“Mother Is a Verb”: Friday BrANCH Keynote w/ Indiana University Prof. Sarah Knott


As part of proceedings for the annual meeting of the Association of British American Nineteenth Century Historians, being held this year in Columbia, Indiana University Associate Professor of History Sarah Knott will give a presentation on her recently published book, Mother Is a Verb: An Unconventional History, which explores how the essential experience of mothering has changed over time and cultures (see description below). The talk will be held at 5pm on April 10 in Swallow 101.

Book Description

Mothering is as old as human existence. But how has this most essential experience changed over time and cultures? What is the history of maternity—the history of pregnancy, birth, the encounter with an infant? Can one capture the historical trail of mothers? How?

In Mother Is a Verb, historian Sarah Knott creates a genre all her own in order to craft a new kind of historical interpretation. Blending memoir and history and building from anecdote, her book brings the past and the present viscerally alive. It is at once intimate and expansive, lyrical and precise.

As a history, Mother Is a Verb draws on the terrain of Britain and North America from the seventeenth century to the close of the twentieth. Knott searches among a range of past societies, from those of Cree and Ojibwe women to tenant farmers in Appalachia; from enslaved people on South Carolina rice plantations to tenement dwellers in New York City and London’s East End. She pores over diaries, letters, court records, medical manuals, items of clothing. And she explores and documents her own experiences.

As a memoir, Mother Is a Verb becomes a method of asking new questions and probing lost pasts in order to historicize the smallest, even the most mundane of human experiences. Is there a history to interruption, to the sound of an infant’s cry, to sleeplessness? Knott finds answers not through the telling of grand narratives, but through the painstaking accumulation of a trellis of anecdotes. And all the while, we can feel the child on her hip.

Sarah Knott is Associate Professor of History at Indiana University, as well as a Research Fellow at the Kinsey Institute and Affiliate Faculty Member in IU’s Department of Gender Studies. Her first book, Sensibility and the American Revolution, was published in 2009 by University of North Carolina Press, and she was co-editor, with Prof. Barbara Taylor, of Women, Gender, and Enlightenment (Palgrave Macmillan, 2005). She has published articles in, among other places, William & Mary Quarterly and American Historical Review, where she has also served as both Associate and Acting Editor. She received her D.Phil. from University of Oxford and has received Research Fellowships from the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture, University of London, and Oxford University. In 2013, she was elected to the Editorial Board of Past and Present.