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...

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(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

The material in Witches, Midwives, and Nurses came from the authors’ research and ideas for their course on women and health at State University of New York, Old Westbury. Published in 1973 by the Feminist Press, Witches, Midwives, and Nurses and its companion piece, Complaints and Disorders: The Sexual Politics of Sickness (1973), made ties between previous research and new possibilities. The authors’ approach to women’s history in healing opened the way for a significant amount of detailed research to come, beginning in the late 1970’s. Their books provided scholarly conclusions in a style which invited a wide variety of readers to grasp, enjoy, and be moved by the recovered history and the logical and sociological critique.

Neither professional historians nor social scientists, Ehrenreich and English presented a fresh view at a time when a women’s health movement in the United States was gathering and growing as a precisely feminist phenomenon. Both pieces received diverse responses from varying types of groups. The books became not only the bases for discussion in grass-roots and consciousness-raising groups but also texts on reading lists in nursing schools and women’s studies programs. By 1974, when Ehrenreich and English began their book For Her Own Good: One Hundred Fifty Years of the Experts’ Advice to Women (1979), there had been an amazing growth in women’s studies programs. The women’s health movement was moving toward self-help, lay midwifery, and expanded networking.

These first two pamphlets from the Feminist Press encouraged the movement for women’s health and provided a mirror in which female health care workers could see themselves. They evoked a new moral force growing in consciousness-raising groups and led to women seeking increased knowledge concerning questions of their own health care (such as the pill, IUDs, hysterectomies, cesarean sections, and hormonal treatments), eventually giving rise to women’s clinics and health care centers. By 1976, the Boston Health Collective’s Our Bodies, Ourselves (2d ed., 1976) was published, as well as Adrienne Rich’s Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution (1976). Feminist critiques of medical practices, as well as feminist social analysis and feminist alternatives, were on a path of growth.


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Abram, Ruth J., ed. “Send Us a Lady Physician”: Women Doctors in America, 1835-1920. New York: W. W. Norton, 1985. A collection of essays that explore in greater detail some of the ideas presented by Ehrenreich and English. The essays present the professionalization of medicine in nineteenth century United States, women’s entrance into the medical profession, and the reason for the decline in the percentage of women physicians at the end of the nineteenth century.

Achterberg, Jeanne. Woman as Healer. Boston: Shambala, 1990. A survey of women’s healing activities from prehistory to 1990. The chapters “Fate of the Wise Women” and “Professionalization of the Healing Arts” are particularly pertinent.

Hubbard, Ruth. The Politics of Women’s Biology. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1990. An exploration of the relationship between science and political decision making. Hubbard finds “women’s biology” to be a social construct and a political concept rather than a scientific one. She mentions pertinent nineteenth century data with regard to women’s attempts at access to higher education.

Sherwin, Susan. No Longer Patient. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1992. A feminist approach to bioethics. The author shows that a feminist ethics of health care must ask its questions regarding health care practices with attention to the overall power structures of dominance and subordination. Chapter 9 considers how the construction of a medicalized view of women’s experience assumes proprietorship over women’s lives.

Todd, Alexandra Dundas. Intimate Adversaries: Cultural Conflict Between Doctors and Women Patients. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1989. Based on a two-and-a-half-year study of audiotaped and observed conversations between gynecologists and women patients. Todd examines doctor-patient relationships with a focus on the woman patient.