read’s Childbirth Without Fear in 1944, Canadian and American interest in the principles and practice of Natural Childbirth rapidly escalated. By the mid-1950s, as the result of growing coverage of the method in the Canadian popular press and leading women’s magazines including Chatelaine, many Canadian mothers, fathers, and parents-to-be were well aware of the Read Method, and the possibilities it offered for a new and more “natural” experience of giving birth. During this period of growing popularity, Canadians increasingly took the time to write to Grantly Dick-Read, praising his work, and in particular, “that splendid book on Natural Childbirth.” In their letters, these men and women were enthusiastic participants in the broader international campaign for “childbirth without fear”, one of the first to contest the increasing medicalization of childbirth that had gone largely unquestioned since the late-nineteenth century.

Though historians have examined the impact of Dick-Read’s theories in Great Britain and the United States, his teachings have received little attention in the Canadian context. This paper begins to correct this imbalance by examining a series of previously unexplored correspondence between Canadians and Dick-Read. In the postwar years, Canadian mothers (and, to a lesser extent, fathers) wrote to this British physician praising his crusade and expressing a desire to further promote the movement in Canada. Letter writers sought referrals to physicians amenable to the principles of natural childbirth, as well as more generalized marriage and family advice. At the same time, in their engagement with this international movement, Dick-Read’s correspondents provided their own critical commentary on the Canadian medical establishment’s treatment of parturient women and reception of natural childbirth tenets. More broadly, Canadian mothers used their letters to express their views on the nature of the female body, pain, and giving birth. Although the movement marked a turning point in the history of childbirth and the end of the first heyday of obstetrical anaesthesia, ultimately, both Dick-Read and his correspondents continued to articulate decidedly conservative interpretations of these subjects.

Gwenith Siobhan Cross (Wilfrid Laurier University)

“a Great help to all mothers”: The efficacy and availability of analgesics in the 1940s’

In the 1930s the National Birthday Trust Fund (NBTF) in England began a campaign to make analgesics available to midwives so that women would have access to pain relief during childbirth regardless of their economic status. The Trust initially focused on working with the Central Midwives’ Board to produce an analgesic apparatus suitable for use by midwives. Once such apparatuses became available, and training for midwives was established, the NBTF funded projects to provide gas and air inhalers to both rural and urban communities. As part of this charitable work, the Birthday Trust conducted extensive surveys on the effectiveness of gas and air analgesia during labour and delivery. These reports address both the midwife’s professional opinion and the mother’s personal experience. This paper focuses on the perceived benefits of gas and air analgesia in conjunction with the complex legislation surrounding the design and operation of the apparatuses. The NBTF surveys offer an in depth examination of the administration of gas-air analgesia and highlight the benefits brought about by the Trust’s efforts to distribute analgesic apparatuses. Their analysis also reveals the intersection of design and usage in this advancement in medical technology. The analgesic apparatuses for use by midwives had limited function in comparison to the models available to physicians, but the overwhelmingly positive reaction from mothers shows that such limitations did not diminish the perceived benefits. Comparing the mothers’ responses to the midwives’ notes also demonstrates that, regardless of age, prior pregnancies, the labour experienced, or even the outcome of the delivery, mothers appreciated this service.

 

Access to hospitals and care

Megan Webber (University of Hertfordshire)

 ‘“Impatient of Controul”: The Beneficiaries of London’s Outpatient Lying-in Charities, c. 1800-1834.’

Much ink has been spilled on the question of whether obstetric patients exerted control over the experience of childbirth in eighteenth and nineteenth-century England.  Margaret Connor Versluysen and Doreen Evenden argue that this period was marked by a decline in patients’ agency.  They link this decline to the rise of  lying-in hospitals in the mid-eighteenth century.  Versluysen and Evenden’s interpretation holds that poor hospital patients, removed from the comforting presence of family and friends, were unable to challenge the medical men who ruled over the institutions.

There has been very little scholarly attention, however, on the outpatient charities which flourished in early nineteenth-century London ―lying-in charities, dispensaries, and benevolent societies― despite the fact that far greater numbers of women used these resources than were admitted into hospitals.  Outpatient charities, less centralized in their operation than the hospitals, gave poor women greater scope to strategize, to influence the nature of their treatment, and to practice deception.

