Credit. Heather Spears, 'Swaddled Baby'. CC BY 4.0

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Welcome to 'The Last Taboo of Motherhood' Project Blog

Here you can read our regular blogs about the project, where we'll be sharing updates on what we have been finding, exciting news, events and much more.

My strand of the project explores the ways in which mothers narrated their personal experiences of postnatal mental illness and how the 'public' responded throughout twentieth-century Britain. As such, I spent a few months this year (2022) evaluating the invaluable oral histories held at the British Library (BL). When I first typed in ‘postnatal depression’ (PND) and related search terms in the catalogue, I was surprised to find references to more than sixty oral history interviews. Yet not one collection title linked directly to PND. Instead, alongside the ‘Mental Health Testimony’ collection, very short recollections – several only a few seconds to several minutes in length – on the topic appeared in collections that had no connection to mental health, including the ‘British Empire and Commonwealth’ and the ‘Potters of the Bernard Leach Legacy’ collections. [1] Nor were the interviews restricted to the actual ‘sufferer’; many interviewees were the sufferer’s partners, parents, siblings(-in-law), children or grandchildren, neighbours, the media, and, of course, healthcare professionals (midwives, health visitors, nurses, physiotherapists and psychiatrists) or healthcare providers (i.e., The International Women’s Public Health Group). A couple of the interviewees also spoke coldly and were unsupportive of the sufferers. Several ‘abandoned’ children, later speaking as adults, were raised by their grandparents or their father, and in these cases, both the children and guardians never forgave the suffering mother. This aftermath, however, was more typical before World War Two. Nonetheless, one woman, even in the 1990s, was still shocked when she learned that other mothers had developed PND, arguing ‘you [‘re supposed to] fall in love with [your child] as soon as they are handed to you’. [2]

The BL interviews took place between the 1980s and 2010s. This coincided with the rapid expansion in PND narrative accounts from the 1980s onwards, published as books or in magazines, which illustrated the growing acceptability of both recounting personal experiences and destigmatising PND in Britain. Many of the interviewees reported family histories and spoke about their mothers or grandmothers experiencing PND as far back as the 1930s, which coincide with the earliest mentions of PND within the BL catalogue. [3] Several of the interviewed ‘sufferers’ had physical disabilities, including deafness, or pre-existing mental health diagnoses (i.e., bipolar, psychosis and depression). Interestingly a wide variety of religions were represented among the women experiencing PND, including Judaism, Christianity, Rastafarianism, Wicca, and Paganism. Across the late twentieth century, most interviewees were British, with a few Europeans (e.g., Swedish) one first generation Indian, and Jamaican. [4] By the 2010s, more mothers were interviewed from different nationalities and ethnicities, including Armenians, Nigerians, North Americans, and Canadians. Fathers suffering from postnatal depression were also interviewed for the first time in the 2010s. [5] However, most of the people recounting memories of postnatal depression originated from or were based in the UK; largely London and Birmingham in England, but also Scotland, Ireland, and Wales, though a few women experienced PND when they were visiting or temporarily living overseas. The often-buried testimonies within decades of interviews illustrate how postnatal depression was ubiquitous. Yet there were wide-ranging differences in experiences and reflections and intersectional differences no doubt heightened negative experiences. For example, working-class women were more likely to be institutionalised. Nonetheless, postnatal depression was not restricted by class, ethnicity, race, sexuality, education level, or age.

Image credit: Sifis, oral history icon. In this blog, I want to focus on two different expressions of ‘reluctance’ within the interviews, and how they prompt reflections on the motivations behind interviews, and shape new considerations on the part of the interviewers. My first example looks at dismissal and irritability within one interview, and the second reflects heartbreak and an unwillingness to speak about certain topics.

