Year of Publication

2014

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Document Type

Doctoral Dissertation

College

Arts and Sciences

Department

English

First Advisor

Dr. Jeffory Clymer

Abstract

Prior to the advent of modern birth control beginning in the nineteenth century, the biological reproductive cycle of pregnancy, post-partum recovery, and nursing dominated women’s adult years. The average birth rate per woman in 1800 was just over seven, but by 1900, that rate had fallen to just under than three and a half. The question that this dissertation explores is what cultural narratives about reproduction and reproductive control emerge in the wake of this demographic shift. What’s at stake in a woman’s decision to reproduce, for herself, her family, her nation? How do women, and society, control birth?

In order to explore these questions, this dissertation broadens the very term “birth control” from the technological and medical mechanisms by which women limit or prevent conception and birth to a conception of “controlling birth,” the societal and cultural processes that affect reproductive practices. This dissertation, then, constructs a cultural narrative of the process of controlling birth. Moving away from a focus on “negative birth control”—contraception, abortion, sterilization—the term “controlling birth” also applies to engineering or encouraging wanted or desired reproduction. While the chapters of this work often focus on traditional sites of birth control—contraceptives, abortion, and eugenics—they are not limited to those forms, uncovering previously hidden narratives of reproduction control. This new lens also reveals men’s investment in these reproductive practices.

By focusing on a variety of cultural texts—advertisements, fictional novels, historical writings, medical texts, popular print, and film—this project aims to create a sense of how these cultural productions work together to construct narratives about sexuality, reproduction, and reproductive control. Relying heavily on a historicizing of these issues, my project shows how these texts—both fictional and nonfictional—create a rich and valid site from which to explore the development of narratives of sexuality and reproductive practices, as well as how these narratives connect to larger cultural narratives of race, class, and nation. The interdisciplinary nature of this inquiry highlights the interrelationship between the literary productions of the nineteenth and twentieth century and American cultural history.