In addition to demonstrating how the policies and practices of outpatient charities provided opportunities for patients to exert a measure of control, I argue that patients’ agency was not predicated solely upon the professional power of the physician ―as many historians have assumed.  Rather, power relations were constantly negotiated between a host of actors: charity committees, charity subscribers, midwives, magistrates, and even the press.  The beneficiaries of London’s outpatient charities were adept at “triangulating”; they played the interests of these individuals against one another to secure personal advantage.  The obstetric patient in early nineteenth-century London was no passive mendicant left to the mercy of her physicians, but a resourceful manipulator of the charitable landscape.

Philomena Gorey (University College Dublin)

‘Mothers and their Midwives: The Development of Maternity Care in Irish Dispensaries 1852-1898’

Maternity care for the Irish poor first emerged as part of a more general provision for poor relief by charities or the state. Throughout the years of the Great Famine, 1845-1849, health and welfare services were so overwhelmed that little attention was paid to the dangers of pregnancy or the care of the mother during labour. The absence of any reference to maternal welfare in the Medical Charities Act of 1851 signifies the low priority given to childbearing. This changed in 1852, when, under the direction of the Poor Law Commissioners, the governors of a small number of Poor Law Unions and local dispensary committees appointed midwives in an effort to implement a state-subsidized maternity service for poor women who could expect to be attended by a trained midwife during labour and lying-in. The expansion of the scheme was fraught with difficulties. The absence of a universal policy regarding practice, the lack of training facilities for women taking up midwifery and the low level of literacy among midwives were impediments to progress and were to remain the hallmark of any discussion on the implementation of maternal welfare in the later nineteenth century. In spite of this, by the end of the century, the midwife had become a recognized dispensary officer under the terms of the Local Government (Ireland) Act 1898. She played a significant role in domiciliary midwifery and in the delivery of maternal and infant welfare in rural locations This paper will examine the development of a dispensary midwifery service under the Poor Law Commissioners, and later the Local Government Board, in the post-Famine period. It will assess the success of the scheme to expand maternity care which depended on a steady supply of trained midwives, who would reside in the countryside after six months training at one of the lying-in hospitals The need for competent domiciliary midwives was all the more significant when one considers that in 1901 there were only nine lying-in facilities with a total of 297 beds in Ireland Finally, the paper will consider  the many local variations that dictated the pace of progress, given that midwifery was traditionally administered by benevolent initiatives, largely on an ad hoc basis, and subject to circumstantial requirements.

George Campbell Gosling (University of Liverpool)

‘The pregnant patient-consumer in interwar England’

Before the inception of the National Health Service in 1948, British hospital care was delivered through a complex and constantly evolving mixed economy, within which payment by patients came to play a central role. By the 1940s, it was common practice for the vast majority of patients to make some form of payment to the hospital, either directly according to the mean testing of an almoner (social worker) or indirectly through membership of a hospital contributory scheme. These mediating arrangements in fact served to ensure that whilst payment became the norm, inability to pay was not a barrier to access. Alongside which, there was a surprisingly limited, separate area of provision for the paying middle classes. Within this wider hospital system, maternity provision occupied a curious place, being crucial to much of what little growth there was in private hospital provision during the interwar years. This paper will explore the reasons why this should be the case and the role in which this case the maternity patient.

Maternity cases were excluded from the coverage of the hospital contributory schemes, a movement underpinned by breadwinner assumptions in negotiating access to hospital services. While opting out of the means-tested almoner system via these schemes may have been empowering for men, does exclusion from them mean pregnant women were disempowered within the ordinary (non-private) wards? Or does the growth of private provision in this area mean pregnant women were instead empowered as medical consumers? The hospital provision made at this time was changing. Lying-In Homes were giving way to Maternity Hospitals, services were increasingly being provided for ‘married mothers’, and there was a proliferation of smaller hospitals offering such services. By exploring these medical choices, this paper will seek to reconstruct the pre-NHS pregnant patient-consumer.

Ewelina Szpak (Polish Academy of Science)

 ‘Pregnancy and motherhood in Poland after World War II 1945 – 1960’

The paper focuses on the situation of pregnant women and childbirth conditions in post-war Poland. I would like to discuss three main problems.

Firstly, I take into consideration influence of war consequences on the situation of pregnant women in Poland. Terrible sanitary conditions,  troops marching through the country, physical and mental weakness of society reflected in serious health problems and rapid spread of infectious and venereal diseases. Rapes, unwanted pregnancies and abortions in the early post-war period were not rare phenomena , as well as the abandonment of new-born babies .

