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Archival Report from Morwenna Chaffe, BAAS Abraham Lincoln Award recipient 2014


Archival Report from Morwenna Chaffe, BAAS Abraham Lincoln Award recipient 2014

[vc_row][vc_column][dt_banner image_id=”9351″ min_height=”270″][/dt_banner][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row margin_top=”15″][vc_column width=”1/2″][dt_quote]My research at North Carolina has revealed involuntary childlessness during the nineteenth century resulted in an unexpected blurring of public and private gendered spheres, says Morwenna Chaffe, recipient of the BAAS Abraham Lincoln Award 2014.[/dt_quote][/vc_column][vc_column width=”1/2″][vc_column_text]As the recipient of the Abraham Lincoln Award 2014, I was fortunate enough to be able to carry out research in two archives in North Carolina. The research I sourced on this visit now forms the core of my PhD thesis I am therefore extremely grateful to BAAS for their support.

My doctoral research foregrounds individual experiences of involuntary childlessness in the United States during the second half of the nineteenth century. Focusing on the[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_column_text]intimate, the project considers those women and their spouses whose desire for parenthood was unfulfilled. As previous studies have examined the phenomenon of infertility from a medical perspective, the specificity of the personalised viewpoint has yet to be properly explored in historical scholarly research. In order to locate personal experiences around involuntary childlessness my research foregrounds several case studies compiled from family letters and diaries. Before I was able to conduct this archival research, my thesis was lacking not only in primary sources but also individual voices.

The first part of my trip was spent at the Sallie Bingham Center for Women’s History & Culture at Duke University. The center is based in the Rubenstein Rare Books & Manuscript Library and holds a large collection of papers that portray the cultural and historical lives of women. It was here that I read the correspondence and diaries of Virginia Tunstall Clay, who suffered a stillbirth in 1854 and then remained childless throughout both of her marriages. Letters of concern and sympathy from her brother-in-law to both herself and her husband demonstrated the intense care and interest that family members, including male relatives, took around reproductive trials. This establishes a network of familial and gendered involvement in reproductive experiences that we often fail to recognize in the study of the physician/patient relationship or with the emphasis on nineteenth-century taboos around the discussion of pregnancy.

The Southern Historical Collection in Wilson Library at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill proved an exciting and surprising source of archival material relating to family experiences of involuntary childlessness. The Cornelia Phillips Spencer papers in particular provided me with hundreds of letters written between Cornelia and her daughter, Julia Spencer Love. They established an almost daily correspondence, which revealed Julia’s thoughts and feelings throughout the later stages of her pregnancy. However, after Julia delivered her still-born child, her husband, James Lee Love took over the correspondence to Cornelia. The letters to his mother-in-law offered her not only an account of Julia’s health and recovery, but revealed an intimate sorrow at the loss of the baby and his attempts to revive the spirits of his wife. Again, male relatives came to the fore in what were previously depicted in history as ‘private’ events in which the ‘public’ male had limited involvement in.

The case studies I developed from the archival research have radically transformed the shape and themes of my thesis. The sources are instrumental in being able to express not only the sorrow that some childless spouses felt, but also in demonstrating the lives they were able to create for themselves. My sincere thanks again to BAAS for making this trip possible and allowing me to explore these lives in such an intimate way.

Morwenna Chaffe is a PhD candidate at UEA researching experiences of involuntary childlessness in 19th-century America.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row]