Witches, Midwives, and Nurses by Barbara Ehrenreich, Deirdre English

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Witches, Midwives, and Nurses Analysis

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

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 anyone who could demonstrate healing skills, the male takeover started later but ultimately went much further. Although an early attempt by formally trained doctors to monopolize medicine by posing professionalism as an alternative to lay practice was met with indignation in the form of a popular health movement, the “regulars” eventually won the day. The popular health movement converged with the feminist movement in the 1830’s and 1840’s. The “irregulars,” mostly lay practition-ers and midwives, were seen as unscientific at a time when healing had little or no scientific foundation. By the beginning of the twentieth century, the “regulars” had European science and American ruling class power and money available to help them monopolize the medical profession. Medicine, now requiring lengthy and expensive higher education and training, became the preserve of wealthy white males. Nursing, invented by upper-class women reformers for improving hospital conditions, evolved into an elaborate set of subservient caring roles based on the Victorian notion of femininity.

In their historical approach and social critique, Ehrenreich and English uncover some of the mystique of “science” by lifting some of its disguises of power. They also lift the veil that had fallen over...

(The entire section is 718 words.)