Saturday, February 10, 2024

Cover story: "Laboring Mothers"

Ellen Malenas Ledoux is an Associate Professor in the English and Communication Department at Rutgers University-Camden. Her research focuses on transatlantic literature of the eighteenth century. She is the author of two books: Laboring Mothers: Reproducing Women and Work in the Eighteenth Century (2023) and Social Reform in Gothic Writing: Fantastic Forms of Change, 1764-1834 (2013). She has published widely on women’s cultural history and Gothic writing in journals such as Studies in Romanticism, The Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation, Women’s Writing, and Studies in Eighteenth-Century Culture.

Here Ledoux explains the connection of the Laboring Mothers cover to the pages within:
The cover of Laboring Mothers is a colorful re-imagining of a detail from William Hogarth’s line engraving The Enraged Musician (1741). This scene, in which women with children are depicted engaged in commercial London street life, forms a perfect provocation to read a book that makes powerful arguments about the marginalization of poor working mothers within its pages. Hogarth’s scene, discussed fully in the book’s chapter 5, is ostensibly about the sonic clash between those attempting to make “high art,” such as the musician, and the cacophony created by urban street hawkers. Yet, an important subtext in this image revolves around the ballad singer’s inability or unwillingness to nourish her infant while plying her trade. In visual tension with the resplendent milkmaid and her full pail, the ballad singer’s exposed, empty breasts are denied to her child. Her open mouth, raised in singing “The Ladies Fall” mimics her infant’s cries of hunger, to which she appears oblivious. This small detail from one of Hogarth’s many explorations of eighteenth-century urban life underscores a widely held cultural belief that poor women could not simultaneously ply their trade and adequately care for children—a damaging stereotype that persists today. That the image is playful, while exposing a serious social “truth” perfectly encapsulates the book’s tone, which is ludic but also quite earnest about exploring the dual economic and domestic burdens faced by marginalized mothers. Featuring this carnivalesque scene is intended to entice readers to find out more about these women living at the fringes of the drawing and the eighteenth-century society it depicts.
Visit Ellen Malenas Ledoux's website.

The Page 99 Test: Laboring Mothers.

--Marshal Zeringue