Category Archives: parenting

Choosing Midwives: Science Is Not Exclusively Male

Laurie and Debbie say:

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One of the many ways male hierarchies keep women’s skills at bay is by associating myths with women, and facts with men, magic with women and science with men. In this context, Therese Oneill detailed and informative essay at Jezebel on the tension between doctors/men and midwives/women tension helps reveal the persistent and culturally accepted myth which associates men, science, doctors and hospital births with cleanliness, safety, and infant survival.

There was nothing wrong in wanting those who attended birthing to be clean, educated and accountable, but the doctors were going for self-interested gatekeeping. Requiring official licensing was the first step in shoving women out of the field all together. You couldn’t get licensed from just an apprenticeship, which was the norm for midwifery. Official training and state licensure cost money, an expense passed on to clients. It undermined the centuries-old purpose of the midwife as an affordable option to assist births. Instead, went the parallel argument, physicians wanted the poor to give birth in charity hospitals—where tired, apathetic attendants and untold diseases and infections awaited them. …

[The 1906 study of 500 interviewed New York midwives, described in Oneill’s article] included only one, one, “West Indian Negress.” It seems unlikely that an urban population the size of New York had so few black mothers as to warrant only one midwife. It is possible that white midwives served black mothers, but highly unlikely in an era and place where ethnocentricity was king. It is more likely that black society, North and South, experienced far less interference from campaigns intended to improve society.

Women could, of course, go to medical school to become fully licensed obstetricians. But the number was minuscule clear into the 1980s. According to the Journal of the American Osteopathic Association, in the 1970s, only 9 percent of enrolled medical students in any field were women.

[Side note: Lots of factors kept women out of medical school. Debbie’s mother was admitted into medical school in the 1930s, defying quotas on both women and Jews. But her parents, who could easily afford it, refused to pay for it, reserving the money “to educate their two sons,” one of whom never went past high school. ]

But that changed, and it changed fast. According to The US National Library of Medicine, female residency in Obstetrics and Gynecology quadrupled from 1978 to the present. Women now account for 71.8 percent of OB/GYN residents….

It’s not just that there are more female obstetricians, either. Midwifery, far more sanitary and scientific than its ancient ancestor, is booming again after a near 200-year lag. The difference between the two is most salient in terms of their technical training: obstetricians have gone through medical school, are able to perform C-sections, suturing, circumcision, and are skilled in handling high-risk pregnancies. Midwives come in different flavors, but the majority are medically trained and licensed in all things related to normal pregnancy and birth.

None of this is new information to people who follow this kind of history. The persistent, deep belief that doctors are better than midwives is not just about pregnancy  and birth (so much of history is about men trying to figure out how they can own children!), but about how Western science was created and defended as a male domain. Science was developed (mostly) by men, promulgated (mostly) by men, and made available (almost exclusively) to men. Thus science became male, despite the fact that there are no “insert penis here” slots in any scientific test or accomplishment we’ve ever heard of.

In the last few decades, the presence of women in the sciences has shifted substantially (though we may be losing ground). In the same period,  the perception of science as male has shifted less.

If men “own” science, then whatever women do, by definition, isn’t science. That’s how you get to Teresa Oneill’s husband’s reaction:

“Yes! A midwife!” … “Because I was thinking to myself, ‘Who are we going to get to wave burning sage over your stomach and chant to Gaia while the baby dies?’ CLAP IF YOU BELIEVE!!”

While it seems very likely that some significant percentage of early midwives worked in filthy conditions, as Oneill points out, hospitals were filthy then also. Yet, the discussion implies men=science=clean and women=ignorance/magic=dirty.  We’d bet the rent that a good history of midwifery would point out many instances where midwives figured out sanitation and disinfection issues on their own, through experience and observation.

The association of women solely with magic and myth is one way that male culture uses its own myths to denigrate and trivialize those who work outside it. Let’s hope that this one remains dead for two centuries and more, while midwives continue to use science and intuition, caring and disinfectant to combat the risks of pregnancy and birth.

Black Dolls: Trapped in the Tangles of Racism

Debbie says:

Alexandra Brodsky at Feministing points to a superb piece in the Paris Review, Addy Walker, American Girl by Brit Bennett.

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For seventeen years, Addy was the only black historical doll; she was the only nonwhite doll until 1998. If you were a white girl who wanted a historical doll who looked like you, you could imagine yourself in Samantha’s Victorian home or with Kirsten, weathering life on the prairie. If you were a black girl, you could only picture yourself as a runaway slave.

As Bennett recounts, Pleasant Company gave Addy a realistic, horrifying history, made age-appropriate, perhaps, but not prettified. Her story made a huge impression on Bennett as a child. And it was a controversial choice.

Since 2013, a Change.com petition has gathered nearly seventy signatures demanding that the Pleasant Company discontinue the Addy doll. “Slavery was a vile, cruel, inhumane, unjust holocaust of Black Americans,” the petition reads. “Why would this subject matter ever be considered entertaining?” The petition accuses the Pleasant Company of “diminish[ing] the cruelty of slavery and instead glorif[ying] it as some sort of adventurous fantasy.”

Bennett is conflicted about this petition (as am I, from a much greater distance).

I’ve never found Addy glib and insensitive, as the petitioners do—but she does trouble me. She is a toy steeped in tragedy, and who is offered tragedy during play? Who gets the pink stores and tea parties, and who gets the worms? When I received an Addy doll for Christmas, I was innocent enough to believe that Santa had brought it to me, but mature enough to experience the horrors of slavery.

“I didn’t even think about that,” my mother told me. “I just thought it was a beautiful doll.”

(from later in Bennett’s piece)

In 2011, the Pleasant Company launched their second black historical doll, Cécile, a girl growing up in 1850s New Orleans. She has a white best friend and dreams of finding a gown for the Children’s Ball at Mardi Gras. Many black parents were relieved when Cécile was introduced. Shelley Walcott, a Milwaukee reporter, wrote that although she “believes learning about the history of slavery in America is critical and should in no way be hidden from our children,” she had also wished that the Pleasant Company would release another black doll, one that “celebrated a more positive time in African American history.”

“As a parent,” she writes,

I find Cécile’s story a lot more appropriate for playtime than plantation scenes and a bullwhip-cracking slave master … Much of African American history is painful. And I’m glad to see the folks at American Girl have introduced a new doll that can allow children’s fantasies to be … less intense.

But Cécile was discontinued in 2014, along with the only historical Asian American doll, Ivy Ling. Cécile is light-skinned with long, beautiful ringlets. She dreams of pretty dresses. If I had been offered Addy or Cécile as a girl, I wonder which I would have chosen.

The article goes on to describe the history of racist black dolls (British golliwogs, American pickaninnies), which Laurie and I have discussed before as well as the social history of black children identifying with white dolls. Bennett comes to no conclusion about Addy or Cécile, dark-skinned and deeply oppressed or lighter-skinned and lighter-hearted; she just raises the hard questions.

Here’s what I think: black dolls can’t be viewed outside the context of American racism and the oppression of black people, because the only thing a doll can do is reflect a cultural understanding, belief, or myth. As long as America (along with the white-dominated world in general) remains tortured by our inability to accept black people as full citizens, human beings, lives that matter, black dolls will be a center of confusion. How much truth do we tell children? How much is right about “teaching racial pain to the next generation” (Bennett’s phrase)? When do we protect and when do we reveal? These questions are every bit as important for white parents to confront as for black parents to confront–and realizing that is one of the crucial steps toward change.