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Cultures and Practices of Reproduction and Childbirth

Reproduction has long been a central concern in the consideration of women’s health, as well as a focal point of debate and contestation. In this seminar, we will explore the changing experiences and practices of childbirth in the twentieth century and the stepping up of medical interventions in reproduction, examining they ways in which these practices and interventions have changed across time; the medical, professional, political, social, and economic factors that have shaped these interventions; and how these vary (or relate) in different contexts. We will analyse historical, historiographical, and feminist debates concerning reproduction, considering issues such as the medicalisation of childbirth, the professionalisation of reproductive services, and feminist challenges to orthodox histories of childbirth.

Seminar questions:

  • Who controls childbirth? How has this changed over time?
  • How has authority over reproduction been constructed?
  • How have shifting perceptions of authority changed the experience of pregnancy and childbirth?
  • Is birth a socially constructed event?
  • How have attitudes changed towards maternity medical professionals (midwives, gynaecologists, psychiatrists, etc)?
  • In what ways is control over reproduction a feminist issue?
  • What makes birth 'natural' or 'normal'? Consider different international contexts.
  • What has been the significance of the medicalisation of childbirth?

Required Reading/Watching:

To begin, select and peruse/watch one of the following sources (you do not need to read these cover to cover, or watch from start to finish, just dip in). Come prepared to sum up the main points that you found of interest in exploring the sources:

Edited and introduced by Margaret Llewelyn Davies, Maternity : letters from working-women collected by the Women's Co-operative Guild (1915)
(Note: Margaret Llewelyn Davies was the original author, but different publishers have printed several versions across the twentieth century, many starting with new introductions from different feminists: there are introductions by Gloden Dallas (Norton, 1978); Linda Gordon (Virago Press, 1978). These copies were also published by Franklin Classics, and Forgotten Books.
(same book): Margaret Llewelyn Davies, No One But a Woman Knows: Stories of Motherhood Before the War (Virago Modern Classics, 2012). multiple copies in library.

Mary Thomas (ed), Post­-War Mothers: Childbirth Letters to Grantly Dick ­Read, 1946–1956 (University of Rochester Press, 1997). E-book.

Nemone Lethbridge (Script Writer), Play for Today: Baby Blues (BBC1, December 1973). Available on BoB (Box of Broadcasts) Learning on Screen: click on and then once you have used your university log-in for free access, type in ‘Play for Today Baby Blues’ .

Patricia Spallone, ‘Genetic Engineering: Part Two: Reproductive Engineering’, Spare Rib, Issue 200, April 1989, pp.40-43. Scanned Copies.

The Ahmed Iqbal Ullah Race Archives (Manchester), Commission for Racial Equality, Race Relations Code of Practice in Maternity Services, 1995. Scanned Copies.

Then make sure you read at least two of the following items:

Fabiola Creed, ‘Nemone Lethbridge’s 1973 play Baby Blues (BBC1): A Turning Point in Maternal Mental Illness Narratives, Stigma and Support in Britain’ (in review).

‘Chapter 4: Pregnancy and childbirth: antenatal care, birth and postnatal care’ in Angela Davis, Modern Motherhood: Women and Family in England, 1945–2000 (Manchester University Press, 2012). E-book.

Jesse Olszynko-Gryn and Caroline Rusterholz, ‘Reproductive Politics in Twentieth-Century France and Britain’, Medical History, 63, 2, (2019), pp.117-33. Available online using Warwick university log-in.

Jesse Olszynko-Gryn, ‘Predictor: The First Home Pregnancy Test’, Journal of British Studies, 59 (2020): pp.638–642. Available online using Warwick university log-in.

Katherine Dow, ‘Looking into the Test Tube: The Birth of IVF on British Television’, Medical History, 63, (2019), pp.189-208. Available online using Warwick university log-in.

Rebecca Jennings, Lesbian Motherhood and the Artificial Insemination by Donor Scandal of 1978, Twentieth Century British History, Vol. 28, No. 4, (2017), pp.570–594. Available online using Warwick university log-in.

Sarah Ferber, Nicola J. Marks and Vera Mackie, ‘Chapter 1: IVF and Assisted Reproduction: Global Visions, Local Stories’ in Sarah Ferber, Nicola J. Marks and Vera Mackie (eds) IVF and Assisted Reproduction A Global History (Palgrave Macmillan, 2020). e-book


Essay Question:

Has medicalisation shaped women's experiences of pregnancy and childbirth (you can modify this in terms of location and time frame)? or we can develop an alternative title together.

Further reading:

