Featured Fellow: Jennifer Reiss (2023-2024 Nancy Halverson Schless Short-Term Research Fellow)

The Library & Museum at the American Philosophical Society supports a diverse community of scholars working on a wide-range of projects in fields including early American history, history of science and technology, and Native American and Indigenous Studies, among others. Additional information about our fellowship programming and other funding opportunities can be found here.

Briefly describe your research project.

My project, Undone Bodies: Women and Disability in Early America, seeks to insert women into the narrative of disability in America—specifically in the period before the medicalization of disability really takes hold in the antebellum era. The sub-field of early American disability history is quite young, and there hasn’t yet been much work on gender and disability that isn’t about masculinity. I’m trying to both uncover hidden stories of disabled women and make the argument that the multifaceted, lived experience of women should make us think about disability in this period in more nuanced ways.

What collections did you use while working at the APS?

I’m particularly interested in medical records, family letters, and diaries, so the two biggest collections I used were the early Archives of the Pennsylvania Hospital (founded in 1751) and the Wyck Association Collection. The latter includes copious amounts of material related to the Haines family, who intermarried with the perhaps more famous Wistar and Marshall medical families of Philadelphia. I’m currently working on a chapter specifically related to reproductive labor and both medical and lay understandings of female and pregnant bodies as disabled bodies, so I was specifically looking for gynaecological problems and obstetric cases. How were they discussed by the Hospital's male medical professionals versus how were they discussed by women themselves?

What’s the most interesting or most exciting thing you found in the collections?

Some of the cases are quite heart wrenching. You really get a sense of how precarious childbirth was in the 18th century. Women regularly died in the Hospital of puerperal fever and were treated for traumatic gynaecological issues like uterine prolapses; while the women of the Haines family, and the smaller collections I looked at, regularly comment on childbirth as if it was a serious illness, recording deaths and worrying about arranging postpartum nursing care for their friends and relatives. I don’t have children myself, but I have multiple friends who have had traumatic birth experiences with their children and really struggled to recover, even in the 21st century. In the archives, I’m seeing evidence of the same kind of physical degradation and emotional distress that we’re only now starting to admit are inextricable from parturition, even with a much-wanted child.

Do you have any tips or suggestions for future fellows or researchers?

Make time to talk to other fellows and the amazing APS staff. Even if the person next to you is researching a topic completely out of your comfort zone, everyone who comes through the doors of Library Hall is so brilliant and generous! Something will inevitably arise that will teach you something new or help you think about your work in a completely different way.

Any suggestions for must-see places or things to do in Philadelphia?

This recommendation is not going to be a surprise to anyone, but I love the Philadelphia Museum of Art. I find their amazing collection of Impressionist paintings quite soothing to sit with when I need some zen time. Philadelphia doesn’t get enough credit for its great arts (both fine and performing) scene, generally! 

Jennifer W. Reiss is a Ph.D. candidate in the History Department at the University of Pennsylvania, focusing on early American history and the Anglo-Atlantic world, with particular interests in disability, medicine and the body, as well as women’s and gender history, and legal history. Jenny is currently working on her dissertation project, provisionally titled, Undone Bodies: Women and Disability in Early America, which combines these themes by exploring the relationship between womanhood (with its attendant social and legal disabilities) and corporeal disability in eighteenth-century British North America and the early Republic. She holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees, both in History, from Penn, a J.D. from Harvard Law School, and two master’s degrees, in Law and American History, respectively, from the University of Cambridge. Prior to academia, she worked as an attorney in New York and London, and has published articles on intellectual property law, European law, and human rights law.

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