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Parenting, Care & Kinship in the Early Modern World

Eliska Bujokova, a PhD researcher at the University of Glasgow, explores the gendering of care provision and childcare in eighteenth-century London.
ELISKA BUJOKOVA: Care is a difficult subject. It’s embodied nature and centrality to the human experience makes it appear timeless or natural, and the motivations behind care-giving are assumed to be biological or ingrained in one’s humanity. The very concept of care is contingent, however. It is shaped both internally and externally by social, economic, racial, ethnic, and gender factors. As such it is historical. However the invisibility of caring practises, skills, and motivation makes it hard to historicize. History of care intersects with histories of emotions, the body, medicine, and work. It is integral to women’s history as care is often de-marked as a female prerogative.
The ways in which caring for children and motherhood are understood remain at the centre of conceptualising womanhood across cultures. In 18th century London, care appears more fragmented, fluid, performed by whomever is available, and material as opposed to effective. Much care was imagined in economic terms, and men as well as women were seen as responsible for providing for its different aspects. At the same time, however, the prevalence of women as nurses, searchers, and layers out, often for relief as part of the economy of makeshift, is palpable. Childcare lies at the centre of care, understood as reproductive work.
The various ways in which it was distributed between parents and siblings, servants, networks, effect of kinship, and city authorities warns us against placing it strictly within the nuclear family. While as much of how childcare and care more generally was understood by contemporaries remains hidden from written records, visual culture can aid us in bringing together the different aspects it comprised of. The work for Hogarth, here represented by his 1730 print from the cycle Four Times of the Day, tells an awful lot about the everyday realities of 18th century London. It alerts us to the stark socioeconomic inequality that divided the city into two, alongside stereotyped virtues and vices.
It shows us the demographics of the city, with its great racial and ethnic diversity. Furthermore, the strong presence of people of all ages engaged in different activities lends itself really well to pondering the ways in which they were clothed, fed, cared for– according to their class, gender, and circumstance. Looking more closely at the practises of childcare, the two following artworks by Marguerite Gérard from 1802 and 1804 show the popular subject of breastfeeding– very much debated in the British context in the 18th century. The first painting, titled The Wet Nurse, depicts a typical upper-class scene of a well-to-do mother overseeing a child being breastfed by a considerably less fashionable wet nurse.
The second painting, The Nursing Mother, displays a mother herself providing a child with breast milk, with a mere assistance of a child’s nurse. At first sight rather similar, the two artworks show the importance of moral and medical discourses in shaping the norms of motherhood and maternal care. The first image depicts a heavily commodified form of care provision, directed by the notion of class-based femininity, and they assumed impropriety of breastfeeding for upper-class women. The second scene is based on the contrasting and evangelical ideal of tender motherhood, in a self-sacrificing duty of a mother. Both demonstrate the positioning of care at the intersection of paid and unpaid, productive, and reproductive work.
Rather contrastingly, the following print, Gin Lane by Hogarth, uses the image of a drunken neglectful mother as the epitome of depravity and vice, showing the centrality of the notion of care to the conceptualization of female humanity. The following engraving from Jane Sharp’s The Midwives book shows the subject of care at the intersection of medicine, nursing, and female kinship in childbirth. It shows the variety of tasks included in personal care, such as feeding, cleaning, and washing, as well as medical assistance in childbirth. It brings us to deliberate the blurring of lines between paid domestic service, nursing, and midwifery, as well as altruistic networks of female kinship interlaced through the practises of care.
The 1793 satirical drawing A Man Midwife by Isaac Cruikshank, the annotation of which shows the contemporary opposition to the expansion of medical men into the traditionally female sphere, represents the normative discourse in 18th century medical milieu. It reads, “A Man-Mid-Wife, or a newly discover’d animal, not known in Buffon’s time, for a more full description of this Monster, see an ingenious book, lately published price three shillings 6 pence entitled, ‘Man-Midwifery dissected’, containing a variety of well authenticated cases elucidating the animal’s propensities to cruelty and indecency, sold by the published of this Print, who has presented the Author with the Above for a Frontispiece to his Book.”
Similar sentiments were raised by the famous midwife and published author Sarah Stone, who wrote, “Forgive me leave to tell those young gentlemen pretenders who undertake the practise of midwifery with only the knowledge of dissecting the dead that all the living who have or shall come under their care, in any difficulty, have and may severely pay for what knowledge they attain to in the art of midwifery. For dissecting the dead and being just and tender to the living are vastly different.” The battle over the delivery room shows the centrality of paid care to women’s work and financial independence, as well as status exemplified by the recognition of midwifery as a traditionally-female profession.
It, however, also alerts us against assuming the absence of men from the domains of care. The last image, Nathaniel Parr’s depiction of the admissions to the family hospital in 1741 brings to the fore most stridently the economic value of care and its institutional provision. It helps debunk the common assumption of care being given out freely and for free. It also opens the wider debate of responsibility for and entitlement to care, as well as the growing role of the state as a welfare provider, consolidated a century later. The visual materials presented here show a very feminised world of practical care provision given out by women as mothers, servants, nurses, and midwives.
It also, however, raises questions of what actually constitutes care in physical, effective, and economic terms. Margaret Pelling warns us against perceiving care as inherently feminine, and brings to the fore examples of predominantly male societies, such as in the army or the colonies, when men are often seen as care providers. The underlining theme this lesson aims to convey is the varied-ness of care in practical as well as conceptual terms and its contingency in social, political, moral, and historical surroundings.

In this video, Eliska Bujokova, a PhD researcher at the University of Glasgow, explores the gendering of care provision and childcare in eighteenth-century London.

When we think of care provision, we often turn to a feminised world of mothers, servants, nurses and midwives. But was care in the past inherently feminine? By exploring eighteenth-century visual culture, Eliska explores care as a concept, showing that it was fundamentally shaped by social, economic, racial, ethnic and gendered factors.


Having listened to Eliska talking about care, kinship and gender, how much do you think that society has changed between the eighteenth century and today?

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