Category Archives: feminism

Happy Birthday Emma Goldman!

So I decided to become a midwife… I wanted to deliver a thousand babies. And as each one arrives, especially the little girls, I’ll be there first to whisper into her tender little ear: REBEL! REBEL!” – Emma Goldman

Emma Goldman was born today in 1869, in Kovno in the Russian Empire (Now Kaunas, Lithuania), 146 years ago. She is heralded as the founder of anarchafeminism (my own fave political stance)  and she demanded “… the independence of woman, her right to support herself; to live for herself; to love whomever she pleases, or as many as she pleases… freedom for both sexes, freedom of action, freedom in love and freedom in motherhood.”  She was anti prison, anti marriage, and pro contraception. She was openly bisexual. And she was also a midwife!

She emigrated to America in her teens, and became involved in the anarchist movement in 1989. She was imprisoned several times for her political activism, and it was whilst in the prison infirmary that she learned to become a midwife – and once released she went on to practice midwifery to support herself alongside giving speeches and writing books and pamphlets on anarchism.

Emma Goldman was really excellent. You’ve probably seen the quote “If I can’t dance, it’s not my revolution” and many slight variations thereof on tshirts. Attributed to her, this is a tshirt-slogan-friendly reworking of her belief in “the right to self-expression, everybody’s right to beautiful, radiant things”, linking in the criticism she once received “that it did not behoove an agitator to dance”. (Pictured on the right is my favourite Emma Goldman tshirt design – click on the picture to get through to http://www.caebuttons.com/ to get hold of one!)

From one queer anarchafeminist midwife to another, Happy Birthday Emma!

Further Reading:

A Dangerous Woman – The Graphic Biography of Emma Goldman. By Sharon Rudahl (http://thenewpress.com/books/dangerous-woman)

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Emma_Goldman

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The Cissexist Language of Midwifery Care and Reproductive Justice.

I started trying to write a post on the way my pro-choice views on abortion intersect positively with my midwifery practice, but I realised that first I needed to address the way that the language of midwifery care and reproductive justice is cissexist. Lauren Rankin spells it out when she says

We must acknowledge and come to terms with the implicit cissexism in assuming that only women have abortions. Trans men have abortions. People who do not identify as women have abortions. They deserve to be represented in our advocacy and activist framework. Honestly, I am guilty of perpetuating that harmful myth, both in my rhetoric and framing. I often frame abortion restrictions as misogynistic attacks meant to control women’s reproductive lives, and that is true. But abortion restrictions also affect the lives of people who aren’t women, and they hinder trans men and gender-non-conforming people and others who were Designated Female at Birth (DFAB) from accessing abortion care, as well.

Lauren Rankin, Not Everyone Who Has an Abortion Is a Woman – How to Frame the Abortion Rights Issue

I went to a training day on abortion activism (run by Abortion Rights) last year, attended by feminists and anarchists involved or interested in grassroots activism and campaigning. And it was refreshing to talk about “people wanting/needing abortions” without the discussion stalling when the other people in the conversation couldn’t understand why we weren’t saying women, or worse refuting the fact that it’s not only women getting pregnant (radfems, I’m looking at you again). And yet even though the space we made challenged the cissexism of typical reproductive justice dialogue, the cissexist language was still was inescapable. The news clips we watched, the stats on how many abortions are performed in the UK each year all talk about women and women only. The statistics we have for UK abortion rates take into account every registered abortion, but they do not record the person’s gender because it is assumed they are women. These statistics we quote, that “1 in 3 women will have an abortion by the time they are 45 years old”… these statistics implicitly misgender all those people who are not women who have abortions.

The same happens in midwifery. Language misgenders, both implicitly and explicitly. Because, on both an individual and systematic level, the possibility of trans men and non binary people becoming pregnant is either not considered or wilfully ignored; all language is inherently cissexist.  As midwives we talk constantly about “the woman” (or worse, “the lady”) as though it had not even occurred to us that not everyone who is pregnant is a woman, or that these people do not exist, or that they are such a small minority that it is ok for our language to erase them.

It is not ok. But everyone does it. I am even finding myself doing it.

A couple of weeks into my training I started to realise I wasn’t imagining it, midwifery lecturers were constantly talking about “the woman” and as students we were picking it up too. I queried it, explaining that I realised we said “the woman” rather than  “the patient”, because midwifery is about providing care through a normal physiological event (pregnancy and birth) rather than treating illness. But what about those people who aren’t women who are pregnant..? After clarifying that I didn’t mean cis men who have a developing embryo implanted in their abdominal cavity(!), the lecturer told me there hadn’t been any non binary people or trans men who had accessed midwifery care in our city and this seemed to suggest my point was moot. I didn’t believe her (because I imagine there must have been people who were not women, but were read as such by staff who didn’t feel safe/comfortable/have the energy to come out) but the discussion moved on.

