Proving Pregnancy. Gender, Law and Medical Knowledge in Nineteenth-Century America

Dr. Felicity Turner, Associate Professor of U.S. history at Georgia Southern University.

In our Meet the Book Author Series, the Journal of Law and Society and the Centre of Law and Society provide first-hand accounts from authors who have recently contributed notable socio-legal books to their respective fields. In this post, we hear from Felicity M.Turner, whose new book Proving Pregnancy. Gender, Law and Medical Knowledge in Nineteenth-Century America was published in September 2022 with University of North Carolina Press.

What is the book about? 

Proving Pregnancy traces changes in the circulation, creation, and production of knowledge about the pregnant body in the nineteenth-century United States. The book uses investigations into infanticide to trace this shift because of what these cases illustrate about how the processes of knowledge production came to be gendered and racialized in particularly problematic ways. Those ways, I argue, have shaped contemporary understandings about who has the authority to produce and make claims to possession of knowledge about women’s bodies in the present. 

Infanticide was an unusual crime related to the concealment of a newborn’s corpse, rather than its murder. Therefore, in order to prove the crime had occurred, the community had first to prove a suspect was pregnant. For that reason, I used the crime to examine how nineteenth-century Americans “proved” a woman was pregnant. The earlier parts of my narrative focus on the important role females of all ages and statuses played in those investigations. Whether free of enslaved, for instance, the evidence of females, including children, experienced with childbirth was valued by the white men who constituted the jury of inquest. 

The latter part of my narrative traces how white, male, and wealthy physicians wrested control of that knowledge from women, and the consequences of that transition. I argue that once slavery was abolished, it became particularly important for white males to control who could possess knowledge of and about women’s bodies as they no longer asserted control over the actual bodies.

Why did I write it? 

When I began the project, my focus was the crime of infanticide. I wanted to know more about the crime; who committed it; and maybe even why. But as I began looking at the evidence I gathered, the nature of the project evolved. 

The focus of my history shifted away from an emphasis on deviancy, which is how nineteenth-century newspapers, for instance, often represented mothers who perpetrated infanticide. The legal records I used suggested that framework was not the only way nineteenth-century Americans understood the crime. Therefore, rather than using coroners’ inquests to see what they could tell me about the motives of the women who allegedly committed these crimes (motives which were usually impossible to discern), I began to read the records to see what they indicated about the communities in which these crimes occurred. I became interested in broader questions about law in nineteenth-century America, particularly how ordinary, everyday people saw themselves as part of the legal process. Further, how did white farmers, poor white housewives, enslaved people, and free Blacks (amongst others) contribute in ways, otherwise unrecognized, to the creation of medical knowledge? And why have these contributions otherwise gone unrecognized? How did existing legal frameworks that applied to knowledge creation in the nineteenth century work to historically disenfranchise certain people and empower others?

How did I go about doing this research?

As an historian, I began in the archives. I worked most closely with records from two states, Connecticut and North Carolina. These records were not digitized so in each case it involved physically visiting the archives and combing through boxes of nineteenth-century legal records. In North Carolina, for example, the Criminal Action Papers for each county are organized by county, and by year. And so I just sat there, day after day, looking for cases of murder, infanticide, or concealing the death of a newborn child. As I was so focused on finding one crime, I could spend weeks in the archives and only find a couple of incidences each day. But at the same time, the research process gave me a strong sense of how nineteenth-century Americans understand law and the legal matters with which they were concerned.

Beyond the archives, I was helped by the many different kinds of records that have been digitized. These included nineteenth-century newspapers; census records; medical treatises; and statutes. 

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