Secondly, I focus on  maternal care provided by the state. I would try to examine  efficiency of these services and their place in everyday life. It is also crucial to highlight he problem of future mothers’ encounters with public health care system.

FinalIy, the paper raises question of the role of “alternative” (folk) medicine in maternal health care. Shortages of skilled obstetric and medical staff , insufficient number of midwives, as well as beds in maternity wards generated a particularly dangerous situation. It was common to use the services of quack doctors, healers and so called “babki” (women assisting  at childbirths). Poor quality of public health services combined with common beliefs and superstitions made the situation of pregnant women in Poland very difficult .

I argue that these three spheres could not be separated from each other and together they shaped the situation of pregnant women in post-war Poland. It is really important to examine how they affected  everyday life of pregnant women

 

Abortion

Fran Bigman (University of Cambridge) 

‘A Bit of Himself: British Male-authored Abortion Narratives from Waste to Alfie

When Gordon, the hero of George Orwell’s novel Keep the Aspidistra Flying (1936), learns his girlfriend is pregnant, the news doesn’t sink in at first. Then she mentions abortion, and “the words ‘a baby’ took on a new significance…They did not mean any longer a mere abstract disaster, they meant a bud of flesh, a bit of himself, down there in her belly.” Gordon then rejects abortion as “disgusting” and “blasphemy.”

In this presentation, I will analyse how abortion is often used as a moral wake-up call for the male protagonists of novels and plays written by British male authors, from one of the first literary representations of abortion, the 1907 drama Waste by Harley Granville-Barker, to the radio, stage, novel, and film versions of Bill Naughton’s Alfie (1962-66). I will demonstrate how a certain masculinist opposition to abortion has been articulated in literature and film by applying Eve Sedgwick’s theory of homosociality—triangular relationships in which the important connection is between two men and the woman is a mere conduit—to the pregnant woman/potential father/foetus relationship. Strikingly, the male characters tend to speak about the foetus as a potential son. By appropriating the experience of abortion to serve as both a turning point for male characters and a metaphor for male suffering and by imagining the endangered or aborted fetus as male, thus restricting sympathy to male channels, these narratives write women’s experiences out of the picture while making an anti-abortion case.

My focus on men follows a move by historians such as Simon Szreter and Kate Fisher to look more closely at male involvement in birth control and abortion. Critics who have examined abortion narratives in literature have overwhelmingly read them as empowering and feminist, neglecting or misinterpreting novels and plays that, in presenting negative message about abortion, both reflect and contribute to anti-abortion sentiment in the UK.

Laura Kelly (University College Dublin)

‘The invisible export: Irish Women’s Abortion Narratives, c.1970s –present’

In 1978, ‘Jill’, a twenty-two year old Irish student became pregnant accidentally and after consultation with her GP, decided to travel to the UK for a termination. Her story, published in a pro-choice pamphlet in 1980, highlights many of the complexities surrounding Irish women’s decision to travel for a termination. Jill explained “I was just going back to College to do my second year, and I didn’t have any money’ while the father was a ‘vague acquaintance who was living in France anyway”.

Jill’s story is not unique. It is estimated that between 1980 and 2012, at least 154,573 Irish women have sought terminations in the United Kingdom. In recent years, particularly following the death of Savita Halappanavar in Galway in October 2012, Irish abortion law has come under close scrutiny and provoked wide debate. Earlier in 2013, the British Pregnancy Advisory Service published an advertisement with the caption ‘As if deciding to have an abortion wasn’t enough of a journey: we’ll care for your women until your government does’, highlighting the fact that 11 Irish women travel to the UK each day for a termination. However, the experiences of these women are often missing from histories of abortion in Ireland which have largely tended to focus on the public debates and legalities concerning abortion law, although recent research by Cara Delay has uncovered the stories behind criminal abortion cases in Ireland in the early twentieth century.

This paper, based on preliminary research, aims to partly redress this historiographical gap. Drawing on published narratives of women from the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland who sought abortions in the UK and abroad from the 1970s onwards, it aims to highlight the complexities involved in the decisions of these women to have terminations as well as examining the themes of stigma and secrecy. The paper also illustrates how these narratives have been utilised by both the pro-choice and pro-life campaigns in debates on abortion from the 1980s to the present day.

