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Hearts of Wisdom: American Women Caring for Kin, 1850-1940

by Emily K. Abel

Drawing upon a wealth of diaries, letters, and case records from hospitals and social service agencies, the author examines the shifting roles of caregivers between 1850 and 1940. In addition to the diaries and letters of literate white woman, she turns to slave narratives from the antebellum south and records from health-care agencies serving American Indians during the first part of the 20th century. Abel shows that women in the 19th century gained self-esteem and status through their knowledge of home remedies and nursing techniques. The medical profession gained strength with the discovery of microbes and the development of medications to treat specific diseases. During the 20th century professionals discredited women who provided health care at home. One chapter discusses mothers of children with epilepsy or mental retardation, who were pressured to place their children in institutions and to sever emotional ties with them. Another chapter explores the shift from American sign language to oralism in the education of deaf children, and the impact this had upon mothers. Abel concludes by looking briefly at the current trend to return more and more caregiving to the home.

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