Dismissal

When I read about interviews of ‘everyday’ women, or when I’ve conducted oral histories myself, interviewees are often eager to share their family history. [6] This was not the case for some of the BL interviews I listened to. M.H. was born in 1934 and in 2000, aged 66, she withstood a four-hour interview across one day as part of the ‘Mental Health Testimony Archive’. The archive holds 50 ‘life story video interviews’ with mental health survivors. The project was initiated by Mental Health Media (now a part of MIND) and funded by the Department of Health. [7] M.H. had an illness where she became ‘aggressive’, ‘nasty’ and had ‘blackouts’. She argued that this was a ‘physical’ illness as she ‘wasn’t really mentally ill’. She had developed whooping cough as a child, and she claimed that the lack of medical resources and instabilities of World War Two prevented a full recovery. She believed this caused her life-long illness. M.H. was isolated most of her life and said that she could not secure a job because of the stigma of mental illness. From start to finish, and before most interview breaks, M.H. was reluctant to talk about her past. She agitatedly emphasised that there was no need for her to be interviewed because she was ‘ordinary’. As a child, she was an ‘ordinary pupil’ and had ‘ordinary friends’, there was ‘nothing special’ about school life. Throughout her life, however, she was in and out of psychiatric hospitals, such as Belmont, Maudsley and later Graylingwell in the mid-1950s, where her condition worsened, ‘possibly … due to postnatal depression’. When in hospital, M.H.’s mother looked after her baby. She spoke briefly about her experience at Graylingwell, but did not expand on her postnatal depression, explaining that regular electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) had caused memory loss around that time period. When the interviewer repeatedly asked M.H. about her children across different time periods, M.H. dismissively changed the subject. Towards the end of the interview, M.H. became even more annoyed, arguing that she had a normal life and that it was not worth documenting; she even rolled her eyes and placed her head in her hands. [8] In contrast, the other PND sufferers also interviewed for the Mental Health Testimony Archive were happy to expand when talking about their lives in general. [9]

Avoidance


Another example of ‘reluctance’ in the interviews was the inability to talk about a sensitive topic. J.L. was born in 1923 and interviewed in 2011, aged 88, as part of the ‘National Life Stories: General Interviews’ collection. [10] From the mid-1940s onwards, J.L. tried to build a family with her husband. Throughout the interview, she spoke cheerily, quickly, with lots of laughter, and long dynamic monologues. The interviewer did not need to prompt her, and they both seemed comfortable and joked together. Although J.L. found motherhood ‘ghastly’ and lost all self-confidence when suffering from PND following the birth of her first child in 1948, she spoke calmly about her miscarriages, and her first-born’s diagnosis of epilepsy, following his ‘frightening’ seizures. Nonetheless, despite five interviews across five months – likely aiming to develop trust – the interviewer had to nudge J.L. into talking about the birth of her second child, her deceased daughter, M. When M was first mentioned, J.L. hesitated and swallowed loudly. After several pauses, J.L. joked ‘I was avoiding that, wasn’t I’. Speaking mournfully and slowly, J.L. explained that her baby, M, had only lived a few hours, and that J.L. was not allowed to see her because she had eclampsia. Following the traumatic childbirth and death of M, J.L. developed permanent deafness. Even though J.L. went into great detail about other heartbreaks across her life span, she did not mention M again after these brief moments. [11]


Image credit: Christos Georghiou, Optical Illusion Mother Woman and Child Tree Faces.

