by Sarah MacDonald
With the power of the #MeToo movement, more people are acknowledging the influence of women’s voices to affect lasting change. This same capacity of narratives has and continues to be utilized by women to stimulate changes in the medical community. Too often, women are dismissed by their doctors and others responsible for their care. Nowhere is this truer than during maternity. Many women have felt silenced and ignored during this time in their lives. In response, some have taken to writing their own stories to shed light on their experiences in the hopes that others will not have to undergo the same treatment. Sadly, while this problem and solution are seeing a new light, they are not new. Through a comparison of women’s life writing from the early 20th century and modern examples, it is clear that women still feel largely ignored and ill-informed about much of the childbearing process. It is essential that society, and especially the medical field, start to appreciate the knowledge and understanding women bring to their maternity experiences.
As early as the 1900s in Britain women collected their experiences to push for a transformation of patriarchal medicine. The Women’s Cooperative Guild compiled two fascinating pieces of political writing by working women from both identified and anonymous writers. The initial text, Maternity (1915), illustrates the enormous difficulties surrounding childbirth with limited available resources. The anonymous women shared sketches of their lives to encourage more governmental support for poverty-stricken women. The women answered a series of questions about their experiences in childbirth. The questions included the number of children they had that survived, how many did not, their household income, husband’s work, and general information on how much they knew about maternity as a whole.
Two pieces of introductory material highlight the purpose of the compilation. The first is the foreword by the Right Honorable Herbert Samuel M.P: “The Women’s Co-operative Guild, unresting in their efforts for the improvement of the conditions of working women, have rendered a most useful service in eliciting these letters and in making them public” (11-12). suggests the need for these individual voices that can speak for their own needs and offer suggestions to what will actually improve their childbearing life. The second piece is by the Guild itself:
The cry of a woman in travail has become a commonplace of literature, and the notion that pain and motherhood are inevitably connected has become so fixed that the world is shocked if a woman does not consider the pain as much a privilege as the motherhood. And this attitude of the world towards the pain of travail has been extended to all the sufferings attending motherhood. These letters show that this is the view of women themselves, for which doctors have been largely responsible. It is hardly too much to say that the ordinary professional attitude might have been summed up in the saying, “You’ll be worse before you’re better.” It would be foolish to cry aloud against the inevitable minimum of maternal suffering. (28)
We see in this introduction the basis for the problem women are still dealing with: that of a patriarchal medical community that decided women must endure any manner of pain, suffering, and trauma during pregnancy and childbirth for no other reason than tradition and the lingering impact of religious views. The letters mentioned, have a matter-of-fact tone that belies the suffering many of the women underwent. A representative letter reads as follows:
I can speak from experience. For fifteen years I was in a very poor state of health owing to continual pregnancy. As soon as I was over one trouble, it was all started over again. In one instance, I was unable to go further than the top of the street the whole time owing to bladder trouble, constant flow of water. With one, my leg was so terribly bad I had constantly to sit down in the road when out, and stand with my leg on a chair to do my washing. I have had four children and ten miscarriages, three before the first child, each of them between three and four months. No cause but weakness, and, I’m afraid, ignorance and neglect. I was in a very critical state for years; my sufferings were very great from acute weakness. I now see a great deal of this agony ought never to have been, with proper attention. It is good to see some of our women waking up to this fact. It is help and attention during pregnancy that is wanted, and I hope my own dear daughter, if she ever marries, will be one to benefit with others, by our experience. I do hope this letter is something of what you are wishing for, hoping for good results of our Guild work in this manner. Wages 25s; four children, ten miscarriages. (62)
Ten miscarriages was above average according to the rest of the letters, however, the lack of information that caused the author’s distress was typical. The women sought, more than anything else, education about the entire process from birth control through pregnancy and postpartum health. Some writers blamed taboos surrounding women’s health and bodies, quite prevalent in Victorian England, for their ignorance of childbirth and health. The collection’s purpose was to augment readers’ understanding of maternity.
If we now turn to modern discussions of maternity online, we see the need to be heard and appreciated as whole people is still something women are striving for. There are numerous websites and discussion boards devoted to women sharing their experiences with childbirth and how they felt their input was not wanted or included in decisions that intimately involved them. A small sampling for testimonials from the sites, ImprovingBirth, Babygaga, and Human Rights in Childbirth, show the continued need women feel to share their experience: “Every woman has the right to access the healthcare support that she, personally, needs for a healthy birth. Every woman has the right to be respected as the decision-maker about her own care and her baby’s care.” (HRiC-emphasis in original); “I knew deep down inside that things about my birth were wrong but everyone around me said I should just “get over it”, but I couldn’t.” Kimberly Turbin (ImprovingBirth); and “We typically all grow up with a “doctor knows best” mentality. It’s often difficult to understand that they too are working within a broken system that is built on fear of liability, a system that has significant financial motivators and a system that has come to the conclusion that more interventions solve both of those issues and it’s up to us to make sure it changes.” (ImprovingBirth) The last quote especially highlights the disconnect many women feel between their bodies and the medical community. Additionally, the crowd-sourced documentary, “Mother May I” also shares the stories of women’s traumatic birth experiences: “When women start telling their stories, there is so much power in that,” she said. Its trailer shows women speaking out about going through procedures without their consent during birth, facing pressure and ultimatums in the delivery room and more. “Mother May I?” (Pittman). The documentary materials are quite similar to an article in Babygaga that suggests women are experiences trauma during childbirth at an alarming rate. The stories told by these women all deal with traumatic births, which consists of the following:
What constitutes birth trauma? It varies. Some women may end up feeling like they were coerced into interventions during their birth that they weren’t emotionally or mentally on board with. Others might feel as though they weren’t given informed consent, or even a chance to consent, to medical procedures. Some women are reeling over the C-section they never planned on having that they don’t think they needed in hindsight. Others feel sexually assaulted by doctors who insert their hands into their vaginas without permission. In fact, it appears it’s happening more and more. Between 25 and 34 percent of mothers identify with having a traumatic birth. As a result, women are speaking up and speaking out. (Bosley)
It is again this call for more knowledge and involvement that women are craving, just like they did in the cooperative text. Women are more than the vessel for a child, despite that being the treatment many have received as acknowledged by these narratives.
One has to wonder how many compilations of narratives women have to share in order to receive the changes they demand. Childbirth should not be this traumatic and separated from a women’s body and mind, yet with the current system, having developed from the medical community from the 1900s, women are still considered less than the autonomous being that they were before pregnancy, are during their pregnancy, and will be after.
Bosley, Danielle. “14 Women Share The Heartwrenching Details Of Their Birth Trauma.” BabyGaga, 25 Apr. 2017.
Human Rights in Childbirth. http://www.humanrightsinchildbirth.org/.
Pittman, Taylor. “Inside The Documentary Uncovering Traumatic Birth Experiences.” The Huffington Post, TheHuffingtonPost.com, 9 June 2018.
Women’s Co-Operative Guild. Maternity; letters from working-women. Collected by the Women’s Co-operative Guild, with a preface by the Right Hon. Herbert Samuel, G. Bell, 1915.