Sheila Kitzinger was right about childbirth and feminism

Woman Screaming In Horror

Sheila Kitzinger was a brilliant and incisive cultural anthropologist and remained so until the very end.

Her last piece, an excerpt from her final book, printed in today’s Daily Mail under the title Why feminists HATE natural childbirth …, is an unwitting acknowledgement of what I have been writing for years: Natural childbirth is deeply anti-feminist.

To my surprise, it wasn’t just obstetricians who dismissed what I had to say. I also found myself in conflict with feminists, who saw birth in very simplistic terms.

Why? Because they claimed it was every woman’s right to give birth painlessly.

…Polly Toynbee, writing in The Guardian, was particularly virulent, dismissing me as a lentil-eating earth goddess.

‘How extraordinary,’ she said, ‘that those who call themselves feminists fight for women’s right to suffer and, in the process, inflict so much unnecessary suffering on women. The right to safe local anaesthetics, properly administered by experienced obstetric anaesthetists, should come first.’

For most of human existence, women’s worth was judged by the function of vagina, uterus and breasts. In other words, women’s worth was determined entirely by their biology. Kitzinger (like her colleague Ina May Gaskin) came of age when women were not valued for their intellect, talents of character. So they made a virtue of necessity. If they were going to be judged by their biology, they would glorify their biology. Kitzinger was probably the premier biological essentialist in the natural childbirth movement. Biological essentialism is the belief that all women have a biological essence and can only find true fulfillment through having children “as nature intended.”

Kitzinger took the intellectual legacy of the profoundly sexist men who created the philosophy of natural childbirth (Grantly Dick-Read) and Lamaze, and went them one better. It wasn’t merely women’s purpose to utilize their vaginas, uteri and breasts to bear and raise children, it was their glory.

Life had handed them lemons, so they made lemonade.

Kitzinger, as astute as she was, failed to recognize that natural childbirth was and remains a philosophy rooted in profound sexism. Women are no longer restricted to lemons. It is hardly surprising, then, that contemporary women no longer feel any need to pretend that lemonade tastes best or tastes good at all.

There is no more of a need for women to glory in unmedicated childbirth than there is to glory in unmedicated painful periods. Women have replace faux achievements with real achievements in every area of human endeavor from the universities, to the concert halls to outer space.

Kitzinger never made the leap. Indeed the excerpt of her book has her still squeezing those lemons and adding as much sugar as she can:


A woman who’s enjoying her labour will swing into the rhythm of contractions as if birth-giving were a powerful dance. As the mother of five children, I’ve not only experienced this myself but seen it happen time and time again…

If you really want to help a woman in labour, try not to manage, conduct or coach. What she needs far more is someone to help boost her strength and confidence

Once we were alone, I lifted the woman off the bed. Holding her lightly, I started to rock and circle my pelvis. As each contraction ebbed away, I gave a long breath out and was still; when I sensed another was coming, I danced and breathed my way through it with her.

After about half an hour, a midwife came in to do a pelvic exam. The woman was fully dilated. We laughed and hugged each other.

Kitzinger is still so embedded within the sexist paradigm of judging women through the function of their reproductive organs that she never acknowledges that most women don’t want to dance through excruciating pain, they want to abolish the pain.

The full title of the Daily Mail piece is “Why feminists HATE natural childbirth… and why their prejudice can harm mothers AND their babies, by the woman who taught a generation how to give birth” but the real title ought to be “Why feminists HATE natural childbirth… and why their views can harm ME and MY PHILOSOPHY”.

Sheila Kitzinger and other early advocates of natural childbirth profoundly changed contemporary childbirth for the better by insisting that women want to remain awake, want to make their own medical decisions and want to be accompanied by their partners. But they lost their way when they embraced the belief that women’s worth is restricted to the function of their reproductive organs.

Kitzinger improved the lives of many women by taking the lemons she was given and making lemonade. She glorified childbirth in an era when women were restricted to childbirth. She never took the next step, the one that contemporary feminists took, demanding to leave the domestic sphere and take their places every field of intellectual and creative endeavor.

It is unfortunate that she failed to recognize that in 2015 women are entitled to drink whatever they want, and are no longer restricted to lemonade.