Engendering Gender in the Law: Medicine, the Human Body, and Inquests in the Nineteenth-Century U.S.

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Abstract or Description

Presentation given at the American Historical Association conference, Atlanta, GA. In May 1822, a jury of matrons convened in Haywood County, North Carolina to examine an accusation brought against Sally Belk, suspected of murdering her newborn infant. The jury’s charge was to determine if she had been delivered of a child recently. Consisting of fifteen women, the jury concluded upon a close physical examination of the accused’s body, that Belk had indeed given birth. Consequently, the local Justice of the Peace remanded Belk to the county jail to appear before the next session of the Haywood Superior Court. Based on the findings of these fifteen women, Sally Belk found herself packed off to jail.

By the mid nineteenth-century, juries of matrons such as that which examined Sally Belk had all but disappeared from American communities. There was no longer any place for these juries, no matter the combined experience and expertise of the mothers and midwives who constituted them. Employing inquest and court records focusing on infant death and infanticide, Felicity Turner’s paper will examine how ideas about and authority over women’s bodies and the language used to describe them gradually changed over the course of the nineteenth century as medicine and the law increasingly professionalized. Turner argues that as the United States debated and expanded the meanings of citizenship during Reconstruction, authorship of narratives about women’s physical bodies and bodily functions shifted from women to men. Narratives about women’s physical bodies and bodily functions changed. By the 1870s, the clinical language of primarily male doctors and lawyers dominated legal proceedings such as investigations into infant death, reflecting the changing ways in which legal options for women contracted, rather than expanded, after the Civil War.


American Historical Association conference


Atlanta, GA