Hannah Charnock (University of Exeter)

‘”This Haunting Sadness”: Defending abortion in the British News-media, 1979-1985’

Given the unstable political status of abortion, particularly in the USA, it is unsurprising that academic investigation into abortion has been monopolized by analyses of legislation and politics. Research has tended to focus on analysing the rhetoric of influential organisations such as The Society for the Protection of Unborn Children and the National Abortion Campaign and has neglected to engage with more ‘everyday’ discourses of abortion. Primarily drawing upon the evidence of newspapers and women’s magazines from the early 1980s, this paper explores the dominant conceptual frameworks through which the British news-media discussed abortion during the debate over, and aftermath of, John Corrie’s Abortion (Amendment) Bill.

This paper argues that although the publications examined generally pushed a ‘pro-abortion’ agenda in so far as they rejected attempts to limit access to abortion, the language and conceptual frameworks with which abortion was characterized and discussed destabilised their support of legalised abortion. I suggest that the discourse employed by the news-media was deeply contradictory in its understanding of female agency in relation to pregnancy and abortion, not least in the failure to appreciate pregnancy as an embodied state and physical experience. Examining in close detail personal accounts of abortion which were published in newspapers and magazines, this paper highlights the pervasiveness of ‘apologetic’ abortion rhetoric and victim narratives. The paper concludes by suggesting that such tropes reinforced stereotypes and perpetuated the taboo around the voluntary termination of pregnancy and consequently isolated and demonised many of the groups who most relied upon access to legal abortion facilities. Although the British news-media positioned itself in opposition to attempts to restrict access to abortion, the language and concepts they used to articulate their position were themselves deeply socially conservative.

Ciara Meehan (University of Hertfordshire)

Perceptions of Abortion in 20th century Ireland.’

TBC

 

Contested relationships: seduction and violence

Jillian Slaight (University of Wisconsin-Madison)

‘”Despite her Resistance and Screams”: narratives of seduction in eighteenth-century France’

Scholars who attempt a history of rape in the early modern period face daunting challenges. The very dearth of judicial evidence in France attests to that society’s lenient treatment of perpetrators and effacement of victims.  But historians have conceived of sexual violence too narrowly by addressing only those cases classified as rape. Building on Georges Vigarello and others, my paper refocuses the question of sexual violence around the crimes of seduction, abduction and elopement to consider how early modern men and women understood consent and coercion more broadly.

Old Regime police archives testify to an abundance of contentious sexual relationships.  Women often sought recourse in the law only after unwed pregnancy rendered their social position increasingly tenuous. In narrating the circumstances of their conception before the police, these women rarely made sharp distinctions between consensual and nonconsensual relations. Although formal complaints seldom deploy the word viol (rape), the majority depict sex in ambivalent terms. The male partner figures as a malicious seducer who robs the complainant of her will and authority over her own body. Many women portray the first encounter as physicallycoercive: being pinned to the groundor silenced by a handkerchief. Nevertheless, they cite seducers’ tender words and marriage promises, as if to justify their implicit assent to the act or to an ensuing liaison.

My paper examines this testimony to consider how eighteenth-century French people defined and imagined consent. Equally, it considers how women mobilized language of coercion strategically to gain the sympathy of both police and community. Finally, it looks at how men and women alike envisaged the rapport between violence and sex.  My goal is to investigate how ordinary people negotiated with notions of authority and will vis-à-vis their own bodies just as philosophes did vis-à-vis the body politic.

 Justin Dolan Stover (Idaho State University) 

 ‘Pregnancy, Parenthood and the Irish Revolution: Violence and Vulnerability, 1916-1923′

TBC

 

Pregnancy and illegitimate children

Anna Niiranen (University of Jyväskylä, Finland)

‘The Concept of Natural Pregnancy in Victorian Guide Book Literature for the use of women, 1830-1902)

In this presentation I will examine the Victorian concept of natural pregnancy in British medical writings. I am focusing on literary printed sources – mainly guide book literature – written by both medical doctors and surgeons for the use of pregnant women and mothers. The writings cover the years between 1830 and 1902.

In my presentation I examine how the Victorian medical men and women expressed their views on what they considered as a natural process of reproduction. Childbirth was and still is a constitutive part of human life, the process being both deeply private and universal at the same time. How was pregnancy to be treated correctly in nineteenth century – was it a medical condition requiring treatment or a natural state of every married woman, fulfilling her utmost duty in life? Where was the line that separated normal pregnancy from abnormal one? Thus, I will also discuss the disorders of pregnancy and how these physical and mental ailments were associated to the general idea of reproduction and the concept of naturalness in childbirth.

