Witches, Midwives, and Nurses Essay - Critical Essays

Analysis

In keeping with their sense that women’s knowledge of their own history is the beginning of their opportunity to take up the struggle again, Ehrenreich and English provide two clear, readable, historic foci of women’s story as health workers and uncover a history long suppressed. Written in 1973, this history not only recovered women’s story as unlicensed doctors, midwives, anatomists, pharmacists, nurses, and counselors but also provided some explanation for women’s contemporary experiences of facelessness and subservience in the healing professions. It pointed to women’s situation as a majority of numbers with a minority of power in the health fields.

The book places this subservience within the context of a male takeover of the previously female leadership of health care, a takeover tied to larger sex and class struggles. Ehrenreich and English see the four centuries of witch-hunting as an ongoing movement by church and state to drive the “wise women” from the realm of healing. To the church, the witches’ understanding of herbs, drugs, and anatomy and their use of their senses for information threatened doctrinal, misogynist, and antisexual teachings. To the state, the “wise women” may have represented organized communication networks of peasant women who were dissidents as well as healers. The medieval university-trained doctors, male and upper class, were the main beneficiaries of the witch-hunting purges that drove women out of medicine. The authors place the burning of witches in classist and sexist categories, giving fragmentary evidence that some of the women were involved in the peasant rebellions of the time.

In the nineteenth century United States, where medical practice had been traditionally open to...

(The entire section is 718 words.)