Mahurin Honors College Capstone Experience/Thesis Projects



Additional Departmental Affiliation

Modern Languages

Document Type



Throughout the period of early French colonization in the New World, travel writers commented extensively on Native American childrearing practices. Early modern French colonialists were particularly fascinated by the fact that native women almost always nursed their own children, unlike their French counterparts, who typically outsourced the labor of reproduction to wet nurses. French writers consistently pointed to the tendency of Native American women to nurse their own children as evidence of a superior sense of maternal duty, vehemently criticizing the custom of wet-nursing in France and the moral deficiencies of European women who participated in it.

Travel writers participated in a contemporary philosophical discourse on maternal duty in early modern France that also centered on the breast. In the mid-sixteenth century, intersecting philosophical, religious, and medical discourses combined to produce a new and particularly narrow domestic role for women that attached great cultural significance to maternal breastfeeding as the ideal expression of prescriptive maternity. French travel writers chose to focus on maternal breastfeeding in their observations of native life not only because it contrasted dramatically with social reality of early modern France, but as a result of certain literate preconceptions about proper gendered behavior. Sentimental representations of native motherhood cofunctioned with a medico-philosophical discourse that naturalized maternal breastfeeding and condemned hiring out the labor of reproduction. In effect, by focusing on the benign “otherness” of native mothers, travel writers moralized the “otherness” of female vice at home, while linking poor mothering to the general moral degeneracy of civilized society.

Advisor(s) or Committee Chair

Dr. Beth Plummer


Cultural History | French and Francophone Language and Literature | History