Session 1619: Dangerous Femininity?: Motherhood, Maiden Breasts, and Poisonous Milk
Thursday 7 July 2016, 11.15-12.45
|Moderator/Chair:||Theresa Earenfight, Department of History, Seattle University|
|Paper 1619-a||Monstrous Un-Making: Maternal Infanticide as Female Agency|
Index terms: Gender Studies, Women's Studies
|Paper 1619-b||The Breasts of Virgins: Sexual Reputation and Female Bodies in Later Medieval Society|
Index terms: Gender Studies, Sexuality, Women's Studies
|Paper 1619-c||Mother's Poison: Representations of Mothers and Breastfeeding in the High Middle Ages|
Index terms: Gender Studies, Historiography - Medieval, Women's Studies
And yet it lies within women’s ostensibly limited agency to unravel this whole scenario. Mothers ‘make’ the household/family via the somatic materiality of childbirth and nursing, but this same power can be used to unmake it. A woman who kills her children subverts, rejects, and effectively forgets her ‘natural’ role in the production and nurture of a stable, godly society—a ‘monstrous’ unmaking in which her material power intrudes upon and violently disrupts prevailing notions of domestic and societal order.
Patriarchal authority is an abstract (albeit powerful) concept, but the unmaking of that authority is frighteningly physical, and infanticide exposes occluded aspects of mothering by demonstrating how women might desire and cause their children’s deaths. Are such urges a flaw in the maternal system, or the necessary inverse of the intense emotions and required affection involved in mothering? The (male) authors who chronicle such crimes seek to contain and neutralize female agency run amok, toggling between lurid sensationalism, cautionary didacticism, and a reinstantiation of masculinized order via the ‘unnatural’ woman’s repentance and punishment. But these narratives fail to defuse the specter they raise: whether a by-product, a waste product, or a fatal flaw in the ideology of motherhood, maternal infanticide lies outside the realm of masculine control, a perversion of the art/craft of childrearing with the potential to unmake the system.