Reflections

Listening to these two interviews, which were conducted roughly one decade apart, made me consider the motivations behind interviewing people who are reluctant to talk about their lives overall, or sensitive topics, and how this has changed over the decades. I wondered if these interviews would become publicly accessible if they were conducted today? I was also curious about who convinced M.H. to talk about her life in the first place – her children or grandchildren? And why did the interviewers press on in both cases? Were there gaps to fill, in terms of the type of disorder or geographic region, in the ‘Mental Health Testimony’ collection? M.H. may have listened to the interview afterwards and still consented to its public access? In regard to J.L., were there considerations about how she felt after the interview, given she had opened up about a harrowing life-changing event of sixty years ago? Was she in the company of close friends or family in sharing her story, or did the interviewer recommend support services after the interview? My conclusion has certainly raised more questions than answers. But in my view, such publicly accessible interviews – in institutions like the British Library – would benefit from additional notes specific to each interview that could help inform researchers about the nature and context of the source they are using. These notes could briefly summarise the collection’s objectives, and the reasons why certain interviewees were selected. A brief comment on the relationship developed by the end of the interviews would also be useful. From my perspective, the interviewers’ continuous prompts, despite the interviewee’s reluctance, seemed almost cruel and unethical. Yet some easily accessible contextual notes on these interviews may have revealed that both participants agreed to try and work together to broach these sensitive topics across the interview process. The inclusion of this contextual information, and perhaps more, would greatly help researchers when they revisit these types of interviews years or decades later. __________________________________________________________________________________

NOTES

[1] UBC034/618, British Empire and Commonwealth Collection, British Library, 1998; C1330/23, Potters of the Bernard Leach Legacy, British Library, 2009.

[2] C900/12563, Millennium Memory Bank, British Library, 1999.

[3] C466/182/01-04, NLSC: Artists' Lives, British Library, 2004.

[4] Ibid.; C900/05003, Millennium Memory Bank, British Library, 1998; C900/04623, Millennium Memory Bank, British Library, 1999.

[5] BNR000137875, ‘Do you welcome more support for new fathers with post-natal depression?’, Broadcast Radio News, British Library, 2018.

[6] Angela Davis, Modern Motherhood: Women and Family in England, 1945-2000 (Manchester University Press, 2012), pp.6-7.

[7] British Library, ‘Mental Health Testimony Archive’, 2000. Accessed 21 November 2022: http://cadensa.bl.uk/uhtbin/cgisirsi/x/0/0/5?searchdata1=CKEY5542415&library=ALL

[8] C905A/39/01, Mental Health Testimony Archive, British Library, 2000.

[9] C905A/42, Mental Health Testimony Archive, British Library, 2000; C905A/28/01, Mental Health Testimony, British Library, 1999; C905A/42/01, Mental Health Testimony Archive, 1999.

[10] National Life Stories and British Library, ‘National Life Stories: A History’, updated 2018. Accessed 21 November 2022: https://www.bl.uk/projects/britishlibrary/~/media/81768d2df53e4a178ee1490c1641b029.ashx

[11] C464/79/01-11, National Life Stories: General Interviews, British Library, 2011.


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One hundred years ago today – 31 October 1922 – newspapers across Britain reported the outcome of a landmark child murder case, heard at Lincoln Assizes. [1] Emma Temple, a nineteen-year-old domestic servant had been brought to trial the day before, charged with the murder of her newly born daughter. [2] The infant’s body had been disposed of late at night in an outside lavatory, seven weeks previous to the October trial proceedings. [3]

A post-mortem examination by local doctor, C.W.T. Woods, confirmed that a tightly bound string ligature cut from the infant’s neck was the likely cause of asphyxiation and death.


Lincoln Crown Court
Contemporary photograph of Lincoln Crown Court where the Emma Temple case was tried at the Lincolnshire assizes in Autumn1922. Credit: © Richard Croft (CC BY-SA 2.0)

The Temple case embodied many of the characteristics typically associated with infanticides in this period. The victim was a newly born, illegitimate baby, whose body had been hastily and poorly concealed following its delivery and murder. In addition, Temple too matched the defendant profile commonly associated with this crime. Although only in the employment of butcher James Goose and his wife Kate for little over three months, the accused had given a favourable impression (despite her poverty), as a young, single woman, who was: ‘willing and kind, and of a good character’. [4] As historian Daniel Grey has observed:

'Historical studies of infanticide have stressed that it has generally been those single or widowed women defined as 'respectable', and thus had the most to lose both socially and economically if an illicit pregnancy was discovered, who have traditionally been most likely to commit the crime.’[5]

