The history of natural childbirth, from Grantly Dick-Read to Ina May Gaskin, is a history of misogyny

Hand writing misogyny

UK midwives are tricking women out of epidurals:

A forum post that asked mothers “anyone else tricked out of epidural?” attracted 1,000 replies in under two weeks.

For example:

Vanessa Murphy still remembers the pain. “I was so traumatized,” the 39-year-old compliance officer says. “I remember repeatedly saying I wanted to die.”

When Murphy entered the maternity ward to give birth to her daughter in February 2016, she was told that she couldn’t have an epidural until she was in active labor. When she entered labor, she requested one repeatedly. She never received it.

“Every time I spoke about the birth, even over a year later, I cried,” she tells Broadly. “It affected my ability to feel able to have another child and also felt guilty that I felt traumatized even though the birth had resulted in delivering a healthy baby.”

Why didn’t she get the epidural that she requested?

Months later, she questioned her care at a meeting with the Head of Midwifery at her ward. She was told that the staff had made a clinical decision not to give her the pain relief she requested. They thought she was going to deliver before it took effect.

Making a decision about a women’s pain relief without taking her wishes into account is misogyny pure and simple and misogyny has been the foundation of the philosophy of natural childbirth from its inception in the UK to its expansion in the US.

Few people are aware that the philosophy of natural childbirth was created explicitly as a response to the political and economic emancipation of women; even fewer understand that Ina May Gaskin, a heroine of the natural childbirth movement, reified that misogyny in her practice, writing and lectures.

I’ve written extensively about the origins of the philosophy of natural childbirth in the eugenics of obstetrician Grantly Dick-Read, its founder:

The 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 fear 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, 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.

As Burke and Seltz note in Mothers’ Nature: Feminisms, Environmentalism, and Childbirth in the 1970s:

When Americans began trying to make birth more natural in the 1940s, they invoked familiar associations among women’s bodies, a nature found inside and outside those bodies, and motherhood as both chosen role and biological destiny. The doctors and white middle-class women who first used the term “natural birth” equated nature with normal physiology and with the domestic ideal …

Natural childbirth became an important part of the counter culture in the 1970’s:

In 1976, the midwife Ina Gaskin published the first edition of Spiritual Midwifery…. Gaskin has taught at Yale’s school of nursing and continues to practice midwifery at The Farm, the Tennessee intentional community that she and her spouse Stephen Gaskin founded in 1971.

That’s one way to put it. In truth the Farm was a cult and Stephen Gaskin was the leader of the cult. Women were relegated to “women’s work” including midwifery.

For Gaskin and many other commune dwellers, natural birth made women the physical equals of men, but their strength fed family togetherness, not women’s independence.

In other words, Gaskin’s philosophy of spiritual midwifery recapitulated the subservient nature of Gaskin to her husband.

If a woman was not attentive enough to her husband during labor, Gaskin sometimes suggested that she pay him more attention. If husbands were not sufficiently “connected,” Gaskin might recommend that they leave and gather themselves emotionally. On The Farm a good mother was part of a good couple and contributed to a good family…

Gaskin’s contemporaries noticed that her view of childbirth re-inscribed traditional misogynistic beliefs.

Nora Ephron remarked that:

the tyranny of the obstetrician is eliminated — and the tyranny of the method is substituted …

In both cases, women are pressured to fulfill someone else’s idea of what their needs and desires, not their own.

She elaborated:

What I’m complaining about … [is]the fact that something that ought to liberate women seems — however subtly — to be oppressive… It never crossed my mind that I would live through the late 60’s and early 70’s in America only to discover that in the end what was expected of me was a brave, albeit vigorous squat in the fields like the heroine in ‘The Good Earth.’

The radical feminist Shulamith Firestone was even more emphatic in her rejection natural childbirth. She embraced technology including artificial reproduction:

At least until the taboo is lifted,” she argued, “until the decision not to have children or to have them by artificial means is as legitimate as traditional child-bearing, women are as good as forced into their female roles.

The result is that natural childbirth does not liberate and empower women; it oppresses them.

While some women redefined the term “nature” to fit their expectations of birth, others put intense pressure on themselves to match a particular vision of nature. Sometimes, women who accepted pain medication felt profound internal conflicts over their choice, specifically because they felt they had strayed from what they defined as natural…

The decision of thousands of UK midwives to deny women epidurals that they requested is just the latest example of the misogyny that has pervaded natural childbirth advocacy since its inception. To paraphrase Ephron: the misogynist tyranny of the obstetrician has been replaced by the misogynist tyranny of natural childbirth advocates, and women continue to suffer as a result.