Maternal Bodies

Redefining Motherhood in Early America

By Nora Doyle

286 pp., 6.125 x 9.25, 11 figs, notes, bibl., index

  • Paperback ISBN: 978-1-4696-3719-8
    Published: April 2018
  • Hardcover ISBN: 978-1-4696-3718-1
    Published: April 2018
  • eBook ISBN: 978-1-4696-3720-4
    Published: March 2018

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Awards & distinctions

2018 Mary Kelley Prize, Society for Historians of the Early American Republic

Allan Nevins Prize, Society of American Historians

In the second half of the eighteenth century, motherhood came to be viewed as women's most important social role, and the figure of the good mother was celebrated as a moral force in American society. Nora Doyle shows that depictions of motherhood in American culture began to define the ideal mother by her emotional and spiritual roles rather than by her physical work as a mother. As a result of this new vision, lower-class women and non-white women came to be excluded from the identity of the good mother because American culture defined them in terms of their physical labor.

However, Doyle also shows that childbearing women contradicted the ideal of the disembodied mother in their personal accounts and instead perceived motherhood as fundamentally defined by the work of their bodies. Enslaved women were keenly aware that their reproductive bodies carried a literal price, while middle-class and elite white women dwelled on the physical sensations of childbearing and childrearing. Thus motherhood in this period was marked by tension between the lived experience of the maternal body and the increasingly ethereal vision of the ideal mother that permeated American print culture.

About the Author

Nora Doyle is assistant professor of history at Salem College.
For more information about Nora Doyle, visit the Author Page.


"Grounded in feminist theory and based on the author's dissertation research, this timely work takes on a scholarly subject in a readable way."--Library Journal, starred review

“By examining the dissonance between personal and cultural definitions of motherhood and by reclaiming women’s physical bodies as significant to the historical narrative, Doyle provides a more complete understanding of the historical experiences of women, especially mothers.”--Choice

“Both continues an ongoing historical dialogue about the differences between socially-constructed gender ideals and the realities of women’s lives, but also begins a new chapter in that dialogue by using the body as a central category of analysis.”--Civil War Book Review

“Using a wide range of sources and perspectives that span a long period of time and diverse geographical area, Doyle explores the tension between ideology and lived experience and helps restore the physical body to the historical narrative of motherhood.”—Lynn Kennedy, University of Lethbridge

“The only study of its kind to combine social history, literary sources, and visual culture, Maternal Bodies offers a rich and complex discussion of the meaning of motherhood in colonial North America and the antebellum United States”—Kathleen M. Brown, University of Pennsylvania