Rima Apple, ‘Constructing Mothers: Scientific Motherhood in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries’, Social History of Medicine, 8 (1995), 161-78. e-journal
Sarah Ferber, Nicola J. Marks and Vera Mackie (eds) IVF and Assisted Reproduction A Global History (Palgrave Macmillan, 2020. e-book
Helen McCarthy, Double Lives: A History of Working Motherhood (Bloomsbury, 2020). Birth Chapter. e-book
Pat Thane and Tanya Evans, Sinners? Scroungers? Saints?: Unmarried Motherhood in Twentieth-Century England (Oxford University Press, 2012). e-book
Rickie Solinger, Pregnancy and Power: A History of Reproductive Politics in the United States (New York University Press, 2019). e-book
Dangerous Motherhood: Insanity and Childbirth in Victorian Britain (Houndmills: Palgrave-Macmillan, 2004).
C. Borst, Catching Babies: The Professionalization of Childbirth, 1870-1920(1995).
J. Greenlees and L. Bryder (eds), Western Maternity and Medicine, 1880-1990 (2016), esp. chs by Linda Bryder and Angela Davis (5 and 8). e-book
H.A. Cahill, ‘Male Appropriation and Medicalization of Childbirth: An Historical Analysis’, Journal of Advanced Nursing, 33 (2001), 334-42. e-journal
M. Connor Versluysen, ‘Midwives, Medical men and “Poor Women Labouring of Child”: Lying-in Hospitals in Eighteenth-Century London’, in H. Roberts (ed.), Women, Health and Reproduction(1981), 18-49, multiple copies in library
P. Crawford, ‘The Construction of Maternity in Seventeenth-Century England’, in V. Fildes (ed.), Women as Mothers in Pre-Industrial England (1990).
A. Davis, ‘A Revolution in Maternity care? Women and the Maternity Services, Oxfordshire c.1948–1974’, Social History of Medicine, 24 (2011), 389-406. e-journal
Angela Davis, Modern Motherhood: Women and Family in England c.1945-2000 (2012). e-book
Raymond DeVries et al., Birth by Design: Pregnancy, Maternity Care and Midwifery in Europe and North America (2001).
J. Donnison, ‘Medical Women and Lady Midwives: A Case Study in Medical and Feminist Politics’, Women’s Studies, 3 (1976), 229-50. e-journal
J. Donnison, Midwives and Medical Men (1988).
Nick Hopwood, Rebecca Flemming, and Lauren Kassell, (eds.) Reproduction: Antiquity to the Present Day (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018).
J. Garcia, R. Kilpatrick and R. Richards (eds), The Politics of Maternity Care: Services for Childbearing Women in Twentieth-Century Britain (1990).
A. Henley-Einion, ‘The Medicalisation of Childbirth’, in C. Squire (ed.), The Social Context of Birth (2009), 173-85. e-book
J.A. Houck, Hot and Bothered: Women, Medicine, and Menopause in Modern America (2006). e-book
S. Howard, ‘Imagining the Pain and Peril of Seventeenth-century Childbirth: Travail and Deliverance in the Making of an Early Modern World’, Social History of Medicine, 16 (2003), 367-82. e-journal
Nancy Rose Hunt, A Colonial Lexicon of Brith Ritual, Medicalization, and Mobility in the Congo (1999). e-book
Rebecca Jennings, ‘‘Part III. Chapter 8: The Most Radical, Most Exciting and Most Challenging Role of My Life’: Lesbian Motherhood in Australia 1945–1990’ in Carla Pascoe Leahy and Petra Bueskens (eds) Australian Mothering: Historical and Sociological Perspectives (Palgrave Macmillan, 2019). Available online
Amy Kaler, Running After Pills: Politics, Gender, and Contraception in Colonial Zimbabwe (2003).
H. Marland and A.M. Rafferty (eds), Midwives, Society and Childbirth: Debates and Controversies in the Modern Period (1997). e-book
Hilary Marland, Mother and Child were Saved’. The Memoirs (1693-1740) of the Frisian Midwife Catharina Schrader (1987), in library.
A. Nuttall, ‘Maternity Charities, the Edinburgh Maternity Scheme and the Medicalisation of Childbirth, 1900–1925’, Social History of Medicine, 24 (2011), 370-88. e-journal
A. Oakley, ‘Wise Woman and Medicine Man: Changes in the Management of Childbirth,’ in J. Mitchell and A. Oakley (eds), The Rights and Wrongs of Women (1976), 17-58, multiple copies in library
A. Oakley, The Captured Womb: A History of the Medical Care of Pregnant Women (1984), multiple copies in library
Melanie Latham, Regulating Reproduction: A Century of Conflict in Britain and France (Manchester University Press, 2002)
George W. Lowis and Peter G. McCaffery, 'Sociological Factors Affecting the Medicalization of Midwifery', in E.R. van Teijlingen, George W. Lowis and Peter McCaffery (eds), Midwifery and the Medicalization of Childbirth: Comparative Perspectives (2004), 5-41.
R. Pringle, Sex and Medicine: Gender, Power and Authority in the Medical Profession (1998).
Lynne Tatlock, 'Speculum feminarum: Gendered Perspectives on Obstetrics and Gynaecology in Early Modern Germany', Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, 17 (1992), 725-60. e-journal
M. Tew, Safer Childbirth: A Critical History of Maternity Care (1995).
A. Wilson, Ritual and Conflict: The Social Relations of Childbirth in Early Modern England (2016). e-book
A. Wilson, The Making of Man-Midwifery: Childbirth in England, 1660-1770 (1995).
Jane Sharp, The Midwives Book, or, the Whole Art of Midwifry Discovered (1671), edited Elaine Hobby (1999), in library, and available as e-book Women Writers Online
Sarah Stone, A Complete Practice of Midwifery (1737), available as e-book Women Writers Online
Martha Mears, The Midwife's Candid Advice to the Fair Sex; or the Pupil of Nature ([1805?]), available online at the Wellcome Library
Elizabeth Nihell, A Treatise on the Art of Midwifery (1760), available online at the Wellcome Library
Andrew O’Reilly, Twenty-first-Century Motherhood: Experience, Identity, Policy, Agency (Columbia University Press).