What set this case apart was not the nature of the crime, nor the defendant in the dock, but rather the plea made by Emma Temple at trial. For this case was the first to come under the remit of the ‘wise and merciful provisions’ of the newly passed Infanticide Act (1922). [6]



The Infanticide Act (1922) (hereafter ‘The Act’) was one of two major pieces of legislation passed in England and Wales in the inter-war years that specifically attempted to reform the law’s response to women who murdered their children in the aftermath of childbirth. The Act determined that:

'Where a woman by any wilful act or omission causes the death of her newly-born child, but at the time of the act or omission she had not fully recovered from the effect of giving birth to such child, and by reason thereof the balance of her mind was then disturbed, she shall … be guilty of …. infanticide, and may for such offence be dealt with and punished as if she had been guilty of the offence of manslaughter of such child.'[7]

Significantly, The Act did not encroach upon a jury’s ability to return alternate verdicts of manslaughter, guilty but insane, or concealment of birth in child murder cases. [8]



Prior to the enactment of the new legislation on 20 July 1922, women found guilty of the murder of their newly born infants had been sentenced to death, the same as any other defendant found guilty of murder under English criminal law (until the eventual abolition of capital punishment in 1965). From the 1850s onwards however, such women were never hanged, despite the pronouncement of the ultimate sentence by judges. Instead, capital sentences in child murder cases were commuted to imprisonment. The reasons for this situation were complex.



Although it was widely accepted that child murder was an abhorrent crime that should be punished by the law, compassionate attitudes to mothers who killed – often in circumstances of personal, economic and psychological distress – prevailed in British courtrooms. [9] Proving ‘beyond a reasonable doubt’ that a mother had intended to murder her infant was especially challenging. In some cases, juries would find women ‘insane’ or guilty of the lesser offence of concealment of birth, even where evidence for the charge of murder appeared well-founded. The secretive nature of child murder, teamed with the limitations of early forensic medicine to prove foul play, made differentiating between accident, neglect and murderous intent, difficult. Moreover, medical and popular beliefs over the destabilising effect of birth upon the ‘vulnerable’ female mind and anger over the relative lack of punishment fathers received in such cases, encouraged jurors and judges to treat female defendants with sympathy and mercy. As scholars like Grey, Nigel Walker and Tony Ward have shown, the ensuing gap that existed between the criminal law as laid down, compared to how justice was practised in courts of law, sparked successive (though unsuccessful) attempts at legislative reform prior to 1922. [10] The reason for the passing of ‘The Infanticide Bill’ (formerly called the Child Murder (Trial) Bill) into law, remains a topic of significant debate among historians, and is a subject I plan to return to at length in a future blog. However, it is evident from these histories that multiple political, cultural and medico-legal factors coalesced at the opportune time to effect change in the handling of child murder cases in the summer of 1922.



For Emma Temple, the first beneficiary under The Act, her plea to the new felony of infanticide resulted in a sentence of four months imprisonment. [11] At the coronial inquest into her child’s homicide, it had been revealed by expert witness Dr Wood, that Temple had been: ‘in a highly strung, nervous condition’ when he had examined her on the night of the crime. [12] On asking her where her child was, Temple allegedly gave no answer to the doctor other than to state: ‘I wish I could die’. At her trial on the 30 October, in pleading guilty to infanticide, Temple maintained that ‘at the time [of the alleged offence] she did not know what she was doing’. [13] Given the evidence of Temple’s former good character and the clear connection Dr Wood posited between the accused’s recent delivery, disordered mental state and ensuing murderous actions, it is little surprise that the Crown accepted her plea of infanticide. Presiding judge, Mr Justice Lush, joined counsel in lauding the new legislation as ‘a fresh step in the improvement of criminal law’ and ‘a wise and humane piece of legislation’ that made it unnecessary ‘to put a girl on trial for murder’. [14]


Sir Charles Montague Lush, English judge
Caricature of Sir Charles Montague Lush by the artist ‘Ape Junior’ published in Vanity Fair, 18 January 1911 (Credit: Public Domain).

