As we lay bearing

Vulnerability of Pregnant Bodies in the History of Medicine and Visual Arts, Panel Organization by Patricia A. Gwozdz at the 16th Annual Conference of the International Society for Cultural History 04.-06. September 2024 – University of Potsdam, Germany

Sophia König (Leipzig)

The Maternal and the Infant Body

Debates and Reforms Concerning Maternal Care and Infant Mortality in Germany 1910-1933

Sophia König will give us a closer look at specific aspects of the evolvement of maternal, post-partum and infant care in Germany from c. 1910 to 1933. By 1910 the latest, infant mortality had become a major concern and reforms were deemed to be of great importance. To protect the infant body, it was considered necessary to implement measures that took effect before the baby was born by protecting the bodies of pregnant women. She will begin with the risks associated with maternal and infant mortality and will later on focus on two major reforms that were supposed to guarantee a safe pregnancy, childbirth, childbed and infancy. 

The first one directly relates to the body of a specific group of women–midwives. The desolate economic situation of most midwives was considered to be a major issue that might negatively affect their health and thereby the quality of care provided, creating a risk for mothers and their children. Steps were taken to improve the situation of midwives and thereby their clients. The second step is the introduction of mother’s counseling centers and more specifically breastfeeding education performed by these centers and midwives to increase breastfeeding rates. A closer look on general developments in Germany will also include a close reading of specific sources from her research in Leipzig.

Prof. Dr. Birgit Nemec (Charité) and Dr. Jesse Olszynko-Gryn (MPIWG) 

Stories of Disability, Guilt, and Perseverance

Using Oral History to Reconsider a Transnational Case of Drug-Related Risks in Pregnancy from the Perspectives of Patient-Campaigners

Prof. Dr. Birgit Nemec (Charité) and Dr. Jesse Olszynko-Gryn (MPIWG) will present a study about »Stories of Disability, Guilt, and Perseverance: Using Oral History to Reconsider a Transnational Case of Drug-Related Risks in Pregnancy from the Perspectives of Patient-Campaigners«. Today it may be difficult to believe that doctors ever prescribed pills as pregnancy tests. However, between the 1950s and 1980s, millions of women worldwide were given HPTs: diagnostic drugs that ruled out gestation by inducing menstrual-like bleeding (a ‘negative’ result; no bleeding implied pregnancy). Starting in 1967, HPTs came under suspicion for causing a range of birth defects akin to those caused by thalidomide, the notorious sedative. Against a backdrop of persistent media interest, continuing scientific research, and resumed litigation of patient groups in Germany and the UK, we aim for a nuanced historical understanding of HPTs. 

The talk will address the stories of disability, guilt, and perseverance that we collected in an oral history project with patient-led campaigners in Britain and Germany. They thereby seek to reconsider the use of oral history in a transnational case of pregnancy and drug-related-risks, as well as to better understand concepts of vulnerability and risks in international debates over the use and regulation of drugs in pregnancy and the spectre of birth defects after thalidomide.

Yanara Schmacks (New York)

The Maternal Body and Feminist Motherhood

Sensuality, Ecology, and the Past

Yanara Schmacks will show how and why in the 1970s and 1980s West German feminist motherhood became increasingly centered on the maternal body. While late 1960s and early 1970s feminist concerns regarding motherhood had been focused on alternative and more equal childcare arrangements as well as on women’s self-determination over their bodies in terms of abortion rights, the late 1970s marked a shift toward an elevation of the bodily elements of motherhood. Feminists rooted their desires to become mothers deeply in their bodies, framing pregnancy and childbirth as an above all visceral experience. Situated in the broader late 1970s cultural contexts of “New Inwardness” and “New Sensuality”, this trend was intensified and at the same time drawn into new directions after the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear catastrophe. 

For while the focus on the maternal body was consolidated, its conceptualization shifted from a sensualized and eroticized impetus to a more pessimistic outlook concentrating on motherly “instincts”, firmly situating the maternal body in the world of nature and animals, and framing it as an organ of knowledge (Erkenntnis). Tracing these changing conceptions, it will be shown how much of the motherly concern over children’s health as well as over the supposed attack of the new reproductive technologies on the maternal body expressed in the wake of Chernobyl was imbricated with attempts at grappling with German national identity.

Mareike Haley (Berlin)

“And I transform breast once more”

The Dual Connotation of the Feeding Breast

With Mareike Haley’s talk we switch to the maternal breast in Visual Arts. The female breast is everywhere. It is a symbol of sexuality, it is discussed in TV shows and national campaigns for clothes or cars, until it became a nourishing tool for a child. From then on the breast disappeared from public screens; the woman before becoming a mother is supposed to disappear.

The breastfeeding mother is a crucial symbol for the early mother child years and the act of showing is almost always political. In her presentation she gives a short cultural history of the representation of breastfeeding mothers in Visual Art with a focus on the photographs “Jerry Hall" by Annie Leibovitz (1999) and Catherine Opies "Self Portrait/Nursing" (2004) and analyzes how breastfeeding builds an in-between space in our culture while the representation also establishes monstrous forms of motherhood.