Sinead Gleeson has a lovely article in today’s Irish Times about the history of women and reading. It has a great title too: Women gaining power, page by page. It’s a wonderfully strong and positive statement.
She makes an excellent point about the power of the written word and the historical patriarchial fear of women acculumating knowledge and therefore independent thought, something that was seen to be discouraged and indeed stamped out. This sentiment still pervades in many cultures.
One thing in particular that stuck out for me in the article was Sinead’s reference to reading being an alternative to domestic responsibilities or delivering babies “on the kitchen floor”. In the cultural and historical context of the 19th century that she was comparing them to, of course education was seen as incompatible with the chiefly female responsibilities of housekeeping and rearing families and in this case her point is well made. But culturally I think we need stop separating academia and intellectualism from having children and managing the household. One read of Sinead’s statement could be that if women were allowed to pursue as much reading and education as they wished, then why would they possibly choose domesticity and natural, unmedicated childbirth? In fact, forgive me Sinead if I’ve misunderstood, but I think that’s what the underlying implication might be.
Empowering women with the same educational, societal, cultural and political opportunities as men and pursuing a feminist ideology for society, thereby ensuring equality and choice for everyone, is not to perceive childbirth and domestic duties as a “lack of” something or a repression. Yes, for centuries women were forced into essentially a life of servitude which involved keeping house and multiple pregnancies, wanted or not, and it is to be celebrated how times have changed for the better. But we cannot undermine or disrespect the beauty, spirituality and community of childbirth and raising children. They always have been and always will be something miraculous and magical, and in many ways bigger and beyond our control, regardless of what else is going on in the world. Pregnancy, birth and motherhood transcends social class and time.
Access to education and birth control have had a massive impact on independence and equality for women but bearing children and staying at home are as legitimate choices as any others. It is possible and extremely common – as we all know of course – to be highly educated, well read, intellectual, excellent at managing your household and have multiple children. So why do we perpetuate this myth of having a lot of children, particularly naturally and at home, and doing the housework as a debasement?
Rather than a dichotomy between reading and natural childbirth, I see them as being fundamentally linked. It is only through reading and learning that women can educate themselves about how birth should be rather than what we’re told it should be. Most women form their ideas of childbirth from the mainstream media where hysteria and negativity prevail. Digging deeper, more reading, more watching of real births (not made for television documentaries like One Born Every Minute), more education on birth options, pain management options, the implications of all of the available options, possible interventions, likely scenarios and outcomes would probably see more women choosing to have delivering their babies “on the kitchen floor”, methaphorically or literally.
The Internet has been fundamental in faciliating access to less mainstream information. Think of how you use it yourself. I can only imagine the things I wouldn’t have known about pregnancy, labour, birth and being a mother if I was relying solely on books I could buy in my local bookshop. As an example, there’s a large bookshop in my local village which is well stocked with pregnancy and parenting material. On separate occasions I’ve gone in there looking for Ina May’s Guide to Childbirth, What Mothers Do, The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding and The Better Birth Book and they’ve had none of them. They kindly offered to order them all for me but my point is I knew to ask. How would others know? They’d most likely choose from whatever was available on the shelves and why wouldn’t you? I only discovered these books through researching online and speaking to women who were interested in having or have had a similar birth and child rearing experience as me. One of the first books I bought before I got pregnant was The Irish Pregnancy Book: A Guide for Expectant Mothers. I would be fairly confident that if this had been my only reference book throughout my pregnancy, I likely would have had a number of stressful unwanted and unnecessary interventions and a negative birth experience because I took the book at face value and would have done everything it told me to do. It’s written by a consultant from the biggest materntiy hospital in Ireland. What could possibly be more authoritive than that?
So I’m making a call for a redrawing of “woman”. Rather than making her two characters: the educated, well-read, independent, and free spirit unburden by offspring versus the uneducated, ignorant, cleaning, baby factory let’s combine the two and call her Everywoman: educated, well-read, independent, free to do whatever she likes at home or not, and free to choose not to have children or have as many children as she wants any way that she wants. Lots of women have this choice, many women do not but let’s do our best to make Everywoman someone every woman could be, if she wanted to. Let’s not cheat ourselves by accepting the stereotypes. Like the title of Sinead’s article, women are gaining power, page by page and when it comes to giving birth, women should be regaining power, page by page.