Having a baby the natural way : primitive bodies, modern women and childbirth in mid-century America




Doughty, Deirdre Gae

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As childbirth shifted from home to the hospital in earnest in the late 1930s, many women, reacting against what they saw as a dehumanizing, assembly-line approach to labor began to search for an alternative method involving conscious delivery and an emphasis on a positive experience for the mother. Natural childbirth provided one such method and by the 1950s had become the basis of a burgeoning social movement, spawning childbirth education organizations across the United States and sparking an outpouring of both opposition and support in magazines, newspapers, and medical texts. Other scholars have generally analyzed these early stirrings of interest in alternative birthing practices in relation to what would later become the more activist and more explicitly feminist challenge to medicalized childbirth in the 1970s and 1980s. My dissertation moves beyond this focus to examine the origins of natural childbirth in late-nineteenth-century thinking on “primitive” and “civilized” birth and then looks at the ways that physicians, pundits, journalists and mothers themselves reinterpreted and shaped that thinking during the post WWII years in the United States. Using photographs and articles from medical journals and the popular press, along with hundreds of letters and surveys from natural childbirth participants, I focus on three running threads. One, I examine the ways that advocates of natural childbirth relied on ideas of “primitive” versus “civilized” or “modern” birth—ideas deeply imbued with notions of bodily difference and class status. On a related point, I also look at the ways that women’s experiences of childbirth discursively marked their level of civilization or modernity. Two, I examine the fact that natural childbirth proponents paradoxically both associated the method with concepts of “nature” and “primitivity” and stressed its derivation from and basis in “modern science.” I look at how this alliance with “modern” medicine constructed natural childbirth as a distinctly “modern” method. Three, I analyze the ways that the rhetoric and theory of natural childbirth reflected contemporary understandings of femininity, as well as the ways that popular media representations of, and women’s participation in, natural childbirth helped to complicate and reshape these cultural perceptions.



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