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‘Women on the Edge: Motherhood & the Family in Turmoil in the Twentieth Century’: Workshop Summary

On the 7 – 8 September 2023, Dr Kelly-Ann Couzens and Professor Hilary Marland and hosted a two-day workshop at the Centre for the History of Medicine, University of Warwick, entitled ‘Women on the Edge: Motherhood & the Family in Turmoil in the Twentieth Century’. The event was generously funded by the Wellcome Trust as part of the ‘Last Taboo of Motherhood? Postnatal Mental Disorders in the Twentieth Century’ (2021 – 2024) project and arranged with the help of our Research Centre Coordinator, Keri Husband. The objective of the workshop was to bring together scholars working in history, criminology and law, whose research explores the relationship between motherhood, mental or emotional states, and criminality within the family, in the long twentieth century. More specifically, we were keen to focus on the role psychiatric, legal, “expert”, and popular thinking has had in understanding “deviant” female behaviour in the past. We were also interested in reflecting upon sources and critical approaches for recovering these complex histories as well as discussing the challenges researchers have encountered in tackling these themes on both a personal and methodological level.


The workshop commenced on Thursday afternoon with some brief opening remarks, welcoming speakers to the University and detailing how the themes of the event linked with the ‘Last Taboo of Motherhood’ project. Our first session, entitled ‘Perspectives, Sources & Ethical Considerations’ commenced with a paper by Associate Professor Lydia Plath (University of Warwick). Plath’s paper, titled: ‘What To Do With a Plank of Wood? Some Reflections on Writing About Sexual Violence and Its Aftermath in Victorian England’ explored the discovery and response to a piece of wood in Plath’s childhood home that detailed an alleged rape in 1886. Disturbingly, the source suggested that the survivor may have been ‘in the family way’ (become pregnant) because of the attack perpetrated upon her. Plath discussed how this source could be used as a springboard to interrogate broader issues of sexual violence within working-class communities in rural Worcestershire in the 1880s and to explore the liminal and precarious position of women who worked in the local glove trade. Her paper also explored the materiality of the plank of wood as a historical source and the ethics this unique record posed for the development of Plath’s research on this topic.

‘The Last Taboo of Motherhood’ team
‘The Last Taboo of Motherhood’ team at the ‘Women on the Edge’ Workshop (2023) (L-R) Dr Kelly-Ann Couzens, Dr Fabiola Creed & Professor Hilary Marland

Following a short break, we began our second session with three papers on the theme of ‘Medicine, Diagnosis & Treatment in the Past’. The first paper was by Dr Alison Pedley (University of Roehampton) and titled: ‘We are still far from possessing an adequate comprehension of the psychology of pregnancy: Criminal Lunacy and Puerperal Mania in Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum, 1895-1960.’ Pedley’s paper traced change and continuity within the medical regimes of Broadmoor’s chief medical superintendents from the late-nineteenth century to first half of the twentieth century. In particular, she explored the published research produced by doctors David Nicholson (superintendent from (s/f.)1886-1896), Richard Brayn (s/f. 1896-1910), John Baker (s/f. 1910-1920) and Stanley Hopwood (s/f.1938-1952) on women diagnosed as suffering from mental disorders associated with pregnancy, childbirth or lactation. Pedley was also interested in tracing the links these clinicians made between these mental illnesses and suicidal or homicidal behaviours. Although these doctors oversaw and treated a diverse group of patients in their role as asylum superintendents, Pedley highlighted that female ‘criminal lunatics’ who harmed themselves and/or their children while insane, proved a subject of repeated and sustained interest for Broadmoor’s leading medical officials. Her paper also raised important questions around the extent to which psychiatric experts linked maternal mental illnesses to subsequent bouts of mental instability, such as during the menopause (climacteric insanity). Pedley also raised the issue of the role asylums occupied at times as places of both care, and obstetric quarantine, for women suffering from mental illness.

Dr Morag Allan Campbell’s (Independent Scholar) paper: ‘She will be watched carefully: The Conditional Release of Women Prisoner’s From Perth Prison’s Criminal Lunatic Department’ was an excellent follow up to Pedley’s discussion of Broadmoor. Campbell offered a contrasting perspective on responses to maternal child killers within Britain, by exploring the Scottish context as a case study. Using newspaper reports and the institutional records of four women from the north-east of Scotland who had been former inmates of Perth Criminal Lunatic Department in the early decades of the twentieth century, Campbell traced the encounters these women had with the criminal justice system and the regimes of surveillance that followed their conditional release from the Department. Her research emphasized the power authorities exerted over women and their families, as well as the extent to which personal freedoms were curtailed for fear that the Department’s former inmates might relapse mentally or potentially re-offend once exposed to the stresses of poverty, childbearing and family life, once more.

