March 7–10, 2019 (Washington, DC)
The Child, the Parent: Ethics, Politics, Race Panel
I’ll be presenting an essay titled “Maternal Filicide and the State in Women’s Progressive Era Short Fiction,” which examines the fraught relationship between maternal filicide and the US state in women’s Progressive Era short fiction, arguing that the staging of such violent acts destabilizes the ideological reproduction of motherhood and reimagines the state’s role in domestic life. Diverging from psychological interpretations of why mothers kill, I instead examine how filicide enacts cultural ideals of maternal love while nonetheless altering women’s conception of themselves as both mothers and US citizens. Taking up Homi Bhabha’s question, “What could be the ethics of child murder?” this essay explores women’s Progressive Era short fiction in the context of the historic medicalization, racialization, and criminalization of maternal filicide. Depictions of child murder in texts such as Kate Chopin’s “Désirée’s Baby” (1892), Mary Wilkins Freeman’s “Old Woman Magoun” (1905), and Sui Sin Far’s “The Wisdom of the New” (1912) index cultural fears about women (especially women of color) as mothers as well as their interstitial children caught between privileged and disavowed identity categories such as white and black, rich and poor, and American and Asian. In these stories, the cultural symbol of the child reveals the “limits and inconsistencies at the heart of U.S. liberal-democratic processes,” as Caroline Levander has argued, through their willful destruction.