Udodiri Okwandu

Ph.D. Candidate, Department of History of Science, Harvard University

2022 to 2023
Research Fellow

Transgressive Motherhood: Diagnostic Privilege, Race, and Maternal Mental Illness in American Psychiatry, Medicine, and Law, 1890 - 1970

This project investigates how the sciences of racial difference informed the evolving classification, diagnosis, and treatment of maternal mental illnesses (MMI) - such as postpartum depression and psychosis - across the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. From early on, MMI’s offered both a defense and explanation for women who engaged in domestic misbehaviors or outright crimes. This project, however, illuminates how MMI’s have historically been constructed in relation to an imagined white female sufferer. This resulted in the protection and preservation of white womanhood and the pathologization and criminalization of non-white and low-income mothers. Each chapter illuminates this phenomena across a variety of sites, including the asylum, courts, child welfare policy, and family planning. Thus, this project introduces the term “diagnostic privilege” to illuminate how, perhaps counterintuitively, being diagnosed with a MMI became a kind of privilege since it humanized sufferers and conferred them certain social, political, and cultural advantages.