Written by Hannah Kohler


Dispatches from the Past

Hannah Kohler is furtling around in the British Library archives, unearthing some weird and wonderful stuff that sheds light on issues women are still dealing with today. This month, how our passion for the breastfeeding selfie reveals our inner Victorian.

Illustration by Louise Boulter.

Olivia Wilde, Miranda Kerr and Blake Lively are just a few celebrities to have recently made the headlines with their artfully constructed breastfeeding selfies – or ‘brelfies’. Supermodel Karolína Kurková has encouraged mums to join her #BreastfeedingSelfie campaign.

The rise of the brelfie has been at the vanguard of the honourable and necessary fight to take the taboo out of public breastfeeding.

But it also says so much about the way we live now – about our use of social media to construct and broadcast attractive versions of ourselves; our tendency to narcissism; our impulse to document and share the intimate minutiae of our lives; our (at best) idealist and informed, (at worst) competitive and neurotic attitude toward motherhood.

The breastfeeding selfie says: I’m a modern mother, but I’m also a natural, timeless mother: I am a 21st-century Madonna.

As with so many zeitgeist trends, we’ve been here before. In the mid-1800s, the daguerreotype – the first commercially successful photographic process – took off. The process, by which the picture was made on a silver surface and developed using mercury vapour, became popular with the growing middle class, and was largely used for making portraits.

In The Mansion of Happiness, Jill Lepore describes how the breastfeeding daguerreotype became a particular fad in mid-1800s America. The breastfeeding daguerreotype was the prototype of the brelfie, and born out of a similar set of conditions: the mass availability of a photographic process; a collective passion for a young technology, and a cult of motherhood. Victorian women posed for portraits while they breastfed in an effort to demonstrate their maternal virtue. Sound familiar?

The breastfeeding selfie isn’t the only thing we have in common with the Victorians when it comes our behaviour around motherhood.

An unidentified woman breastfeeding, circa 1860.

As Natalie McKnight argues, the modern, self-conscious mother had its origins in Victorian England. Women inhabited the domestic sphere, men the public; and mothers sat at the heart of the domestic space, “the angel at the hearth”.

Motherhood (within marriage) was the essence of femininity; it was a woman’s sole vocation and ultimate fulfilment, her highest achievement, the realisation of her innate moral goodness.

By contrast, as Lynn Abrams notes, women who did not become mothers were viewed as failures, inadequate, perhaps abnormal.

This evangelical attitude to motherhood is still with us. It is in society’s sanctification of motherhood, in its unrealistic expectations of maternal virtue and self-sacrifice; in the continuing anxiety about women ‘crossing spheres’ from the home to work; in the pity for and suspicion of women without children.

It is everywhere, from the home-is-where-the-heart-is kitsch of Cath Kidston, to the tyrannical expectations about how we feed our babies – whether it’s breastmilk or organic, homemade baby food.

For me, the most (only?) heartening moment of Brexit was the backlash against Andrea Leadsom for her suggestion that her status as a mother made her a preferable candidate for Prime Minister (as opposed to the childless Theresa May). Women took to social media to dismantle the notion that mothers are inherently superior; and it felt good, for mothers and non-mothers alike.

We don’t think of ourselves as Victorian; we imagine ourselves as so much more enlightened and liberated than our 19th-century forebears. But we are still living in the shadow of Victorian attitudes to women and motherhood.

By all means, post your brelfie on Instagram, but let’s continue to be suspicious of the impulse to enshrine and glorify mothers.


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Written by Hannah Kohler

Hannah Kohler is the Eccles British Library Writer in Residence, where she is researching her second novel, Catspaw, set in the California Gold Rush of 1849. Her first novel, The Outside Lands, is set in 1960s California and Vietnam, and is out in paperback now.