Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Considering that women have always been healers, Barbara Ehrenreich and Deirdre English set out to recover that tradition in Witches, Midwives, and Nurses: A History of Women Healers. Their book encourages women employed in health care, especially nurses, to work out the struggles that they face in a profession which became the bailiwick of male professionals. The authors approach their task by devoting half their book to the history of witchcraft and medicine in the Middle Ages and half to the history of women and the rise of the medical profession in the United States. In each case, they show women as both humane and empirical with respect to their attitudes toward healing. How then, they ask, were women suppressed as health workers in the development of a male-dominated profession?

In uncovering the political, religious, and economic reasons for medieval witch-hunts, Ehrenreich and English present a picture of witches as peasant women healers. With the rise of the European medical profession and the exclusion of women from universities, both by rule and by economics, independent women healers could be seen as witches. Precisely as women—seen religiously as seductive, lusty, and the reason for man’s fall from grace; and not educated in university-based medical study, thereby healing by the power of evil—female healers were accused, tried, and burned at the stake.

In the early nineteenth century United States, midwives and folk...

(The entire section is 583 words.)