Aside from the obvious problem of potentially misgendering (implicitly or explicitly) individuals accessing maternity care by talking only about women, there is the further problem that the language we use shapes the way we think and the way we see the world. By talking only about women, we are conditioning ourselves to think only in terms of women, to assume womanhood of everyone in our care. It is both habit-forming and world-shaping. When I started my training I always said “pregnant person” but everything I read, everything I am taught is saying “women”, and I am starting to slip up, to give up, and it’s not good enough.

I want people of all genders to be able to access midwifery care if they need it, without worry that they will be misgendered. I want NHS midwifery staff to have awareness raising sessions so they understand what is meant by trans, non binary, cissexist, misgendering. I want to rid policies and guidelines of their cissexist language. I want space on the paperwork we fill in at initial midwifery booking appointments to have space to ask about the person’s gender so we don’t simply assume they are all women.

In the same way that there seems to be a slow but sure shift away from heteronormative language in midwifery care (as both policies and practitioners start to talk about “partners” rather than “husbands/fathers”) I want to see a shift away from cissexist language. A lot of the times when we are talking generally and we say women, we can instead more accurately say “people who menstruate”, “people with uteruses”, “people who are pregnant”, “people needing abortions”. Instead of saying “she” we can say “they”. We can find new ways to convey meaning.

And don’t tell me it’s too hard – it can’t be any harder than having to navigate a maternity service designed for women when you are not a woman – which is what we are essentially asking of some people unless we sort this out.

My Midwifery Root(s) – Part 2

At one point, I was pretty good at rattling off the reasons I wanted to be a midwife. I had a speech prepared that I could recite whenever someone asked me, finely tuned after the gruelling application and interview process I went through to start my training. It went something like this:

“I have always had strong feminist politics, and feel that I have a responsibility to use my time and energy to support other women. I have been involved in various forms of feminist activism (including reproductive justice) since my teens but became aware of a disconnect between the activism, or voluntary work I did in my spare time, and the unrelated paid work I did alongside to leave me with enough spare time and energy to engage in activism. I also became aware of friends around me experiencing burnout, and recognised the need for a more sustainable path to allow me to continue to stay true to my values whilst also taking care of myself. I want to work as a midwife for the NHS because it is a way for me to sustainably support and care for women at a potentially transformative point in their lives, by providing a service that is free at the point of access, thus providing care regardless of the woman’s financial situation.”

And that is all true. And it’s a tidy narrative that perhaps won the hearts of feminist interviewers on the panel, but it is not the whole story, and doesn’t explain how I got to this point.

I had spent my late teens and early twenties adamant that I did not want a career. I wanted a succession of jobs that left me enough time and energy to do the things I really wanted to do, because I couldn’t imagine a career meeting that need. I went from school to university and fell in with a 3rd wave feminist crowd. We had a lot of fun writing zines, collectively organising gigs and events to give women space to perform and share their art, and I just wanted to find a job that was sufficiently low-commitment (which largely also mean low-pay) to allow me the time and energy to keep doing all those things. I went on to become more involved in political campaigns around abortion, attend demos and protests and found endless ways for feminist activism to take up my time and I loved it. I spent over a year volunteering on a rape crisis helpline, and I trained as a volunteer doula to act as an advocate and birth partner for asylum seeking women who didn’t have a support network around them during pregnancy and birth. It started to feel unsustainable. I’m not happy with the distinctions we place between paid work and voluntary work, but you can’t away from the fact that one allows you to pay your rent and bills and the other doesn’t. I was doing office work full time alongside my voluntary work at first, which meant I was doing ok financially but I was getting tired. And then later when I started looking into midwifery and realised my existing qualifications wouldn’t get me into university to train as a midwife, I quit that job and went back to college for the pre-course requirement so I was just studying and volunteering, and then I was hard up and tired. Midwifery training seemed a distant possibility, although it was what I was aiming for.

My interest in healthcare started around the same time as the zines. I loved skillsharing, diy, feminist health zines – about charting your cycle, self examinations, mental health, herbal remedies… encouraging everyone to learn about their bodies and how to look after them. I joined a radical health collective which was made up of a mixture of lay people, wannabe or trainee health practitioners, hippies and anarchists and if I’m honest we did a lot of sitting around talking about periods, for better or for worse. Around this time I was particularly into a book by Louise Lacey, called “Lunaception” which was a how to (and why) book about aligning your menstrual cycle with the lunar cycle, which gives you an idea of the headspace I was in. I think I started my doula training around this time, but not as a conscious stepping stone to midwifery.

A selection of zines from my health zine collection.

A selection of zines from my health zine collection.

Before I realised I *wanted* to be a midwife, I had the realisation that I *could* be a midwife. And it came in my mid twenties, through getting to know a fellow anarchafeminist woman who had recently qualified as a midwife. As we chatted in a shared community space, I had a kind of lightbulb moment as I realised that midwifery provided the opportunity to work in an explicitly feminist manner, as an autonomous practitioner, for an organisation (the NHS) that was for the people. It would be hard to get into, and to train, and then to do… but hopefully it would also be worth it. It provided a sustainable way to support women and myself, without completely compromising my values.

