The sexist origins of natural childbirth

In light of our ongoing discussions about the racist and sexist origins of natural childbirth philosophy, I thought I would recap a post that I wrote for Homebirth Debate in early 2007. What I find fascinating is how natural childbirth grew out of the racial prejudices at the heart of colonialism and the sexist outcry against women’s emancipation, specifically women leaving the home to go to work.

Grantly Dick-Read’s fabrication of the notion that “primitive” women did not have pain in childbirth was a product of the eugenics movement, which was obsessed with the idea that “inferior” women were having more children than their “betters”. In a fascinating article,The Race of Hysteria: “Overcivilization” and the “Savage” Woman in Late Nineteenth-Century Obstetrics and Gynecology, Laura Briggs argues that 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 increasing emancipation.

This anxiety over women’s increasing education, independence and political involvement 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.

Briggs writes:

Hysteria, we learned from feminist historical scholarship in the 1970s, was never just a disease. It was also the way nineteenth century U.S. and European cultures made sense of women’s changing roles. Industrialization and urbanization wrought one set of changes, while the women’s rights movement brought another. Together, these included higher education for women, their increasing participation in a (rapidly changing) public sphere, paid employment, and declining fertility. These cultural changes were accompanied by a virtual epidemic of “nervous weakness” largely among women, causing feminist historians to begin asking whether the diagnostic category of hysteria was simply a way of keeping women in the home.

What was “nervous weakness”?

Nervousness was often characterized as an illness caused by “overcivilization,” which located it in a scientific and popular discourse that defined cultural evolution as beginning with the “savage,” culminating in the “civilized,” but also containing the possibility of degeneration — “overcivilization.” In this literature, “savage” or “barbarian” was applied to indigenous peoples, Africans, Asians, Latin Americans, and sometimes poor people generally. As a disease of “overcivilization,” hysterical illness was the provenance almost exclusively of Anglo-American, native-born whites, specifically, white women of a certain class. Second, the primary symptoms of hysteria in women were gynecologic and reproductive—prolapsed uterus, diseased ovaries, long and difficult childbirths — maladies that made it difficult for these hysterical (white) women to have children.


“[O]vercivilized” women avoided sex and were unwilling or incapable of bearing many (or any) children, “savage” women gave birth easily and often, and were hypersexual. This is the discourse that was slightly later termed “race suicide.”Late nineteenth-century gynecological and obstetrical literature did more than simply naturalize opposition to white women’s political struggles by insisting that contraceptive use, abortion, education, and participation in the professional workforce could cause nervous illness. It also reconceptualized these forms of white women’s struggle for social and political autonomy from white men as a racial threat.

In Brigg’s analysis, 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. It is striking how reminiscent this is to the biblical interpretation of pain in childbirth. In both cases, painful labor is explicitly a punishment for women who “forget their place” and act independently.

When Grantly Dick-Read and his peers claimed that “primitive” women had painless labors, they were not describing a real observation; they were issuing a warning to women of a certain social class: if you dare to step beyond the roles that we have prescribed for women, you will be punished with painful labor.

In light of this, it is more than ironic that some contemporary women are still insisting that childbirth is not inherently painful, that indigenous women have painless childbirth, and that if you “prepare” for childbirth properly, your birth will be painless, too.