Date of Award

Spring 2011

Document Type

Restricted Thesis

Terms of Use

© 2011 Miriam Rich. All rights reserved. Access to this work is restricted to users within the Swarthmore College network and may only be used for non-commercial, educational, and research purposes. Sharing with users outside of the Swarthmore College network is expressly prohibited. For all other uses, including reproduction and distribution, please contact the copyright holder.

Degree Name

Bachelor of Arts


History Department

First Advisor

Bruce Dorsey


In this thesis, Rich argues that the history of obstetric anesthesia in 19th century America is heavily dependent on constructions of race, gender, and class at the time. She primarily uses the writings of physicians and patients, including those on both sides of the anesthesia debate. The debates over obstetric anesthesia in its early days reflect concerns over its social and cultural implications. While some argued that anesthesia was advantageous to supposedly fragile white women, others opposed it based on arguments of religion, interference with a natural process, and a racialized concept of pain – that parturient pain distinguished civilized women from the supposedly lower races and classes. Obstetric anesthesia both challenged and reinforced social constructions of civilized white femininity, increased and decreased the agency of the mother, and accented the social divisions of race, class, and “civilization.”


Recipient of the Paul H. Beik Prize in History, awarded in 2011.