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Cultures and Practices of Childbirth and Reproduction (Angela Davis)

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 changing practices of childbirth over the longue durée 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 questions 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 authority over reproduction been constructed? How have shifting perceptions of authority changed the experience of pregnancy and childbirth?
    Is birth a socially constructed event?
  • 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:

To begin, select and puruse one of the following midwife diaries (you do not need to read these cover to cover, but dip into them):

  • Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, A Midwife's Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary, 1785-1812 (1990). multiple copies in library
  • ‘Mother and Child were Saved’. The Memoirs (1693-1740) of the Frisian Midwife Catharina Schrader (1987). in library, and Hilary has extra copies to loan
  • Jane Sharp, The Midwives Book, or, the Whole Art of Midwifry Discovered (1671), edited Elaine Hobby (1999). in library, and also available as e-book Women Writer's Online
  • Sarah Stone, A Complete Practice of Midwifery (1737), available as e-book Northeastern University Women Writers Project

  • Hilary Marland (ed.) The Art of Midwifery: Early Modern Midwives in Europe (1993), chapters by Doreen Evenden, Ann Hess, and Nina Gelbert. multiple copies in library
  • 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
  • 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. scanned article
  • Raymond DeVries et al., Birth by Design: Pregnancy, Maternity Care and Midwifery in Europe and North America (2001), especially ch. 1 'Where to Give Birth? Politics and the Place of Birth'. scanned article

 Essay Question:

  • In what ways has medicalisation shaped women's experiences of pregnancy and childbirth (you can modify this in terms of location and time frame)?


Further reading:

  • R. Apple, ‘Constructing Mothers: Scientific Motherhood in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries’, Social History of Medicine, 8 (1995), 161-78. e-journal
  • C. Borst, Catching Babies: The Professionalization of Childbirth, 1870-1920 (1995).
  • L. Bryder, Women’s Bodies and Medical Science: An Inquiry into Cervical Cancer (2010).
  • 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
  •  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).
  • 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.
  •  J.A. Houck, Hot and Bothered: Women, Medicine, and Menopause in Modern America (2006).
  • 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).
  • Amy Kaler, Running After Pills: Politics, Gender, and Contraception in Colonial Zimbabwe (2003).
  • S. McIntyre, ‘The Sociology of Reproduction’, Sociology of Health and Illness, 2 (1980), 215-22.
  •  H. Marland and A.M. Rafferty (eds.), Midwives, Society and Childbirth: Debates and Controversies in the Modern Period (1997).
  • 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
  • R. Pringle, Sex and Medicine: Gender, Power and Authority in the Medical Profession (1998).
  • M. Tew, Safer Childbirth: A Critical History of Maternity Care (1995).
  • J. Towler and J. Bramall, Midwives in History and Society (1986).
  •  E.R. van Teijlingen, George W. Lowis, Peter McCaffery (eds.), Midwifery and the Medicalization of Childbirth: Comparative Perspectives (2004).
  • A. Wilson, The Making of Man-Midwifery: Childbirth in England, 1660-1770 (1995).