Historical essay
Mothers’ Natures: Sex, Love, and Degeneration in the Nineteenth-Century United States

Mothers’ Natures: Sex, Love, and Degeneration in the Nineteenth-Century United States

Every so often, some viral article or other will declare that science “proves” or “confirms” that intelligence is inherited from mothers. (I know, because my own mother will promptly share it on Facebook.) Swiftly, of course, revisionary articles will appear correcting or debunking this claim, chastising armchair geneticists for their overly-simplistic understandings of the X-chromosome. But given the culture of anxiety and hypervigilance surrounding maternal influence—from the constant public scrutiny of pregnant bodies, to the mommy-shaming alarms of the “breastfeeding police” — it seems unsurprising that our investigations have extended to the cellular level. If not through psychoanalysis, then through mitochondrial DNA and epigenetics, we are eager to analyze how our mothers made us.

Mothering has long been a public enterprise in the United States. In the early American republic, the prominent ideology of “republican motherhood” encouraged women’s indirect participation in the political sphere by valorizing child-rearing as a method of citizen-cultivation.1 The legacy of republican motherhood is alive and well: in his 2017 Mother’s Day address, Donald Trump praised mothers’ ability to “brighten America’s future by shaping the character of each new generation” — to MAGA-by-proxy, if you will. The opportunity was predictably seized for a declaration that we are literally living in The Handmaid’s Tale, but it would be more apt to say that Trump’s rhetoric might have been lifted from an antebellum domestic advice manual. “The mother forms the character of the future man,” the educator and proto-mommy-blogger Catharine Beecher declared in her 1841 Treatise on Domestic Economy; through their roles as sisters, wives, and especially as mothers, women could direct “for good or for evil the destinies of a nation.”2

Photograph of a white woman sitting with a writing slate in her lap, wrapped in a shawl and with a shaggy curly hairdo.
Catharine Beecher. (Wikimedia Commons)

Of course, as Beecher’s audience was well aware, mothers were capable of forming more than “character.” The medieval theory of “maternal impressions” had persisted well into the Enlightenment, indicting the unruly imaginations of pregnant women for marring their developing fetuses with all manner of “monstrous” deformities — explaining how, in 1726, one Englishwoman gave birth to seventeen rabbits.3

And over a century before Francis Galton coined the term “eugenics,” physicians urged caution in reproductive pairings for fear that women would pass on physical illnesses and unruly temperaments. It would be imprudent to wed “a woman of a sickly constitution, and descended of unhealthy parents,” William Buchan warned in his wildly-popular Domestic Medicine (1768), since human reproduction was governed by the same “immutable laws” that applied to animal breeding: no “sagacious spaniel” could come of a “snarling cur.”4

The decades before the Civil War witnessed the rise of a new genre of maternal responsibility literature, as domestic advice and medical manuals aimed at women began to frame reproduction itself as a civic responsibility. In 1843, Hester Pendleton — a phrenology enthusiast who would later become President of the New York Free Medical College for Women — authored the first tract on the topic of hereditary transmission published in the United States. 5 Dedicated to “the INTELLIGENT MOTHER; Anxious for the IMPROVEMENT OF HER OFFSPRING,” Pendleton’s volume situates itself in the tradition of domestic advice manuals like Lydia Maria Child’s The Mother’s Book (1831): a popular child-rearing guide dedicated “To American Mothers, on Whose Intelligence and Discretion the Safety and Prosperity of our Republic so much Depends.”6

A drawing of a head, with zones of the skull sectioned off and illustrated with pictures representing their titles - a section for "acquisitiveness," "language," "hope," and more.
An 1883 phrenology chart from People’s Cyclopedia of Universal Knowledge. (Wikimedia Commons)

According to Pendleton, mothers are responsible not only for the right raising, but for the right making of American citizens. To “improve” future generations of American citizens “by transmitting to them sound constitutions and virtuous inclinations,” Pendleton argues, “is a power and a duty that devolves principally upon the mother, for the due performance of which she ought to be held responsible, at least by public opinion.”7

The call to produce able-bodied, sound-minded, and “virtuous” children was particularly urgent in the nineteenth-century court of public opinion, where adherents of “degeneration theory” argued that the human (i.e., Anglo-American) race was blighted by physical, mental, moral declension — a process they deigned to trace back to the disobedience of Eve. Even pioneering woman physician Elizabeth Blackwell, part of a cohort of mid-century “Christian physiologists,”8 remarked with alarm on the exponential increase in hereditary disease, debility, invalidism, “idiocy,” criminality, licentiousness, and plain old ugliness. And it was all Mom’s fault: “the degeneracy of the race, which is taking place,” Blackwell declared, “must inevitably be the result of a weakened and diseased state of the mothers of our land.”9

To remedy this progressive decrepitude, Blackwell and her contemporaries argued, all women needed to do was eschew the artificial pleasures of modern civilization and return to the natural “laws of life” that ensured optimal health: eat plant-based diets, take wholesome physical exercise, curb sexual appetites, sport uncorseted torsos, etc. To do otherwise, reformers warned, was to recklessly endanger the fate of the nation. Warnings like the one issued by Beecher — “ere long, there will be no healthy women in the country” — implicitly contained a far more frightening and politically exigent proposition: ere long, there would be no healthy men.10

An older white woman is centered on a stamp costing 18c, with "Elizabeth Blackwell, First Woman Physician" surrounding her face.
Blackwell was commemorated on a U.S. postage stamp in 1974, designed by Joseph Stanley Kozlowski.(Syracuse University Medical School collection/Wikimedia Commons).