The terms Nature and natural do appear frequently in medical guide book literature, often used as reassuring and encouraging ways of expression. The primary aim of the medical profession was to secure pregnancy, avoid miscarriage and to produce healthy offspring – both physically and mentally so. Therefore the well-being of the pregnant woman was an essential part of dealing childbirth. On the other hand, the term natural was also one of the main concepts used when discussing pain relief in childbirth – labour pain was seen both as a natural part of reproduction and an unnatural state demanding medical intervention.

Emily Blewitt (Cardiff University)

‘Percy Shelley’s Labouring Reader and Mary Shelley’s other mothers: rereading Frankenstein’

‘[W]e think we can bear no more, and yet more is to be borne’, wrote Percy Shelley of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein in 1818.  By incorporating the labouring female body into the reading process, Shelley’s review revises traditional constructions of childbirth as a metaphor for authorial creation.  Reading Frankenstein, as the pun on ‘bear’ and ‘borne’ implies, involves unremitting, challenging mental labour.  Shelley’s characterisation of Frankenstein’s author, meanwhile, positions ‘him’ as a benevolent surgeon and accoucheur who delivers the novel ‘with a firm and steady hand’ (p. 434).  This occlusion of the mother from the creative process corresponds with Mary Shelley’s deconstruction of the maternal female body in Frankenstein (1818).

Taking Percy Shelley’s review for its opening moment, this paper will explore Ellen Moers’ argument that Frankenstein is a ‘birth myth’ and offer a further reading of the text which develops Moers’ argument.  Frankenstein interrogates the contemporary medical discourse which represents the reproductive female body as something to be exposed, dissected and pathologized by male surgeons.  Mary Shelley’s central maternal subject is male, and her female maternal subjects – Caroline, Justine, the female Creature and Elizabeth – are rendered absent, dead, disembodied or dismembered.  By paying critical attention to Mary Shelley’s “other” mothers, and by comparing Frankenstein with examples from the medical discourse of the period, including William Hunter’s anatomical atlas, I will argue that their death and dismemberment results in a proliferation of body parts which invite reassembly. Frankenstein provokes readings which reanimate its female bodies and fill their silences; it is this potential for rereading which makes the novel most monstrous.

Pasi Saarimäki (University of Jyväskylä)

‘The problem of maintenance for an illegitimate child in the early 1900s’

Throughout history a premarital pregnancy and especially the birth of an illegitimate child have caused significant, usually negative effects on the lives of unmarried women, whereas the fathers have often remained anonymous, or at least they have been absent from historical research material. Fathers have thus played a minor role in historical studies. It is, however, apparent that fathers have for centuries also carried various responsibilities for their children. In my paper I explore the father’s obligation to pay financial support to mothers of newborn illegitimate children in Central Finland in the early 20th century.

The Code of inheritance in the 1734 Swedish Law of the Realm still applied in Finland during that time, and it required that both mother and father were bound to take care of the child’s maintenance. If they were unable to reach mutual agreement, mothers could summon fathers to appear in court. The members of the local community could also put unofficial pressure on fathers during the pregnancy and after the birth. Some judicial changes occurred when the new illegitimate children Act (1922) was introduced: each parish was obligated to employ an official municipal child welfare officer to oversee maintenance payments and education.

My research material includes several dozen court cases that concerned child maintenance in the rural Court District of Keuruu between 1910 and 1930. Different gender ideals related to men and masculinity were formed as a result of the judicial and social issues arising out of child maintenance. In what way and why did the people in local communities react to the responsibilities of these men? How did men respond to social pressure? How actively did solitary mothers take advantage of judicial processes? Was there a change in the relative roles and influence of local community, court and municipal authorities after the new Act (1922) was introduced?

 

Expectations of and limits on mothers

Chelsea Phillips (Ohio State University)

Carrying All Before Her: Pregnancy, Repertory, and Reputation in the Career of Sarah Siddons (1755-1831)

Upon hearing that celebrity actress Sarah Siddons intended to perform Lady Macbeth while pregnant, Lord Deerhurst punned “She thinks, I suppose, to carry all before her,” referencing both Siddons’ preeminence on stage, and her physical condition. His pun did not indicate outrage; as Judith Schneid Lewis’ work shows, eighteenth-century British middle and upper-class women maintained active social engagement while pregnant. My work scrutinizes the way acceptance of the pregnant body influenced careers of celebrity actresses. Sarah Siddons specialized in playing tragic wives, mothers, and queens. She used her offstage identity as wife, mother, and self-fashioned aristocrat to reinforce the verisimilitude of her onstage performances, a strategy Joseph Roach terms “public intimacy.” The relationship between her on and offstage performances was particularly close in 1785, when Siddons appeared on stage while visibly pregnant.

