History, Topic of the Past

Instinctive Motherhood? How our Concepts of Motherhood Have Changed Radically Since The 18th Century

instinctive motherhood

One often wonders whether instinctive motherhood exists? But children were subjected to many cruel aspects of society throughout 18th century. Infanticide and acts committed by child molesters represent the most horrifying occurrences that children have been subjected to throughout time. Although infanticide and child molestation were deemed serious felonies, there were many instances of leniency in the law that allowed these acts to take place without proper consequences.

A brief look at the history and punishment of infanticide

Infanticide was one of the most common capital crimes committed by women in 18th century England. It was often called the “murder of a bastard” as many of these children were born from unwed mothers. These deaths did not occur due to stillbirths or natural causes, but rather the deliberate murder of a child at the hands of a mother through poisoning, cutting of the throat, battering, and drowning. Seeing as contraceptives were not available during this time period, it was quite common that young women become pregnant out of wedlock. The fathers often abandoned these women, and they were left with a bastard child that they did not have the means to care for. If there is instinctive motherhood, is was silenced by dominant values of society

Additionally, postpartum depression was not recognized yet, leaving women with no moral support in addition to a lack of financial support.

Although 79 women were hanged for the offense of infanticide in the 18th century, in the early 1900s the Infanticide Act of 1922 was passed, deeming infanticide no longer a capital offense, citing the postnatal depression of these mothers as a partial defense for committing murder.

The Infanticide Act of 1938 eradicated the death penalty for mothers who committed infanticide within the first year of their baby’s life, claiming that

“at the time of the act or omission the balance of her mind was disturbed by reason of her not having fully recovered from the effect of giving birth to the child or by reason of the effect of lactation consequent upon the birth of the child”

The lack of age of consent laws regarding child molesters

Children often suffered at the hands of child molesters in the 1700s. In the mid 18th century, it was reported that 25% of capital rape cases in England were involving children less than 10 years of age. These offenses were often not given the proper punishment that they warranted, seeing as laws preventing child molesters from committing acts against children were not prominent at the time.

It was not until the end of the 18th century that lawmakers began to pass laws addressing age and consent when dealing with sexual acts. The age of consent for girls was set at 10 years old, whereas for boys it was 14. The age for girls was defined in order to protect girls from child molesters, whereas for boys this was not seen as a concern and rather the age of consent was established in order to protect boys from being prosecuted for committing sexual acts.

Although the age of consent changed throughout time, even in the year 1875 the age of consent in England for girls was as young as 13 years old. However, it is important to note that the ‘age of consent’ in this time period often referred to the age that one could legally consent to marriage, as sexual acts outside of a marriage were seen as highly inappropriate. The idea that sexual acts were only acceptable in a marriage is highly correlated with the occurrence of marriages at a much younger age, offering an explanation as to why the age of consent was set so low.

Blurred notions of instinctive motherhood

Although these girls ages 10 and up qualified at the age of consent for marriage, they were still quite young and sexual acts committed against them would qualify as child molestation with no question in today’s society. Just like notions of instinctive motherhood, our viewpoints of what is “the proper age” has changed dramatically.

Due to the emergence of laws that are far more strict, child molesting and infanticide are prosecuted far more harshly today than they were in the 1700s. Child sexual abuse is outlawed nearly everywhere in the world, generally with severe criminal penalties. An adult’s sexual intercourse with a child below the legal age of consent is defined as statutory rape, based on the principle that a child is not capable of consent and that any apparent consent by a child is not considered to be legal consent. Still, the surveys in the book “Father-Daughter Incest” shows that one fifth to one third of all women reported some sort of childhood sexual experience with a male adult.

instinctive motherhood
Dorothea Lange, Resettled farm child from Taos Junction to Bosque Farms project, New Mexico, Farm Security Administration, 1935
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