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Feminism, midwifery and the medicalisation of birth

02 December 2020
Volume 28 · Issue 12
 Women were believed to be lesser in intellect than men, and were thus excluded from practising science and medicine professionally
Women were believed to be lesser in intellect than men, and were thus excluded from practising science and medicine professionally


Dr Clare Davison examines the perception of women and midwifery through ages

Historically, childbirth was the domain of women only, for it was regarded as a female mystery, of which women alone had special knowledge and understanding. From the 1700s, with the rise of science and what was considered the more ‘modern’ and rational approach to midwifery theory, the old midwifery ‘ways of knowing’ were dismissed as superstitions and old wives' tales. The medical profession mostly consisted of men and they accused midwives of using ancient, dangerous and outdated practices.

In the 18th century in the Western world, the men in the medical profession, such as Fielding Ould in Ireland and William Smellie in Scotland, were gaining respect and developing new birthing theories that were based on the science, anatomy and technical knowledge (Murphy-Lawless, 1998). One of the most significant aspects of the new medical ‘science’, was the belief that the body operated like a machine. Within this discourse, childbirth was understood as a mechanical process.

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