Medicalization of Motherhood: Modernization and Resistance in an International Context

Rima D. Apple

Abstract


Traditionally, women’s experiences formed the basis of respected mothering practices which were seen as either part of a woman’s innate knowledge, or taught her by herown mother and other female relatives and friends. As scientific and technical expertisegained in prominence throughout the nineteenth century, increasingly womenwere told that they required scientific and medical knowledge in order to raise theirchildren appropriately and healthfully. The ideal model now became the “scientific mother.” This paper analyzes the evolution of scientific motherhood from its earliest manifest in which women were expected to learn from modern scientific and medical knowledge, through the middle decades of the twentieth century during whichmothers were viewed as incapable of such learning and were expected to follow the directions of their physicians, through the end of the century when women demanded recognition of their capabilities. Scientific motherhood affected and was affected byparticular mothers very differently over time and place, across race and ethnicity,shaped most crucially by women’s economic ability, education, and geographic location.It was not equally available to all women, nor was it totally embraced by allwomen. What is critical for this analysis of scientific motherhood in international context is the general trend that, overtime, women’s role in decision-making abouttheir children’s health and welfare was increasingly denigrated as the role of scientifically medically trained men was elevated. The paper traces out a number of thehistorically shifting power and gender relationships as women embraced, resisted,and redefined scientific motherhood.

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We are grateful to the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) for its ongoing support of the Journal of the Motherhood Initiative for Research and Community Involvement.