THE LAST TABOO OF MOTHERHOOD?
Postnatal Mental Disorders in 20th Century Britain
Credit: Heather Spears, CC BY 4.0
Professor Hilary Marland, the Principal Investigator, focuses on the
‘Diagnoses and Practices of Maternal Mental Illness'.
For Strand 1, Dr Kelly-Ann Couzens explores
'Medicine, Crime and Maternal Mental Illness in England & Scotland, c.1860 - 1960'.
For Strand 2, Dr Fabiola Creed addresses the theme
‘Sufferers and their Publics: Experiencing and Narrating Postnatal Mental Illness in Britain’.
See below for detailed summaries of each strand.
‘Diagnoses and Practices of Maternal Mental Illness’
Cover Image from New Generation, 1988.
Credit: Wellcome Collection, National Childbirth Trust Archive, SA/NCT/J/2/2/4, New Generation, Vol. 7, No. 1, March 1988.
Professor Hilary Marland
Hilary Marland’s research strand focuses on diagnoses and practices of maternal mental illness, and the involvement of diverse groups of health professionals and other stakeholders in defining, debating and developing provisions for care and treatment in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. She will explore changes in the classification and interpretation of postnatal mental illnesses and how these changes were responded to in medical and institutional practice.
Around 1900 ‘insanities of reproduction’ appeared to be ‘classified out of existence’, the coincidence of insanity and childbirth no longer regarded as sufficient to warrant a discrete diagnosis. However, this was followed not by taxonomic clarity but diagnostic confusion. Meanwhile, responses in terms of primary care, maternity provision and mental hospital treatment continued to highlight the impact of pregnancy and childbirth in producing mental illness. This strand asks how ideas of causality changed during the twentieth century and which mothers were deemed to be particularly vulnerable. It explores how an ever-increasing variety of health care professionals and organisations interested in offering support and information on postnatal mental illness shaped services offering advice, treatment and prevention. It approaches these issues within the context of fundamental changes in women’s reproductive lives and shifting expectations of childbirth and maternity, marriage, family life, and parenthood, female employment, and ethnicity and migration, and investigates how mothers and families themselves became agents of change.
My sources include mental hospital and maternity hospital records, health visitor and social work archives, medical, midwifery and nursing journals, and the archives of organizations such as MIND and the National Childbirth Trust, who worked to support mothers and to offer conduits of information and advice.
‘Medicine, Crime and Maternal Mental Illness in England & Scotland, c. 1860 – 1960’
Dr Kelly-Ann Couzens
Postdoctoral Research Fellow (Strand 1)
This strand of work seeks to produce a medical, legal, and social history of the relationship between maternal mental illness and crime in Britain from c. 1860s to 1960s. It is particularly concerned with the connections medical, legal, and lay actors made between ideas of ‘insanity’ and ‘motherhood’, and the impact this had on criminal cases heard in English and Scottish courtrooms. Consequently, this study is particularly interested in how maternal mental illness was understood against the backdrop of investigations and prosecutions for crimes against children (such as child murder, infanticide, concealment of pregnancy/birth, child neglect, or infant abandonment) and attempts at self-harm or suicide by mothers themselves.
In drawing upon quantitative, qualitative, and longitudinal methods, this project seeks to analyse not only the diagnostic formulation of maternal mental illnesses at various points in time, but also how and why these psychiatric labels may have evolved or resisted change within the legal sphere. In focusing upon the different criminal jurisdictions of England and Scotland as sites of comparison, this project strand aims to trace how ‘place’ and legal processes too, shaped professional thinking and practice. While the role and dynamics of the professions of law and medicine lie at the heart of this analysis, this study also seeks to keep in sight the everyday people whose lives were entwined and impacted by legal, medical, and political processes. Thus, this project strand intends to contribute not only to existing historiographies on the rise of the learned professions, insanity, and crime, but also to the social history of women, motherhood, and family in late-nineteenth and twentieth-century Britain.
'Woking Convict Invalid Prison: Five Women Prisoners Convicted of Infanticide.'
Process Print After Paul Renouard (1889)
'Sufferers and their Publics: Experiencing and Narrating Postnatal Mental Illness'
'Bring back DAD-FREE DELIVERIES', She, November 1993.
Credit: Women's Magazine Archive Collection 3.
Dr Fabiola Creed
Postdoctoral Research Fellow (Strand 2)
By the end of the twentieth century, white, married and well-established mothers confidently shared their postnatal mental illness experiences with ‘their publics’. These mothers were celebrities and famous healthcare experts themselves. And 'their publics’ included family and friends, ‘everyday’ local communities - from the workplace to supportive organisations, including feminist groups -, and more notably, the mass media.
Yet mothers who were working-class, teenagers, unmarried, disabled, lesbian, and brown or black were still afraid to share their individual narratives. Most of these women did not have the resources, time, and safe ‘spaces’ – and subsequent political, economic, and socio-cultural influence – to comfortably share their personal experiences with other people. And when they did, they were more likely to be overlooked, not listened to, or recounted by others (i.e., their partners, medical experts, healthcare providers and media reporters). As such, these women remained under- or mis-represented in Britain. They also received more reproval and less support when developing postnatal disorders - even at the end of the twentieth century, when people tried to deconstruct mental health stigma.
By drawing on books (i.e., memoirs and autobiographies), magazines, newspapers, audio-visual sources (i.e., radio, television, and film) and oral histories, this strand will bring these narratives of marginalised mothers to the forefront of historical research. It will historicise how these women’s backgrounds and changing circumstances impacted their individual development and lived experience of postnatal mental illness, and how this changed over time. It will also show how major historical events – including the Great Depression, World Wars, migration, feminist movements, the NHS and medicalisation of childbirth, and finally, mass media changes – had a profound impact on the physical health, mental health and agency of these mothers, and their families, in Britain.