History of the Health Sciences Lecture
Thursday, December 12th at 6pm with refreshments at 5:30
Russ Berrie Pavilion, 1150 St. Nicolas Ave at W 168th St., Room 1
Ziv Eisenberg, Ph.D., Lecturer, Program in the History of Science & Medicine, Yale University
In the 1930s and early 1940s, American husbands were offered new roles in responding to their wives’ pregnancy and the birth of their newborn. Medical experts –obstetricians, gynecologists, pediatricians, and maternity nurses – produced new literature that taught expectant fathers to function as the doctor’s proxy in the home, supervising their wives’ behavior and ensuring that they followed the physician’s orders. Experts aimed not only to protect the health of mothers but also to empower husbands; however, at the same time, they also demanded that men provide their wives with meaningful, practical help. Through pregnancy classes, guidebooks and leaflets, husbands learned to perform traditionally female household tasks like cooking, changing diapers, and bathing their baby, without risking feminization.
The physicians and nurses who helped give expectant fatherhood a new meaning were part of an emerging reform movement that sought to make childbearing safer and reduce maternal mortality. Since breadwinning was a husband’s traditional source of authority, Depression-era unemployed and underemployed men lost their confidence and sometimes the respect of their families.
Capitalizing on the dismal state of men, medically-trained maternity experts sought to re-conceptualize “modern fatherhood” as therapeutic, an opportunity for a husband to prove his value and create strong bonds with his wife and baby. For men struggling to earn money and trying to maintain or regain their masculine authority, the whole nine months of pregnancy and the arrival of a new baby became unique opportunities to assert power in their family, keep busy, and find a new purpose in life. Dr. Eisenberg’s lecture opens a new window into the dynamic relationships between health care providers and expectant families, and suggests a fresh understanding of the history of modern pregnancy in America.
Free and open to the public.