As I approach the halfway point of my training, and the focus on assessments increases and I start to wonder if I am starting to aim simply to pass my degree rather than to qualify as a midwife so I can begin the real work of being an autonomous midwife, it is worth reminding myself why I want to do this.  It is worth revisiting my roots. so I can stay true to my intentions as I grow and progress.

 

My Midwifery Root(s) – Part 1

I am learning to be a midwife, and given my strong left politics and outlook on life, it’s unlikely I will become anything but a radical midwife.

Angela Davis explained that “radical simply means ‘grasping things by the root'” and I like this definition. The word radical can be misused, misappropriated and misunderstood (like so called “radical” feminists with their trans-exclusionary and sex worker-exclusionary feminism) so I like to come back to her words when the word radical seems to mean everything but, or when it’s wrongly being used interchangeably with ‘extremist’.

The “Association of Radical Midwives” uses the word radical in the same way as Angela Davis, explaining that when the organisation was founded in the 1970’s “the majority of pregnant women in UK had labour induced by artificial rupture of membranes (ARM) around the date they were “due”. These initials were used when the group needed a name, using the dictionary definition of “radical”, (roots, origins, basics, etc.) which aptly described the basic midwifery skills which they hoped to revive.”

I am a radical student midwife and I would like to think about my roots.

* * * * *

I went to a Samhain dinner this weekend; Samhain being the point in the pagan calendar halfway between the autumn equinox and the winter solstice, marking the beginning of winter & thought to be the point when the veil between the world of the living and dead is at its thinnest. Twenty or so of us had a potluck feast by candle light, and we took it in turns to talk about, toast and honour our ancestors, those who had come before us who we wanted to remember, who had somehow informed the people we have become.

I chose to toast the women healers who came before me, the wise women who acted as midwives but were persecuted as witches because they used methods that were mistrusted by and threatened the patriarchal structures of the time (the church and the emerging medical professions). Before healthcare was medicalised and male doctors took charge of birth, it was women who supported each other, sharing and adding to past generations knowledge that they acquired empirically through their senses & their experience of the world around them. Tried and tested herbal remedies that were not explained by science (some of which are still feared today for the same reasons!) and so their methods came to be seen as evidence of witchcraft. At a point today when midwives are once again recognised as autonomous practitioners, experts with a breadth of knowledge far greater than a doctors on the subject of natural birth, I wanted to look back to a time when this was also the case and yet those midwives (those witches and healers) were persecuted because their power to help other women, the knowledge these women held was perceived as so scary, such a threat to male power structures that the men in power tried to eradicate it. I don’t doubt some knowledge has been lost forever, extinguished along with the lives of the women who carried it in their bodies and their hearts.

IMG_0326There is an excellent pamphlet that first came out in the US in 1973, called “Witches, Midwives and Nurses – A History of Women Healers” on this subject. I have a gorgeous yellow sugar paper-covered edition that came out in the UK a year later, and it’s now available as a 2nd edition book which you can read online (link at the end of this post). It looks at the history of these women healers and links them with the (then) emerging women’s health movement of the 1970’s when feminism was encouraging women to get to know their bodies and recognise themselves as authorities on their own health experiences, rather than passive consumers of advice given by (often male) doctors. It’s an important piece of work undertaken by feminists to recapture the history of women health workers, first as witches in medieval Europe and then again as midwives and folk healers in the 19th century in the US when the male medical profession was coming into being and taking the space these women had previously occupied.

However the pamphlet is not without its shortcomings – noticeably it mentions Florence Nightingale but omits Mary Seacole when talking about women nurses working within the male dominated field of medicine at the time of the Crimean War. And the irony has also not escaped me that the so called “radical” feminists I criticise at the beginning of this post for their trans-exclusionary, sex worker exclusionary politics are the same ones responsible for the excellent (cis) women’s health movement of the seventies. These are the same feminists who wrote the books I devoured in my teens as I was becoming a feminist, before I had seen enough of the bigger picture realise where their views fell short and see the women they left out. Life is full of contradictions, especially when I am acknowledging how I have gotten to the point I am at now.

LINKS:

Association of Radical Midwives – http://www.midwifery.org.uk/?page_id=48

PDF of Witches, Midwives and Nurses – http://www.feministes-radicales.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/06/Barbara-Ehrenreich-and-Deirdre-English-Witches-Midwives-and-Nurses-A-History-of-Women-Healers.-Introduction..pdf

CURRENTLY (RE)READING

Witches, Midwives and Nurses – A History of Women Healers by Barbara Ehrenreich and Deirdre English

The Labor Progress Handbook (2nd Edition) by Penny Simkin and Ruth Ancheta.