I started out as a labor historian, exploring the ways that the developing technology and industrial organization of the automobile industry interacted with workers lives both on and off the job in the pre-union era. My book American Automobile Workers explored these interconnections through the lens of social and economic history drawing upon oral histories, company records, urban social surveys, and memoirs. Labor history brought me to gender history through the career of Industrial Workers of the World organizer and journalist, Matilda Robbins. Robbins’ experience with motherhood as a single woman in the 1920s brought me to an interest in the historical meaning of motherhood in the United States, especially as it presented a conundrum for the women’s rights and feminist movements.
Currently I am working on a history of the Baby M case. In 1986, Mary Beth Whitehead contracted to be a surrogate mother for William and Elizabeth Stern, an infertile couple. It was a case of traditional surrogacy: the baby was genetically related to both William Stern and Whitehead. Once the baby was born Whitehead changed her mind, refused to relinquish the baby to the Sterns, and went into hiding to avoid relinquishing her baby to the authorities. The case aroused intense national interest as the press followed and reported on two trials. The first validated the contract, granted custody to the Sterns, and stripped Whitehead of her parental rights. The second invalidated the contract, reasserted Whitehead’s parental rights, but still granted custody to the Sterns with visitation rights for Whitehead. I am examining public opinion, popular representations, legal issues, and feminist responses to the case in an attempt to use it to explore changing attitudes towards motherhood and family formation through reproductive technology. Feminist opinion was divided and that division influenced subsequent legislation on the question of surrogacy.