Midwifery and Feminism

      For midwife Nancy Hazel, the role of the midwife is to be “centered on the woman and the family, to help them be stronger together after the birth.”

      On March 10, Hazel joined a group of Eastern students to present a lecture on the history and philosophy of midwifery and the impact that feminism has had in its development. She began her talk with a history of midwifery in the Bible in which midwives are described as knowing the mothers in a very close and deep sense. She then discussed factors that led to the degradation of midwives in the community throughout the late 1800s and early 1900s. Medical organizations arose that led doctors to be financially stable and gain recognition in the public eyes, while no such programs existed for midwives. To the public, midwives could not compare to doctors, not only because they lacked the standing but also for factors out of their control. One such factor is that most midwives were women, and most doctors were men. This fed into the prevailing sexist view of women as politically and socially inept. After all, women’s sphere of knowledge was the home, not in medicine. So it is fascinating to hear that in a study conducted by Alexander Fletchner in 1910, it was reported that around 90 percent of doctors did not attend college. In fact, a Hungarian researcher found that women who were cared for by men in hospitals were dying at an alarmingly higher rate than those cared for by midwives. Scientific knowledge was valued higher than women’s knowledge of their own bodies, which was not even seen as knowledge. Thus, the problem became about whether it was possible to license and standardize midwifery or whether it was too low of a field to do anything.

      In 1925, Mary Breckinridge, an English trained midwife, set out to pass legislation that licensed midwives. Her goal was to bring trained midwives to Appalachia, Kentucky, one of the poorest areas with the highest infant mortality rate in the country. Breckinridge’s plan dramatically decreased the maternal death rate from 6.7 percent to 1.2 percent.

      Like Breckinridge, Hazel believes that midwifery is a vocation to care for women in a very intimate way. This intimacy stems largely from the idea that the role of the midwife is centered on discussion with the woman in labor. Hazel says this not to undermine the immense pain and process of labor but to show the value of women listening to their bodies, communicating what they are feeling and having the ability to accept or decline when necessary. She emphasized this need for women to listen to their bodies–that what their bodies are trying to communicate naturally is important. The midwives allow women to feel confident enough to make these decisions and even encourage the father or other family to be active in encouraging the mother as well. In this way, Hazel believes midwives are particularly helpful in involving the family, no matter how it is defined. While hospitals can be restrictive in allowing only the father to be with the mother during the birth, birthing centers and home births allow this decision to be made by the mother and those with whom she is comfortable. The birth should be a time of strengthening the mother and the family.

      I found it particularly empowering to hear that women have been doing this for years and will continue to do this for years–that women were made strong enough not only to endure the pain, but also to sustain human life inside of us for nine months. After all, a strong family begins with a strong matriarch bringing life into this world. Hazel says that the hope of midwives is that the mother will be a stronger woman because of how they helped her labor. It was a lovely evening listening to Hazel speak passionately about what she calls her vocation.

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