“The mother is the factory”

I’ll be traveling intermittently for another week, and will occasionally repeat an old column. This article originally appeared on my Open Salon blog in August 2008.

Who said: “the mother is the factory, and by education and care she can be made more efficient in the art of motherhood”?

That was written in 1942 by Grantly Dick-Read, widely considered to be the father of modern natural childbirth. Most people don’t realize that natural childbirth was invented by a man to convince middle and upper class women that childbirth pain is in their minds, thereby encouraging them to have more children. Read’s central claim was that “primitive” women do not have pain in childbirth. In contrast, women of the upper classes were “overcivilized” and had been socialized to believe that childbirth is painful.

Grantly Dick-Read’s theory of natural childbirth grew out of his belief in eugenics. He was concerned that “inferior” people were having more children than their “betters” portending “race suicide” of the white middle and upper classes. Read believed that women’s emancipation led them away from the natural profession of motherhood toward totally unsuitable activities. Since their fear of pain in childbirth might also be discouraging them, so they must be taught that the pain was due to their false cultural beliefs. In this way, women could be educated to have more children.

According to Read: “Woman fails when she ceases to desire the children for which she was primarily made. Her true emancipation lies in freedom to fulfil her biological purposes”..

The comparisons between “overcivilized” white women and “primitive” women who gave birth easily was not merely the product of racism, but reflected the anxiety that men felt about women’s emancipation. This anxiety was expressed in medicine generally, and in obstetrics and gynecology particularly, by the fabrication of claims about the “disease” of hysteria and the degeneration of women’s natural capabilities in fertility and childbirth compared to her “savage” peers. Simply put, the result of women insisting on increased education, enlarged roles outside the home and greater political participation was that their ovaries shriveled, they suddenly began to experience painful childbirth and they developed the brand new disease of “hysteria”, located in the uterus itself.

Pain in childbirth served a very important function in this racist and sexist discourse: it was the punishment that befell women who became too educated, too independent and left the home. The idea that “primitive” women had painless childbirth was fabricated to contrast with the painful childbirth of “overcivilized” women.

Grantly Dick-Read was issuing a warning to women of a certain social class: if you step beyond the roles prescribed for women, you will be punished with painful labor. And if you have had painful labor, you should understand it as a punishment for ignoring your “natural” duty to stay home and procreate.

In light of this, the contemporary popularity of natural childbirth is more than a bit ironic. The central claims of natural childbirth, that childbirth is not inherently painful, and that if you “prepare” properly, your birth will be painless, too, were utter fabrications. Read would be delighted that these fabrications have been embraced by many women and that his philosophy has been propagated so successfully that most women don’t even realize that the central tenets of natural childbirth are racist and sexist lies.

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