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.
There 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.
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
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.