I contend that Siddons’ pregnancy illustrates public thinking about healthy behavior during pregnancy, reveals her body’s impact on theatrical repertoire, and highlights the links between class and performances of maternity. In 1785, audience members recommended parts for Siddons based not on verisimilitude (Shakespeare’s Beatrice and Cordelia were popular), but on the amount of physical exertion the parts required. Onstage, such exertion could disrupt the fictional story—one man complained that fears for Siddons’ health prevented him from enjoying Jane Shore—or add poignancy to performances of maternal grief. Backstage, Siddons negotiated her repertory with Drury Lane’s managers to maximize profits while preserving her health. Offstage, Siddons’ selection of an aristocratic accoucheur and the laying of straw outside her home supported attempts to associate herself with aristocratic society.

Claire McGing (NUIM) and Fiona Buckley (University College Cork)

‘Gendered Institutionalism: Reconceptualising the Irish Parliament to facilitate parenting.’

Parliaments, of which the Dáil and Seanad (the lower and upper houses in Ireland) are no exception, are highly gendered institutions (Mackay and Krook, 2011). Since the rules were written by men at a time in which women were not expected to participate in politics, the very norms, rules and culture of parliament conform to a male lifestyle. This is why the idea of maternity leave in politics is a problematic, at times controversial, one – lengthy periods away from office for child-bearing don’t ‘fit’ with institutional notions of representative democracy as politicians were never really meant to get pregnant in the first place! The Irish Parliament is particularly resistant to change, owing to its historically conservative foundations and women’s persistent underrepresentation (Buckley and McGing, 2011.

This paper queries whether the Irish Parliament can be reformed to catch up with the gendered realities of modern society. Despite a growing literature on gender politics in Ireland, this issue remains relatively under-researched. The central question is: can representational politics in Ireland, at both a parliamentary and constituency level, can be re-conceptualised to facilitate new parenting and, if so, how? The paper will draw upon original interviews with women politicians and examine international experiences, from Britain and further afield, to answer this question.

Sarah Crook (QMUL)

‘Mothers are people who are reasonable for half the time: Mental Health and Feminism in Late Twentieth Century Britain’

‘It is a fascinating part of our cultural mythology that motherhood is given such a rosy write-up everywhere and that the other, much blacker, side of the bargain is hardly mentioned. This silence probably reflects the extent to which our cultural mythology is a male mythology’ reflected Jane Price in her 1988 text Motherhood: What it Does to your Mind. Price’s analysis built upon the work of the Women’s Liberation Movement in contesting medical and psychiatric explanations of maternal mental illness. By the late 1960s, women were launching scathing critiques of masculine and medical perceptions of pregnancy, birth, and motherhood. The Women’s Liberation Movement challenged psychiatric rationalizations of women’s perceived ‘role’ and the medicalization of their bodies. Motherhood became a contested site in postwar Britain. Those in the feminist movement wrote extensively on the ways that the mythologies and realities of motherhood caused women psychological distress. In this way the Women’s Liberation Movement proposed a model of postnatal depression that acknowledged women’s social position. This paper will explore how the Women’s Liberation Movement understood the causes and possibilities of maternal mental illness. It will assess how women mobilized the concept of postnatal depression to symbolize how normative femininity acted upon women’s psychologies. It will reflect on how women resisted the medicalized perception of the pregnant body and maternal disordered mind, and used individual psychological distress to campaign for wider social change through the changed position of women in late twentieth century Britain.

 

From Pill to Birth in the modern era

Natasha Szuhan (University of Melbourne)

‘Health And Dis-Ease on the Pill: How did the Concept of Normalcy Impact the Early Debates About Side Effects?’

From the time the Pill was developed in the 1950’s, the concept of normalcy was associated with it in the medical and public perception. Meaning that, it was believed that oral contraceptives existed and operated within certain limits, which defined normal function, condition and status. As normal bodily processes were being successfully replicated, there was very little notice paid initially to the potential dangers of the pseudo-pregnant state this ‘wonder drug’ induced.

