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Francesca Scott, Soo Downe

The Specificity of Female Messages in the Context of Collaboration


This paper will examine the representation of childbirth, midwifery and women’s health in the context of a number of narrative topoi that have been, and continue to be, of interest to Women Writers in History. In the last few years of the COST Action, attention has been drawn to aspects of women’s writing for the study of which our online tool needs to be (and will be) further developed. These are the so-called narrative topoi, which can be particularly gender-sensitive and apparently charged with specific “messages”. This paper will explore the possibility of studying them, examining the ways in which we might handle and interrogate “messages”, the communication of female authors that might be considered “feminine” or even “feminist”, and the way in which these were received by female readers.

The representation of childbirth and midwifery serves as a useful starting point: in women’s novels from the eighteenth and nineteenth century, they are rather frequent and intriguing elements, while traces of concern and interest can be found in the diaries and correspondence of many of the authors. Furthermore, it is becoming increasingly apparent that this research field is connected in a number of nuanced and interesting ways to a variety of other fields, from women’s health (sexuality, reproduction, the body), to their relationships with men (marriage, motherhood), and female work (employment and other activities).

This paper will examine a selection of these intersections, drawing on information in the database that has been collected on the works and lives of a number of female authors across Europe, paying particular attention to: the way in which women writers view marriage, either embracing it, or rejecting it out of fear of childbirth, or in favour of an independent life; how needlework is employed as a form of liberation and independence of mind, or a tool that allows them to process and reflect on impending marriage and motherhood, or, conversely, a symbol of their oppression; and the way that female writers experience, observe and portray their bodies and the bodies of other women — as objects of desire and symbols of (in)fertility. The paper will further outline the categories that need to be created and how the database structure can be adapted in view of the research to be done, as well as the fields that are being, and continue to be, populated, and how these might be further expanded.

The broad field that this research topic represents also makes it a useful point of collaboration with other projects, those in the fields of literary studies, gender studies and history, as well as beyond, in the social sciences, health, medicine and obstetrics— allowing us to demonstrate the relevance of studying these problems on the basis of literary or fictional texts. One of these collaborations, with the Childbirth Cultures, Concerns and Consequences COST Action, will be outlined in this paper, explaining how collaboration with academics who are traditionally considered to be “outside” our field, might offer an alternative lens through which we can observe our research and extend it, thus allowing our methodologies to be tested and stretched, and for tools like the database to be adapted and fully utilised for a variety of different research needs, making it a truly dynamic and versatile device.

SvD, 12 June 2013

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