This Month in Reality: Witches, Midwives and Nurses! Oh, My!

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2016 has really started off with a bang. You could maybe tell by my lack of posting? I’ve had a lot of ups and downs. But, I have managed to get a little reading done (just not a lot of review writing. I have been writing, but that’s another story.)

The bang 2016 started out with was a family member in the hospital. (They’re fine now.) While they were in the hospital, I tried to do my best and not panic. If I’m calm, they had no reason to not be calm, right? They had to be taken out of the room for various tests (Again, they’re fine now) and to occupy myself while they were out of the room I read a book on my phone. I read Witches, Midwives, and Healers by Barbara Ehrenreich and Deirdre English.

I thought that was an appropriate thing to read in a hospital.

This is a short pamphlet of a book written in the 1970s. It discussed midwifery, the rise of medical professionals (as opposed to healers), the popular health movement of the 1830s and 40s, and feminism and the need for women in medicine today. This was a really short book; it was only 59 pages, but I learned a lot from it. I didn’t know about the popular health movement. Or, I knew about it tangentially because I know a little bit about patent medicine from visiting the Coca-Cola museum in Atlanta. (And, even though there was probably a lot wrong with some of the ideas the popular health movement was spreading, there was also probably a lot right about it.) Ehrenreich and English tell us a story about the movement pushing the equivalent of know-your-body courses (still a good idea) and also supporting a lot of self-advocating amongst patients. (The movement is described as espousing the virtues of frequent bathing, loose-fitting clothing for women, temperance and eating whole grain cereals. Any of that sound familiar?) The movement they describe also seems to have been initially supportive of women and minorities and in line with the cause of civil rights. While some of the professional societies out right banned women and minorities from their ranks, schools in the popular health movement did not do so (at least with the same frequency.) Unfortunately, from the description that Ehrenreich and English give, it would also seem that women threw other minorities under the bus in order to gain legitimacy and when favor to their causes. No cool, bros. So, I learned a little about the insidious underbelly of the history of the women’s rights movement.

What I found most interesting about this book (and also incredibly sad) were the conclusions. They conclude that the medical profession isn’t just an institution that discriminates against women, it is one that has been designed to exclude them. That was probably true in the 70s and it is still true today. Last year I reviewed the book the First Twenty Minutes and one of the things I found hardest to swallow about that book was the amount of research the author presented that was done only on male bodies. Women and men are different! There is a fairly large amount of scientific evidence to support that! (Also, there’s probably not just men and women! Gender as a binary is probably not a real thing!) Just as examples from recent news: women have different heart attack symptoms than men (and new research shows women aren’t aware of this) and women with ADHD present differently than men. They also conclude that we have become mystified by science and don’t know how to argue for what we need in the face of a scientific (or scientific sounding) argument. (Recent blow ups of twitter about whether or not the Earth is round seems to show that we still have a lack of scientific literacy.) They suggest that there needs to be an opening of the medical profession so that all women can have access to medical expertise when they need it. I still think that’s true.

So, this was a good read and a quick read. Not a bad way to start out the year in reality!

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