In closing, it is worth highlighting the legacy of the 1922 Act across international borders. As psychiatrists Susan Hatters Friedman and Renée Sorrentino have observed:

‘Internationally, most infanticide laws are based on the 1922 British Infanticide Act (amended in 1938). Approximately two dozen nations have such laws, including Canada and Australia.' [15]

While undoubtedly influential, time would reveal myriad problems with the Infanticide Act (1922). Though the conclusion to the Temple trial would suggest The Act was positively received and beneficial for some women, the new legislation also had many critics. In particular, the vague terminology of The Act - especially phrases such as ‘newly born’ - sparked debate about who the new legislation applied to and whether its provisions were adequate (or even necessary given existing criminal law). [16] Almost sixteen years after its passage, in June 1938, the ‘wise and humane piece of legislation’ so praised by Mr Justice Lush, was repealed in England and Wales and replaced by the Infanticide Act (1938) [17]. This new legislation extended the offence of infanticide to include women who killed their own children up to the age of twelve months. It also extended to women who murdered their children while: ‘the balance of her mind was disturbed by reason of her not having fully recovered from the effect of giving birth to the child or by reason of the effect of lactation consequent upon the birth of the child’. [18] Northern Ireland passed its own legislation in 1939. [19] The problems posed by the 1922 Act, the push to draft a piece of legislation that could better avoid the pitfalls of its forbear, and the enduring critiques associated with laws based upon gender difference, are subjects I plan to return to in future blogs on this site.




 

NOTES

[1] The case was reported in newspapers across mainland Britain and Ireland, such as in the English Daily Mirror, the Edinburgh Evening Telegraph, County Antrim’s Northern Whig and the Glamorgan Western Mail. [2] 'Young Mother's Guilt. Judge Deals With Her Under New Humane Act', Birmingham Daily Gazette, 31 October 1933, p. 5. [3] 'Tattershall Murder Charge: Accused Pleads “Not Guilty"', Skegness Standard, 4 October 1922, p. 6. [4] Evidence of Kate Goose, reported in ibid. [5] Daniel J. R. Grey, 'Parenting, Infanticide and the State in England and Wales, 1870 - 1950', in Hester Barron and Claudia Siebrecht (eds), Parenting and the State in Britain and Europe, c. 1870-1950: Raising the Nation, Cham, Palgrave, 2017, p. 75. [6] As described in 'Infanticide and the New Act', Exeter & Plymouth Gazette, 31 October 1922, p. 7. [7] Infanticide Act (1922), c. 18. [8] Infanticide Act (1922), c. 18, s. 1 (2). [9] For a very useful overview of the history of infanticide, explanations for child murder or concealment, and problems in proving these offences in courtrooms, see: Anne-Marie Kilday, A History of Infanticide in Britain, c. 1600 to the Present, Basingstoke & New York, Palgrave Macmillan, 2013. [10] Daniel J. R. Grey, 'Women's Policy Networks and the Infanticide Act 1922', Twentieth Century British History, vol. 21, no. 4, 2010, pp. 441-463; Nigel Walker, Crime and Insanity in England: Vol.1 The Historical Perspective, Edinburgh, Edinburgh University Press, 1968, especially pp. 127-136; Tony Ward, 'The Sad Subject of Infanticide: Law, Medicine and Child Murder, 1860-1938', Social & Legal studies, vol. 8, no. 2, 1999, pp. 163-173. [11] 'Young Mother's Guilt’, p. 5. [12] Evidence of Dr CWT Woods, reported in: 'Tattershall Murder Charge’, p. 6. [13] 'Young Mother's Guilt’ p. 5. [14] '"Most Wise New Act". Judge Glad Girl-Mother Need Not Be Tried for Murder', Daily Mirror, 31 October 1922, p. 2. [15] Susan Hatters Friedman and Renée Sorrentino, 'Commentary: Postpartum Psychosis, Infanticide, and Insanity—Implications for Forensic Psychiatry', Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law Online, vol. 40, no. 3, 2012, p. 326. It should be noted however, that the USA uses the M’Naghten Rules/ALI Guidelines in establishing the parameters of mental competency in murder cases. [16] For two particularly good discussions of the passage of both Infanticide Acts and the problems this posed for English criminal law, past and present, see: Tony Ward, 'Legislating for Human Nature: Legal Responses to Infanticide, 1860-1938', in Mark Jackson (ed.), Infanticide: Historical Perspectives on Child Murder and Concealment, 1550-2000, Aldershot & Burlington, Ashgate, 2002, pp. 249 – 269; R. Kumar and Maureen Marks, 'Infanticide and the Law in England and Wales ', in James Alexander Hamilton and Patricia Neel Harberger (eds), Postpartum Psychiatric Illness: A Picture Puzzle, Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016, pp. 257-274, [17] Infanticide Act (1938), c. 6. [18] Ibid [19] Infanticide Act (Northern Ireland) 1939, c. 5.