The scientists developing oral contraceptives worked to synthesise hormones that were comparable to the sex hormones naturally created in the female reproductive system, but better versions thereof. In order to develop a hormone that worked when ingested orally, they had to generate oestrogens and progestogens that worked just like the normal ones produced in menstruation and pregnancy; but more highly refined, which were cheap to obtain and synthesise. And which would be acceptable to the scientific and medical communities, Governments whose regulatory bodies and Health Departments were responsible for approving or declining their use, and most importantly, the public who would be ingesting the Pill, and living in a state of constant pseudo-pregnancy if the product was to work as a mass contraceptive.

Oral contraceptives were able to successfully inhibit ovulation, allow for perfectly timed menstruation and induce the body to function as if it were pregnant, thus preventing unplanned pregnancy. The contraceptive pill successfully imitated normal hormonal function, and even prevented and induced some minor side effects that many women experienced in normal reproductive processes; such as breakthrough bleeding, changeability in flow, breast tenderness and engorgement, headache, water retention, weight fluctuation, the appearance/ disappearance of acne, and nausea. These side effects were contextualized as being problems common to the female species, and dubbed ‘coincidental symptoms women experienced in their everyday lives’.

In this talk, I will discuss how the very existence of minor side effects of menstruation and pregnancy that were induced by the Pill, along with the very speedy roll out of the product from development to marked in the 1950’s-60’s, led to a slowed reaction to emerging side effects, as doctors, scientists and users associated these outcomes with normal female bodily functions.

Anija Dokter (University of Cambridge)

‘The Sounds of Childbirth: Perceptions and Imagineries in the Digital Age’

My research explores the medical and social management of noise-making bodies—in particular, the sounds of childbirth and sound environments in birthing spaces. The sonic aspects of childbirth have been politicised on many fronts in conflicts over the social control of childbearing. For example, home birth advocates have described hospital maternity wards as cacophonous—this depiction of hospital sound environments takes on political meaning when contrasted with the quiet and ‘daily life’ sounds of home birth. Similarly, some prenatal education programmes have focused on training women to control their noise-making during childbirth—Lamaze classes became renowned for promoting an image of the ideal birth as quietly controled with rhythmic breathing. I will relate some aspects of this history of ‘sound management’ to more recent transformations in how people interact with the sounds of birth as they are available online. In the past decade, thousands of audiovisual recordings of birth have become available on websites such as YouTube. These materials almost always feature selected and edited highlights of the recorded birth. Mass exposure to these kinds of edited birth sounds is unprecedented. In this presentation, I aim to explore some of the ways in which the sounds of birth in cyberspace contribute to the social (re/de)construction of women’s expectations, experiences and memories of childbearing. I will be analysing these materials in reference to feminist studies of the increasing marketisation of childbearing and will relate the variety of ways in which the sound of childbirth is socially managed in terms of broader economic trends.

Cheryl Lemus (Ashford University)

What made pregnancy modern in the U.S. in the 20th century?  What this paper will is explore is that question by examining how the modern pregnancy began when obstetricians defined pregnancy as a medical condition and pregnant women as patients whose care included the supervision of infant and maternal health in the months prior to labor and delivery. The modern concept of prenatal care – the medical care of pregnant women – linked the physiological development of the fetus with the physical and emotional health of the expectant patient. This was a new concept which had not existed prior to 1876 when obstetric medicine had been more reactive than proactive and the obstetrician and mother-to-be both played relatively passive roles waiting for the event to occur. By 1926, however, pregnancy had taken on an entirely new meaning and became a distinct experience in itself, in which both doctor and patient became active participants. During almost the same time, the modern pregnancy became commercialized, where goods and services were created to address the needs of the pregnant woman and to create pregnancy into a period of shopping.  And like obstetricians, retailers encouraged expectant mothers to take action and get ready for the baby’s birth long before the baby was born, following in the footsteps of obstetricians to turn pregnancy into more active period in women’s lives.

 

Portraiture and dress

Karen Hearn (UCL)

‘Representing Pregnancy in  Sir Anthony Van Dyck’s British Portraits

TBC

Emma O’Toole (National College of Art & Design, Dublin)

‘Tight Stays & Compressed Waists: Dressing the Expectant Mother in the Eighteenth and early Nineteenth Centuries’

Building on earlier developments in the seventeenth century, the eighteenth century witnessed an increasing number of medical treatises and advice manuals created for mothers seeking guidance on child-rearing.  These treatises, mainly written by medical practitioners, repeatedly emphasised the importance of wearing suitable clothing during pregnancy. Good health was doomed, they argued, as long as women clung to the dictates of French fashion. Physicians called upon women to liberate their soul by freeing their bodies from the harmful effects of long heavy unhygienic skirts, tight lacing and women’s attempts at ‘squeezing the stomach and bowels into a narrow compass’. Instead, medical authors advised that ‘as soon as a mother suspects she had fallen pregnant’, it was her duty to make sure that ‘her clothes should be made large and commodious’.