The final paper of the day was given by Professor Hilary Marland (University of Warwick) and titled: “A sophisticated blackmailer: Mothers, Maternal Mental Illness and Bonding in Post-War Britain’. Marland’s paper focused on the development of Mother and Baby Units (MBUs) in Britain after the 1950s, and the extent to which treatment for mentally ill mothers was informed by new ideas within psychiatry around attachment theory and infant bonding. Marland’s research demonstrated that the early pioneers of MBUs, like Gwen Douglas, Thomas Main and Desmond Barton, instigated a radical shift in the treatment of maternal mental illness by admitting mothers, alongside their babies, for treatment in specialized mental health units. This change in treatment practice was informed by the work of John Bowlby and others, who argued that a mother’s failure to bond with her new infant could have a harmful impact on the developing child. MBUs were considered a partial solution to this issue because they facilitated attachment and bonding by keeping mother and baby together at an important stage in the child’s development.

The first day subsequently closed with a small drinks reception in the Faculty of Arts Building, followed by a dinner for the workshop speakers at Scarman Conference Centre.


The first session on Friday morning was composed of two papers on the theme ‘Framing the Offence of Infanticide in England and Wales’. It began with a joint-paper given by Dr Rachel Dixon (University of Hull) and Professor Tony Ward (University of Northumbria) entitled: ‘On the Edge of Infanticide: Mothers Killing Infants Aged 1 – 18 Months, 1870 – 1938’. Dixon and Ward’s paper explored how mental responsibility was defined and negotiated in cases of maternal child killing and the law from the late-Victorian era to the inter-war years in England and Wales. This period saw significant agitation for reform of the law on infanticide, culminating in the implementation of the current Infanticide Act 1938. Dixon and Ward were particularly interested in how the language adopted in infanticide legislation to describe a woman’s mental state at the time of the killing (namely that the ‘balance of her mind was disturbed’) paralleled the practice adopted in coronial inquests of suicide cases. Dixon and Ward also underscored the close links between maternal mental illness, suicide and child murder within their research, a theme that echoed Pedley’s findings within the context of Broadmoor Asylum. The speakers also discussed how marital status and respectability shaped the responses of courts to mothers who killed, with harsher responses likely to be meted upon single women, rather than their married counterparts.

Professor Tony Ward & Dr Rachel Dixon at the ‘Women on the Edge’ Workshop (2023)
Professor Tony Ward & Dr Rachel Dixon at the ‘Women on the Edge’ Workshop (2023) Tony and Rachel presented a joint-paper entitled: ‘On the Edge of Infanticide: Mothers Killing Infants Aged 1 – 18 Months, 1870 – 1938’.

The development of infanticide law in the inter-war years was also the subject of Dr Kelly-Ann Couzens’ (University of Warwick) paper: ‘One ‘of those little wayside domestic tragedies of life: The Infanticide Act 1938 and the Inter-War British Family’. Couzens’ paper explored the role of Viscount Bertrand Dawson of Penn, a royal physician and peer in the House of Lords, who was instrumental in drafting and promoting an infanticide bill that would be legislated (with minor amendments) as the Infanticide Act 1938. Dawson was an important figure in the British medical profession throughout the first half of the twentieth century and was deeply interested in eugenics, birth control and national “fitness”. Couzens argued that Dawson’s involvement in infanticide law reform should be seen as a function of his professional status and identity, unique personal politics and deeply held concerns over population decline worsening in the mid-1930s. As with Dixon & Ward’s paper, Couzens’ research also revealed that marital respectability played an important role in justifying compassionate legal and political responses to women that killed their children, with Dawson keen to frame his Bill as protecting respectable married women from the harshness of the prevailing laws. As a whole, this session highlighted promising new directions of research within the historiography of the Infanticide Acts, as well as exposing challenges in researching histories at the junction between mental illness, law and policy.

Dr Kelly-Ann Couzens
Dr Kelly-Ann Couzens presenting her paper entitled: ‘One ‘of those little wayside domestic tragedies of life: The Infanticide Act 1938 and the Inter-War British Family’.

