Natural childbirth has always been about keeping women in their place


Yesterday I wrote about Sheila Kitzinger’s acknowledgment that many feminists consider natural childbirth to be deeply anti-feminist because of its baseline assumption that agonizing pain is good for women, and its glorification of women’s reproductive organs ahead of their minds, talents and characters.

It’s hardly surprising that natural childbirth is deeply retrograde and anti-feminist. The philosophy of natural childbirth is and has always been about keeping women in “their place,” pregnant, at home and restricted to the domestic sphere.

Grantly Dick-Read, the creator of the philosophy was explicit about his sexism.

According to Dick-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…


…[T]he mother is the factory, and by education and care she can be made more efficient in the art of motherhood.

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. Dick-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, 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.

Pain in childbirth served a very important function in this 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.

In other words, the philosophy of natural childbirth was created in reaction to early feminist victories in acquiring political, legal and economic rights.

As I wrote yesterday, women like Kitzinger decided to make a virtue of necessity. If they were going to be judged by the function of their reproductive organs, then they would glorify those organs and concomitantly demonize technology which was, in their minds, a product of men. No longer would the purpose of childbirth be to produce children; its purpose was expanded to produce birth “experiences” that validated women for placing the function of their reproductive organs at the heart of their self-image.

The philosophy of natural childbirth locates a woman’s virtue in her vagina, and exults in her agony.

Hence Kitzinger wrote:

Birth isn’t something we suffer, but something we actively do, and exalt in!


In achieving the depersonalization of childbirth and at the same time solving the problem of pain, our society may have lost more than it has gained. We are left with the physical husk; the transcending significance has been drained away. In doing so, we have reached the goal which perhaps is implicit in all highly developed technological cultures, mechanized control of the human body and the complete obliteration of all disturbing sensation.


In most societies birth has been an experience in which women draw together to help each other and reinforce bonds in the community. Now that eradication of pain with effective anesthesia is often the only issue in any discussion of birth the sacramental and social elements which used to be central to women’s experience of birth seem, for an increasing proportion of women, to be completely irrelevant.

Feminist philosopher Katherine Beckett, in Choosing Cesarean: Feminism and the politics of childbirth in the United States explains the feminist critique of natural childbirth:

The idea that women do (or should) savour, enjoy, or feel empowered by the experience of labour and delivery … romanticizes women’s roles as lifebearers and mothers, and assumes an emotional and physical reality (or posits an emotional and physical norm) that does not exist for many…

In short, some feminists perceive the alternative birth movement as rigid and moralistic, insistent that giving birth ‘naturally’ is superior and, indeed, is a measure of a ‘good mother’…

In other words, Kitzinger’s view of natural childbirth functioned to keep women in their place acknowledging that women are restricted to a certain role, romanticizing that role, and utterly ignoring the suffering that women endured because they were restricted to that role.

Pain in childbirth has always been about who holds power.

Men had the power to insist, through religion, that women’s pain in childbirth was a form of divine punishment for their sins. They could and did withhold anesthesia from laboring women.

Then came a woman who was more powerful than all the clerics and doctors, Queen Victoria.

In her role as Head of the Anglican Church, she had the power to declare that childbirth anesthesia did not violate a divine plan for female punishment. She used anesthesia in childbirth and she liked it.

Queen Victoria was not a feminist, but the early feminists who followed in her wake a few decades later considered that easy access to childbirth pain relief was a political issue. Increasing access to pain relief in labor reflected women’s growing political power. That is precisely what Grantly Dick-Read feared.

But it was not just pain relief that liberated women from “their place.” Technology of all kinds, from antibiotics to blood banking to safer C-sections liberated women from the fear of death in childbirth. And the benefits of technology were not limited to childbirth itself, but extended to infant formula that liberated women from breastfeeding if they wished it, and the oral contraceptive pill that liberated women from endless unwanted pregnancies that sapped their health and prevented them from taking their place in the larger world along side men.

The philosophy of natural childbirth makes women slaves to their biology and therefore renders them merely handmaidens to men, unable to take the reins of political, legal and economic power. Natural childbirth keeps women in their place, pregnant, at home and restricted to the domestic sphere. True, it glorifies their slavery, but it remains slavery nonetheless.