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By: The Project Team

With generous funding from the Wellcome Trust, our project explores the history of maternal mental illness in twentieth-century Britain. It aims to understand the changes that took place in labelling, describing and diagnosing postnatal mental illness across the twentieth century. Moreover, it examines how these changes influenced care and treatment in a variety of institutional medical settings, including early twentieth-century mental hospitals, maternity hospitals, obstetric wards, and after the 1950s mother and baby units. Over the course of the twentieth century, an ever-expanding range of health professionals, including psychiatrists, obstetricians, midwives and health visitors, became involved in the care of women experiencing postnatal mental illness, as did a number of charitable, campaign and grassroots organisations; our project aims to chronicle the changing profile and influence of many of these different groups.



To a large extent our project focuses on postnatal depression (PND) which was described and labelled by psychiatrist Brice Pitt in 1968, though many health professionals and women were aware of this condition before then. It is also by far the most common type of postnatal mental illness and one that continues to affect women in large numbers. We also explore changing responses to puerperal psychosis, which, although rarer in comparison, can be more dangerous and disturbing in its experience and presentation for sufferers and their families.


Credit: Heather Spears, 'Labour & Birth' (CC BY 4.0)

To compare ideas about postnatal mental illness over time, we will also explore cases from the late Victorian period. Around 1900, many psychiatrists questioned whether conditions associated with childbirth existed as distinct categories of mental illness. Nevertheless, Victorian-era diagnoses of ‘puerperal insanity’, ‘lactational insanity’ and ‘insanity of pregnancy’ continued to hold currency in the twentieth century. We are discovering that criminal prosecutions and medico-legal literature dating to the 1930s and 1940s continued to draw upon these older diagnostic labels to make sense of mothers’ mental states. We are also greatly fascinated by the energetic debates that occurred throughout the twentieth century on the causes of postnatal mental illness, and the ways in which these were attributed to a range of medical, psychiatric, hormonal, and social or cultural factors.



These debates went way beyond medical literature. We are discovering that organisations, such as the National Childbirth Trust (NCT), provided support and advice to women experiencing postnatal mental illness from the 1960s onwards. The NCT outlined a wide range of potential causes – amongst them a lack of support networks, poor housing, poverty, exhaustion and loss of employment outside the home, which left new mothers feeling isolated and frustrated. One of the organisation’s most powerful contentions, however, was that postnatal mental illness might be a direct result of the shifting place of birth from home to hospital, which women experienced as a loss of control and agency, leading to births that had been traumatic and lonely.  


Erna Wright (founder member and author) teaching NCT antenatal class. Credit. The National Childbirth Trust. Wellcome Library, London.


