Black Women and the Racialization of Infanticide

Hands holding pregnant woman (Flickr)

“Knowledge of the human body constituted a form of property as important – or even more important than – the body itself in the nineteenth-century United States” (11). At a time when human bodies were actual tangible property under slavery, historian Felicity M. Turner argues intangible knowledge was also a form of valuable property. At its core, Proving Pregnancy is a call for scholars to recognize knowledge of pregnancy and childbirth as akin to a form of property. To do this, Turner examines infanticide cases in the nineteenth-century United States.

From the American Revolution to the end of Reconstruction, Turner traces how knowledge of women’s bodies shifted from being the purview of women – Black and white, enslaved and free – to being controlled (or owned) by white male physicians. While in the early nineteenth century, male juries privileged the knowledge of women in infanticide inquests, by the end of Reconstruction, juries marginalized women’s knowledge and privileged the expertise of white male physicians. The Civil War marks a key turning point in Turner’s narrative. After the abolition of slavery, Turner argues white men substituted authority over knowledge of the female body for the ownership of actual human bodies. In effect, white males’ direct ownership over female bodies from either slavery or, to a lesser extent, coverture shifted to ownership over the power to define women’s bodies. As African Americans gained freedom as well as civil and political rights on the federal level during Reconstruction, Turner shows how freedom actually brought an increase in Black women convicted and imprisoned for infanticide. This criminalization of Black women allowed the government to paint them as unfit mothers, which in turn bolstered the larger argument that African Americans were unfit for citizenship. Before the Civil War, all women regardless of race had owned valuable property in the form of knowledge of the female body. After the Civil War, white male physicians moved to restrict medical knowledge, usurping a form of property women had always claimed. In this way, Turner argues that Reconstruction “proved a moment of loss as well as liberation” (11). Loss of control over knowledge of the female body cemented women’s status as second-class citizens.

Turner looks at a broad base of legal, medical, and popular sources to explain how Americans understood the female body. A main source is infanticide inquests records. A majority of these case studies come from either Connecticut or North Carolina allowing Turner to explore nationwide trends. Turner acknowledges that many of these case records survive incomplete, necessitating a look at other sources. Turner also considers newspapers which depict a nationwide fascination with infanticide throughout the nineteenth century as well as medical journals.

Arranged chronologically, the first three chapters look at infanticide and knowledge of the female body before the Civil War while the last three cover infanticide till the end of Reconstruction. Throughout the text, Turner shows how infanticide cases were always racialized. In the antebellum period, for example, white physicians often testified about Black women’s bodies in infanticide cases.  In contrast, in cases involving white women, physicians only inspected the bodies of dead infants. The bodies of white women were shielded from the physician’s gaze by modesty. Enslaved women, as property, had no right to bodily autonomy. Despite a lack of access to the white female body, physicians created medical knowledge in the first half of the twentieth century by sharing their experiences in professional medical journals. As the century wore on, women and many African Americans were excluded from the field of professional medicine. The white male medical fraternity worked to centralize knowledge in their hands via restricted licensing.

Turner highlights the racialization of infanticide in the discourse of pro-slavery apologists and abolitionists. Infanticide became a powerful rhetorical device in the debate over the legitimacy of slavery. Turner centers the 1856 case of Margaret Garner. A cornered fugitive from slavery, Garner killed her infant rather than see her child returned to slavery. Turner shows how Garner’s contemporaries associated civilization with Christianity and an absence of infanticide. At a time when white, middle-class women were strongly associated with motherhood, people sought to explain the persistence of infanticide cases in the United States. Antislavery proponents argued that slavery caused infanticide as enslaved mothers sought to save their children by killing them. Abolishing slavery, they argued would end infanticide. In contrast, proslavery apologists argued that wage slavery caused infanticide, pointing to high rates in England caused by rampant poverty. In both camps, the rhetoric of infanticide was more important than the messy realities of infanticide. This rhetoric came to obscure individualized and social factors that led to infanticide.

The importance of infanticide as a cultural symbol continued after the civil war and emancipation. Post-Civil War, African American women lost the authority they had previously enjoyed in infanticide inquests. Turner shifts the focus of Reconstruction from a federal to a local level to show that while, on the federal level, political and civil rights for African Americans were expanding, at the local level, the racialization of infanticide cases served as evidence that African Americans were unfit for citizenship.  While juries saw white women as victims in infanticide cases, they increasingly criminalized Black women. While juries often refused to indict white women, they increased custodial sentences and fines for Black women. Turner does note that charges of infanticide were also influenced by class, with poor white women and white women who had mixed-race children treated differently. Overall, infanticide became a language that labeled African Americans unfit for freedom and citizenship and that challenged the legitimacy of Black families.

After the Civil War, all women faced increased scrutiny on their bodies as white male doctors became the authority on pregnancy and childbirth. Men asserted control over what had previously been considered female knowledge, marginalizing the testimony of non-medical professionals. While the increased influence of male physicians in infanticide inquests was not always to the detriment of female defendants, women’s bodies became subject to the male professional gaze as they had not been before. While pregnancy had previously been considered a natural occurrence, it became an illness under the domain of white male physicians. A belief that pregnancy compromised the minds of women undermined all women’s claims to the civil and political rights of citizenship. At a time when insanity was considered a disease of civilization, white women could claim insanity as a defense to infanticide. On the contrary, Black women were considered uncivilized, their acts of infanticide caused by ignorance rather than insanity. Regardless of the racialization of the insanity defense, all women became trapped in a framework where biology determined destiny, where women’s bodies made them unfit for citizenship.

Turner argues that the intangible knowledge of childbirth and pregnancy was as important as tangible property in the nineteenth-century United States. In doing so, she urges a reframing of traditional understandings of property. Knowledge is generally not acknowledged as akin to a form of property by historians or legal scholars probably because of its intangible nature. However, Turner argues that knowledge of the female body became tangible via restrictive medical licensing in the late nineteenth century. Treating knowledge of women’s bodies as property is an important historical intervention in our understandings of all women’s power in the nineteenth century. Turner’s narrative convincingly shows how an African-American woman could have more power under slavery than she did post-emancipation. Women conceded control of their valuable property after the Civil War choosing to privilege civil and political rights instead. In doing so, women failed to acknowledge the power and property they had once possessed. Women may have increasingly gained civil, political, and voting rights, but they lost the property of knowledge of the female body. Turner’s reconceptualization of knowledge as property (albeit racialized and gendered property) has important stakes. The cession of power of women over their own bodies with the professionalization of medicine still influences healthcare today.  Proving Pregnancy challenges the progressive narrative of history, showing how as women and African Americans achieved some gains in rights, they sacrificed an important source of power they had once monopolized.

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Rebekka Michaelsen

Rebekka Michaelsen is a doctoral candidate in the history department at UCLA. Her dissertation, “Race, Gender, and ‘Insanity’ in American Mental Institutions, 1840-1939: Black and Indigenous Experiences,” centers on the lives of Black and Indigenous women in both of the United States’ federal asylums. She is broadly interested in the intersections of race, gender, and disability.