Enter the free-love feminists.

In the 1850s and 60s, the burgeoning “free-love” movement, which called for women to enter consensual and equitable partnerships — and to remove themselves from unhappy and abusive ones — found apt fuel in contemporary anxieties about degeneration.11 Only by issuing grim predictions about the fate of hypothetical future children, it seemed, could women’s health — and women’s rights — be rendered matters of national relevance. Accordingly, free-lovers like the homeopathic health reformer Mary Sargeant Gove Nichols and her (second) husband, Thomas Low Nichols, contented that unhappy marriages were not simply social problems. They were public health hazards.

Like other degenerationists of their day, the Nicholses described an epidemic of “sensuality, sickness, suffering, weakness, imbecility, [and] outrageous crime” threatening to “hinder the progress of the race.”12 But the trouble was more than corsets. The fruits of ill-matched marriages had put the country on the path toward a dystopic future populated by “thieves, drunkards, prostitutes, and murderers.”13 America, they warned, was poised to become a land of invalids, imbeciles, and “incurable masturbators.”14 But if women were able to exercise the right to choose when and with whom to have children, a healthier and more morally-minded populace would ensue.15

Our fascination with the formative influence of the “biological” mother  privileges certain normative reproductive and kinship structures and targets the reproductive body for praise or blame, paving the way for ideas about social engineering to take hold. As antebellum writings on the national significance of marriage and motherhood remind us, white feminist arguments for reproductive autonomy were troublingly wrapped in eugenicist packaging long before Margaret Sanger used contemporary eugenic theory to bolster her argument for birth control (as we are continually reminded by a certain cohort of conservative finger-pointers attempting to “expose” Planned Parenthood’s supposed genocidal agenda).16

Indeed, the nineteenth-century free-love movement would culminate in the promotion of a program of selective breeding, or “stirpiculture,” by prominent feminist figures like Victoria Woodhull. But it is worth remembering the ways in which the links between reproductive rights and the “science” of human “improvement” were historically forged: as a strategic response to our compulsion to invest women’s reproductive capacities with the weight of national destiny.


  1. See Linda Kerber, “The Republican Mother: Women and Enlightenment—An American Perspective,” American Quarterly 28, no. 2 (1976): 187-205. Return to text.
  2. Catharine Esther Beecher, A Treatise on Domestic Economy: For the Use of Young Ladies at Home, and at School (Boston: Thomas H. Webb & Company, 1843), 37. Return to text.
  3. See Philip K. Wilson, “Eighteenth-Century ‘Monsters’ and Nineteenth-Century ‘Freaks’: Reading the Maternally Marked Child” Literature and Medicine 21, no. 1 (2002): 1–25. Return to text.
  4. William Buchan, Domestic Medicine: Or, A Treatise on the Prevention and Cure of Diseases by Regimen and Simple Medicines, 11th ed. (London: A. Strahan and T. Cadell, 1790), 8. Return to text.
  5. Charles Rosenberg credits Pendleton as the “author of the first widely read book on hereditary improvement” in the United States. See No Other Gods: On Science and American Social Thought (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997), 254, n. 44. Return to text.
  6. Lydia Maria Child, The Mother’s Book (Boston: Carter, Hendee, and Babcock, 1831). Return to text.
  7. Hester Pendleton, Facts and Arguments on the Transmission of Intellectual and Moral Qualities from Parents to Offspring, 2nd ed. (New York: J. Winchester, 1844). Return to text.
  8. See Ruth Clifford Engs, Clean Living Movements: American Cycles of Health Reform (Westport, CT: Praeger, 2000). Return to text.
  9. Elizabeth Blackwell, The Laws of Life: With Special Reference to the Physical Education of Girls (New York: G. P. Putnam, 1852), 32. Return to text.
  10. Catharine Esther Beecher, Letters to the People on Health and Happiness (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1855), 9. Return to text.
  11. See Wendy Hayden, Evolutionary Rhetoric: Sex, Science, and Free Love in Nineteenth-Century Feminism (Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 2013). Return to text.
  12. Thomas Low Nichols and Mary Sargeant Gove Nichols, Marriage: Its History, Character, and Results (New York: T.L. Nichols, 1854), 223, 105. Return to text.
  13. Nichols and Nichols, Marriage, 206. Return to text.
  14. Nichols and Nichols, Marriage, 223. Return to text.
  15. See Patricia Cline Cohen, “The ‘Anti-Marriage Theory’ of Thomas and Mary Gove Nichols: A Radical Critique of Monogamy in the 1850s,” Journal of the Early Republic 34, no. 1 (2014): 1–20, and Dawn Keetley, “The Ungendered Terrain of Good Health: Mary Gove Nichols’s Rewriting of the Diseased Institution of Marriage,” in Separate Spheres No More: Gender Convergence in American Literature, 1830-1930, ed. Monika M. Elbert (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2000), 117-42. Return to text.
  16. See Dorothy Roberts, Killing the Black Body: Race, Reproduction, and the Meaning of Liberty (New York: Pantheon Books, 1997). Return to text.

Emily Waples is an Assistant Professor of Biomedical Humanities at Hiram College, where she teaches courses on illness narrative, the history of medicine and public health, bioethics, and health and social justice.

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