The twentieth century was marked by huge changes that shaped women’s experiences of childbirth and motherhood. These included fundamental alterations in the delivery of childbirth services, notably the move from home to hospital, changing expectations about pain management, and the stepping-up of technological interventions in deliveries. Other significant changes also took place in women’s lives, as their status changed in the home, workplace and in relation to their reproductive autonomy. Our project also considers how far women’s lives were shaped by the rise of feminism, changing family structures and dynamics, and new ideals and practices of parenting. We also examine the impact of broader changes in British society, such as migration, two world wars, demographic change, shifting employment patterns, and alterations in the status and experience of women as subjects under the law. While white middle-class women tend to feature most strongly in narrative accounts and in organisational literature, we aspire to examine the experiences of a wide range of British mothers in terms of race and ethnicity, social class, disability and sexuality.


Key to our project is the exploration of women’s own experiences of postnatal mental illness, drawing on a large body of narrative accounts, such as letters, memoirs, magazines, newspaper articles, legal depositions and oral history collections. We aim to understand why women wrote about their experiences and to assess their agency, as ‘experts by experience’, in shaping public and professional understanding of maternal mental illness. The project team also examine the role of the media – from the press and magazines to radio and TV – in offering information and support to women experiencing postnatal mental illness and in shaping public perceptions.


Credit: The National Childbirth Trust. Wellcome Library, London

We are discovering, for example, that the BBC’s Woman’s Hour broadcasted numerous episodes on postnatal depression, and was already discussing ‘post-puerperal depression’ by 1960, a topic it repeatedly returned to for decades to follow, even to this day. Some broadcasts generated a powerful response, including Nemone Lethbridge’s 1973 Play for Today, ‘Baby Blues’. The play triggered both outrage and a plea for support for women experiencing postnatal mental illness through the press. Television ‘clean up’ campaigners, medical experts, and mothers and fathers sent thousands of letters responding to ‘Baby Blues’ for several years after it was broadcast.

In some contexts, the media exacerbated the stigma associated with severe postnatal mental illness. This applied particularly to the small number of women who, while suffering extreme forms of mental disturbance, committed infanticide or attempted to harm their children. Such incidences attracted extensive media attention while also shocking the families and communities closest to the women accused. However, we are also finding that some media accounts could be sympathetic, with press reports suggesting that women suffering from postnatal mental illness were fundamentally ‘good mothers’ whose natural instincts had been drowned out by anxiety, confusion and depression.


In the courtroom, the insanity plea continued to be drawn on by medical experts and witnesses to explain infanticide or child harm. In such cases, a variety of medical practitioners - from local GPs and hospital doctors to prison medical officers and esteemed psychiatrists - drew upon their ‘expertise’ to explain the extreme and violent outbursts of women accused of shocking crimes.  Drawing on legal records, medico-legal literature and press reports from English and Scottish cases, this project also seeks to better understand the ways in which a woman’s mental illness was seen as prompting the most extreme actions. 

Credit:  Victoria McKee, 'Birth of the Blues', The Times, 3 December 1987, p. 11

Why ‘taboo’ in the title of our project? The contrast between expectations of motherhood as a time of joy and fulfilment and the anxiety and depression associated with maternal mental illness has not lost its ability to shock. Women might be castigated for their neglect of the home and children, or for their expressions of violence or anger. Throughout the twentieth century, many women suffering from postnatal mental illness were removed to asylums or mental hospitals for treatment and stigmatised because of this. Many women also described a reluctance about revealing their mental distress after childbirth, as it risked disapproval and censure for contravening expectations of ‘good’ motherhood. We are finding that this reluctance was particularly strong among poor or black and Asian women, women who also had poorer access to childbirth services and suffered other health inequalities.


We have aimed here to give a flavour of some of the themes which we will be exploring in the coming months as we carry out our research in archives, libraries and online. Providing historical context and developing our knowledge of how postnatal mental illness was explained, treated and regarded in the past might enable us to better understand how it is responded to today. Future blog postings will provide more insights into our research sources and approaches, as well as expanding on our findings. We invite you to continue to read our blogs, which we will post every month or so along with other news about our project, including our exciting public engagement plans.


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