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Mother, home, and mammy: motherhood, race, and power in the antebellum South

Knight, R. J. (2017) Mother, home, and mammy: motherhood, race, and power in the antebellum South. PhD thesis, University of Reading

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This thesis explores the relationality of enslaved and slaveholding women’s mothering in the antebellum south. The apparent commonalities of mothering are often understood to have fostered connections and bonds between slaveholding and enslaved women: this study posits an alternative interpretation, which situates motherhood at the very centre of power relations between women. Approaching enslaved women’s ‘maternal exploitation’ as dually structural and social, the thesis examines both the extent to which enslavement and slaveholding influenced the conditions of mothering, the treatment of mothers, and their opportunities to mother; and the role of motherhood in women’s relationships. Slaveholding women, this thesis argues, were central to enslaved women’s maternal exploitation. This is established through an examination of the extensive ‘interventions’ that slaveholding women made into enslaved women’s mothering: both on the basis of their own motherhoods and on the basis of enslaved women’s motherhoods, casual and routinised, from conception long into the life of a child. In particular, critical analysis of these interventions reveals slaveholding women’s labour-centred approach to enslaved women’s mothering: motherhood was a site of the production of and interruption to slave labour, a commodity, and a transferrable form of mother-work. This thesis thus situates mothering in broader patterns within both enslaved and slaveholding women’s relationships and the dynamics of gendered labour in slaveholding households. A case-study into infant-feeding provides an in-depth analysis of the extent of the inequalities women faced as mothers and the interrelationships of their privileges and disadvantages. Analysing the nature, experiences, and significance of the often overlooked practice of enslaved wet-nursing through examination of the practice both within slaveholdings and through the informal and formal marketplaces, this thesis provides new insights into the nature of enslaved women’s exploitation, their relationships with female slaveholders, and the roles of white women in slavery.

Item Type:Thesis (PhD)
Thesis Supervisor:West, E.
Thesis/Report Department:School of Humanities
Identification Number/DOI:
Divisions:Arts, Humanities and Social Science > School of Humanities > History
ID Code:78140


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