Medicalized Motherhood: Perspectives from the Lives of African-American and Jewish Women

By Avishai-Bentovim, Orit | Journal of Marriage and Family, May 2002 | Go to article overview

Medicalized Motherhood: Perspectives from the Lives of African-American and Jewish Women


Avishai-Bentovim, Orit, Journal of Marriage and Family


Medicalized Motherhood: Perspectives From the Lives of African-American and Jewish Women. Jacquelyn S. Litt. Piscataway, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2000. 224 pp. ISBN 0-8135-- 2782-1. $20 (paper).

In the early decades of the 20th century, an increasingly powerful medical establishment in the United States began to bring American mothering practices under its purview. Through dissemination of ideas about mothering and supervision of American mothers, doctors attempted to replace traditional mothering practices with scientifically derived ones. Building on this social history of "medicalized motherhood", Litt's study of Jewish and African American women who raised children in Philadelphia during the 1930s and 1940s explores how medical discourse figured in women's everyday lives. Breaking away from typical studies of medicalization, Litt shifts the focus from formal medical institutions to the negotiated meanings and uses of expert discourses in everyday life. She asks: How did mothers apply expert ideas about child rearing in their daily practice? How did these ideas affect their perceptions of mothering?

To address these questions, Litt interviewed 20, mostly middle-class, Jewish women, and 18 African American women, some middle class and some poor. The two groups of ethnoracially marginalized women occupied very different positions vis-a-vis the medicalization discourse. Whereas Jewish women were viewed as potential recipients of assimilation and modernization, African American women were considered unworthy objects of maternal education.

Following an overview of the concepts medicalized motherhood and "scientific motherhood", the book is organized in two parts. The first part examines medicalized mothering in the context of migrancy and social mobility. Jewish and middleclass African American women eagerly embraced medicalization. For these upwardly mobile women, medical practices functioned primarily as a collective strategy for social advancement. In contrast, the mothering practices of poor African American women, who lacked the social and economic resources necessary to maintain modern mothering practices while facing a racist medical establishment, continued to embody collective caretaking and experiential knowledge. The second part of the book focuses on women's ethnically and racially segregated networks. Whereas Jewish and middle-class African American women's networks facilitated their embrace of and access to medicalized mothering, poor African American women's networks were oriented toward everyday survival, weakening both the desirability and possibility of orienting childcare to the directives of medical discourse.

Integrating class, gender, and race dynamics, Litt's book contributes to the literature on women's relationship to medical authority.

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