Witches, Midwives, and Nurses.

hillery lyen, doula, placenta encapsulation specialist, parenthood facilitator, childbirth educator, bold method for birth, postpartum health, labor support, birth, I read the book Witches, Midwives, and Nurses: A History of Woman Healers written by Barbara Ehrenreich and Deirdre English. One of the opening quotes in the book stuck with me. “Great feminist books of the past fifty years don’t fade away. They become Contemporary Classics.” This is definitely a classic book about the history, through perspectives, on the wave of feminism in the United States as far as the way they were being treated in the medical realm. The oppression that women endured during the early 1900’s was overwhelming and still lingers in today’s world. Our oppression as women health workers today is inextricably linked to our oppression as women (pg. 51).

This book addresses witches and midwifes during that time and past centuries, what happened to them, how and why they faded into the background or burned at the stake. They go over some of the political struggles, and in that, was part of a class struggle. What moves we made as women to be acknowledged in that struggle and how we stood up to the medical professionals during the 1900’s. And finally it discusses the male takeover of health care and the rise of the male medical profession in nineteenth century America and how women were finally weaved in.

Witches lived and were burned long before the development of modern medical technology. This was a span that lasted from the fourteenth to the seventeenth century. Witch hunts were an early and devastating exclusion of women, from independent healing roles (pg. 20).  Witches represented a political, religious, and sexual threat to the Protestant and Catholic churches, as well as to the State (pg. 20). This being the reason many were burned or hung. It was a deep-seated social phenomenon going far beyond medical history. If only we could have seen things through the witches eyes. Many were illiterate and did not write down their stories for us to learn from, but we do know they were organized and they possessed medical and obstetrical skills. The real issue here was control. Male upper-class healing under the auspices of the Church was acceptable, female healing as part of the peasant subculture was not (pg. 26). So in turn they were destroyed, to not become an issue, or problem for the creation of the new male medical profession.

Going back, women healers were the people’s doctors. Their medicine was a part of the people’s subculture (pg18). They tended to the middle and lower classes. Many wise women had remedies which were tested through years of use. Their practices were based on empirical study. She held out the hope of change in this world (pg. 27). Which is why the men of this century established the new medical profession. It was usually male professionals who cared for the upper class or the ruling class both medically and politically. Men had the power and took advantage of all they could when it came to policy and law within the medical field. Wrap your thoughts around this quote from the book, page33. The question is not so much how women got “left out” of medicine and left with nursing, but how did these categories arise at all? How did one particular set of healers, who happened to be male, white, and middle class, manage to oust all the competing folk healers, midwives, and other practitioners who had dominated the American medical scene in the early 1800s? One answer could be a part of the nineteenth century’s long history of class and sex struggles for power in all areas in life. In earlier times they found out they had a lot to learn from women when it came to the medical world so they slowly started to intertwine women as dignified healers. Slowly, but surely women are taking strong stances in America to be known as professionals in the medical field. This is still an ongoing struggle for many women to be taken seriously and professionally because of the history that has lead up to these times. From Florence Nightingale, Dorothea Dix, and Isabel Hampton. Thanks so much for the women of history and today that stood up and paved the way to make this a better place to work, for women. I would like to share one more comment from the conclusions drawn from this book that hit home for me (pg. 50). “This means that we must begin to break down the distinction and barriers between women health workers and women consumers. We should build concerns: consumers aware of women’s needs as workers, workers in touch with women’s needs as consumers. Women workers can play a leadership role in collective self-help and self-teaching projects, and in attacks on health institutions. But they need support and solidarity from a strong women’s consumer movement.”

“To reach out to women health workers as workers is to reach out to them as women.”

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