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.

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

  1. PeggySue
    October 4, 2018 at 7:31 pm #

    Watching One Born Every Minute sure reveals midwives discouraging epidurals. It seems in part to be, or have been, a training issue, because they trot out all the stuff about slowing labor down and cascade of interventions. There was one very disturbing episode where a woman had come in and voiced a desire for unmedicated birth, but the baby was posterior and the labor much more painful, and she was begging for pain relief, and the midwives kept pushing her on to continue. They did not tell her the baby’s position, and considered it their obligation to support her in her original choice, even though the baby’s position made a significant difference to the labor, and I would have thought that to be a choice point where the plan should be revisited. I was very disturbed by this, it seemed actually disempowering to me under the guise of empowerment. The woman was in terrible, terrible pain.

    • Hannah
      October 5, 2018 at 4:05 pm #

      I only watched OBEM when I was pregnant. The shit they pulled on that show definitely helped push me towards an ELCS, showed me I couldn’t trust that I would be listened to in the slightest

      • Lucie
        October 6, 2018 at 5:43 am #

        Same here. And I’ve seen multiple examples of epidural denial on the show. While I know there are good midwives out there, it has made clear to me that I can never trust one and would never put myself in the position of having to do so.

    • Kelly
      October 6, 2018 at 7:04 pm #

      It’s so sad because every nurse I have had has gotten me the epidural as soon as possible. In fact, my last nurse ran and found the anesthesiologist before she did a c-section. I was so dang thankful as I was already at a 7 and I go fast and it was the worst contractions I have ever had.

    • Madtowngirl
      October 6, 2018 at 8:28 pm #

      Isn’t it an ethical violation to withhold information like baby’s position in labor? I mean, I have no idea what could be done at this point, but it seems pretty gross to withhold information like that, especially because she was asking for pain relief.

  2. space_upstairs
    October 3, 2018 at 2:13 pm #

    I’ve read about how most social unrest these days has been de-fanged by absorbing everything into the popular consumer culture of individual self-expression. Things that were once markers of genuine challenges to the system like, say, punk rock and environmentalism, are just more consumer choices: “Buy punk rock albums, vintage vinyl special editions!” “Buy organic food, hybrid cars, and reusable bags!” I think a lot of conservative trends have similarly been de-fanged, stripped of their former oppressive implications by rebranding them not as trying to hold together a big old clunky system but as genuine self-expression. Thus people can support the big old clunky system inadvertently by arguing that they’re “challenging” it no less than a punk rocker if they “choose” to give up paid work and technological conveniences for the sake of proving their greater dedication to child-rearing, which after all “should be more valued.” I don’t disagree with that idea, necessarily, but until the greater value of traditional feminine gender role activities is better reflected in how the system runs in practice, people who “choose” to live by the old-fashioned rules are hardly doing any more to improve society’s sense of priorities than people who consume huge amounts of “green” products are doing to address the society-wide consumption habits that make pollution such a problem.

    • Daleth
      October 4, 2018 at 10:15 am #

      YES. You know what, I think you might like what James Hillman had to say…

      “The great Jungian analyst says America could use a healthy dose of
      rebellion. Your problems aren’t all in your mind, Hillman says, the
      robber barons really are out to get you.”

      • space_upstairs
        October 4, 2018 at 11:43 am #

        Though I would certainly not label myself a Marxist or even necessarily a rebel, as I also feel I have as limited an imagination as anyone about how to really challenge the system, I do tend to think that our problems and their most promising potential solutions are much more social in nature than people like to think and transcend class. I felt that “we are the 99%” had its spirit in the right place – the notion that all but the richest in society were somehow getting a raw deal, or at least promised more than today’s economy was actually willing to deliver them and thus made to feel like they were getting a raw deal, which for practical purposes is hardly better. And yet, all these years after that movement, here we are in the global 99% still fighting among each other over how we should raise our children, how we should eat, how we should treat our illnesses, and so on (never mind how we should vote!) We still talk too little about stuff like how our economy should be organized, or even how we could foster stronger communities apart from “more religion” or “more breastfeeding” or other politics- and class-based lifestyle options. Like, what about maybe not sharing, arguing, and de-linking people over every divisive little politics, food, or medicine meme on social media?

    • PeggySue
      October 4, 2018 at 7:25 pm #

      Well, but… are you saying that child-rearing (by women) should be more valued than it is? or that it should be more valued than paid work? I could maybe buy the first but not the second.

      • space_upstairs
        October 4, 2018 at 8:39 pm #

        The first one. Also that it should be valued more as paid work: daycare work shouldn’t be a dead-end job, it should be a respectable public service with living (if not great) wages and some training needed, like K-12 teaching or police work, at least.

  3. LaMont
    October 3, 2018 at 2:13 pm #


    Somehow, even when it’s completely irrelevant, they manage to make EVERY ISSUE about how they want to dictate the use of women’s bodies.

    • RudyTooty
      October 3, 2018 at 4:30 pm #

      What? WHAT?

      It is convenient -though – to blame everything, every immoral behavior, every flawed trait, every possible evil, on deficient mothering.

    • space_upstairs
      October 3, 2018 at 4:40 pm #

      I call Poe’s Law on that one. I would be equally unsurprised if that was actually said (given how politics is these days) or not (given how political reporting is these days).

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