Using ephemera, including newspaper advertisements, trade cards and bills, alongside rare costume examples, this paper will provide an investigation into an expanding market for garments made specifically for expectant female consumers living in the British Isles during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. In particular, this paper will centre on the development of novel goods such as elastic stays and corsets, waistless dresses and the ladies pregnancy pad. In doing so, this research will ask to what extent did corset and mantua makers focus on maternal health issues, in order to promote and sell their garments to expectant mothers.

By using these documentary sources, alongside material evidence, this paper will shed new light on not only the development of a market that was specific to pregnant females, but it will also contribute to wider debates surrounding gender and consumption, dress history and changes in childrearing practices

Folklore, beliefs and traditions

Ceri Houlbrook (University of Manchester)

‘Fairies, Trolls and Changelings: What to expect when you’re expecting’

During the medieval and early modern periods in Britain, pregnancy and successful birth required overcoming numerous natural risks. In addition to these, however, was also a plethora of supernatural hazards which, according to popular belief, needed to be managed; most notably, the unwanted attention of fairies.

In early modern folklore, fairies are often characterised as ambiguous creatures who can be benevolent if they so choose – but who can also be selfish, vindictive, and cruel, especially if a human has something that they desire. And, as folklorist Katharine Briggs notes: ‘The thing that everyone knows about fairies is that they covet human children and steal them whenever they can’ (1967: 115). Thus pregnant women and newborn babies were considered particularly vulnerable to the attention of supernatural creatures, and there is a large corpus of recorded oral legends of pregnant women being abducted by fairies or troll-like creatures, and of newborns being exchanged for babies from the fairy realm, known as changelings.

This paper considers the reasons behind such notions, examining why pregnant women and newborn babies in the British Isles were believed to be at particular risk from the supernatural realm. The paper also details the precautions taken to prevent abductions and changeling exchanges, which usually involved the incorporation of Christian symbols into folk rituals and apotropaic devices. Concealing pregnancies lest they be noticed by the fairies; placing a knife and Bible in the woman’s bed during childbirth; and laying a four-leaf clover in a newborn’s cradle are just some of the methods employed to prevent abductions, and they shed a different light on the various practical preparations soon-to-be parents had to make to ensure a safe pregnancy and birth.

Martina Hynan (University College Dublin)

‘Birth Rites and Rituals in Ireland: A Visual Cultural Reading of Sheela-na-gig,  St. Brigid and St. Gobnait’

Perceptions of women’s fertility, pregnancy and childbirth in Ireland have been intertwined with an evolving syncretism that includes folk traditions, rites and rituals. In 2007, internationally renowned American independent midwife Ina May Gaskin (b.1940) visited the Sheela-na-gig at Kilnaboy Church, Co. Clare, Ireland.  In 2003, Gaskin commented that in her opinion these figures may have been used as visualisation aids to support women in labour.

Sheela-na-gigs are medieval stone-carved female figures, most commonly shown in a standing or squatting position that is described as an ‘act of display’.  Their thighs are wide apart and their hands either point to or touch their genitalia.  They are usually situated over the doorways of churches and have also been found on Norman castles.  The over-exaggerated vulva echoes the shape of the doorway and it is suggested that they are a continuation of earlier pagan customs associated with pagan spirits, Mother Earth, Earth Goddess, fertility symbols or symbols to celebrate womanhood.

Drawing on visual cultural readings of the Sheela-na-gig this paper will investigate its diverse interpretations and association with perceptions of the birthing body.  It also explores the connections between Sheela-na-gigs, St. Brigid and St. Gobnait and considers the rites and rituals performed at the sites associated with each icon. There are contradictory readings of the Sheela-na-gig.  They are sometimes considered warnings against lust or a symbol of the womb as tomb; all interpretations connect the image with women’s fecundity, sexuality and power.

This paper will consider the possible role that such iconography had for birthing women in the past.  Finally, it will reflect on the potential benefits for women who re-engage with the rites and rituals associated with these early emblems of womanhood.

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[If you spot any errors please let us know]

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