The second pannel of the day focused on ‘Motherhood and the Criminal Justice System’ and included two papers focusing on the Irish and English and Welsh contexts, respectively. The session began with Lynsey Black’s (Maynooth University) paper: ‘Murder and Motherhood in Ireland, 1922 to 1964’. Black analysed the profile and criminal justice response toward women prosecuted for murder in Ireland from independence to the mid-1960s. Importantly, most female defendants surveyed in Black’s research were charged with the killing of their own children, making it important for Irish courts to account for violence that challenged acceptable notions of femininity, respectability and morality. Nevertheless, compassion and flexibility could be exercised within Irish courtrooms to such women, especially by jurors who could return verdicts at odds with the weight of prosecution evidence or find in opposition to the sympathies of the sitting judge. Black’s paper emphasized prominently that pathologizing women as sinful, “mentally defective” or (to a much lesser extent) insane, offered discursive mechanisms by which female offending could be explained away. However, these explanations obscured the significant role structural factors (such as poverty, the burden of single motherhood, community opprobrium and the rural/city divide) had in shaping, and making sense of, female offending.

The final paper of the workshop was given by Professor Lizzie Seal (University of Sussex) and titled: ‘Themes of Motherhood in Cases of Racialised Women Accused of Murder and Attempted Murder in Britain, 1950 – 1970’. Seal’s paper explored how ideas of “motherhood”, femininity and emotion emerged within media reporting surrounding the prosecution of four racialized women charged with murder, manslaughter or attempted murder in post-war England and Wales. Seal’s analysis revealed that ideas of motherhood were central to evoking sympathetic responses to violent women, even in instances where the alleged victim was not a child themselves, but the defendant’s partner or spouse. In the case of ‘Willie May P’, charged with the manslaughter of her adulterous husband in 1960, the British press framed the defendant positively as a wife and mother who had suffered as a victim of her husband’s cruelty. Seal also highlighted how racial discourses and paternalistic attitudes shaped the treatment of female offenders at trial too. In the case of ‘Dorette L’, who while heavily pregnant fatally struck down her partner with a water jug, the judge was keen to emphasise that Dorette L was a ‘simple creature’ whom psychiatric evidence had shown to be of ‘low intelligence’. Cumulatively then, this session underscored how ideas of motherhood and femininity were central to framing lay, legal, and media responses to criminal women, regardless of place, identity or victimology. The findings of Black and Seal’s research contribute our understandings of the interaction between motherhood, identity and criminal justice in the British Isles during the twentieth century.

Professor Lizzie Seal
Professor Lizzie Seal gave the final paper of the workshop, with a presentation titled: ‘Themes of Motherhood in Cases of Racialised Women Accused of Murder and Attempted Murder in Britain, 1950 – 1970’


The final session of the workshop was a summary and roundtable discussion. This provided an opportunity to close the workshop by reviewing some of the key questions, themes and ideas that had emerged in the research presented across the two-day event. The roundtable opened with a discussion of motherhood as a central, recurring and nebulous theme that united all papers. Questions were raised as to what it meant to be a “mother” in the past, who decides if someone is a “mother” or not, and to what extent this role or identity may be tied to time or place. This topic remains central to lay, legal, expert and media reactions to child murder cases, as historically a woman who kills her own children, has been seen to commit an “unnatural” or “deviant” act that transgresses the expectations, and instincts, of her sex. Conversation then focused on policing the boundaries of “good womanhood” and the role surveillance and institutional settings have had in monitoring and shaping women’s mental states in the past. It was noted that marital status and respectability emerged as a surprisingly strong theme across the workshop papers. Indeed, it was striking how dominant married or unmarried motherhood was to diagnoses of mental illness, regimes of treatment for mentally ill women, and to representations of female offenders in the past.

Debate also centred on the extent to which it was possible for scholars to recover the voice and perspective of women as defendants, patients and historical actors, more generally. Asylum records and criminal case files are sensitive records, often subject to restrictions on public access that can last decades. This was remarked on as a particular challenge for scholars using medical and legal records for their research on twentieth-century developments. The workshop closed with a brief discussion of future directions within this field and of historical cases that had stayed with researchers personally. Of note was the extent to which family history research by members of the public had intersected, in sometimes highly fruitful ways, with the formal historical and legal research of some workshop participants. Following the closing roundtable discussion, that lasted approximately one hour, the ‘Women on the Edge’ workshop concluded with a late lunch on Friday afternoon before the company parted ways.

Dr Lynsey Black, Keri Husband, Dr Lydia Plath, Dr Alison Pedley, Professor Hilary Marland & Dr Morag Allan Campbell
Dr Lynsey Black, Keri Husband, Dr Lydia Plath, Dr Alison Pedley, Professor Hilary Marland & Dr Morag Allan Campbell

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