The disempowerment of women has a long, sordid history; but women were not always seen as the “weaker sex”. In fact, until fairly recently in the scope of human history, men and women were generally considered equals.
A study has shown that in contemporary hunter-gatherer tribes men and women tend to hold equal standing and influence, suggesting that sexual equality was the norm for humans throughout most of our evolutionary history.
Mark Dyble, the leading anthropologist on the study at University College London, said: “There is still this wider perception that hunter-gatherers are more macho or male-dominated. We’d argue it was only with the emergence of agriculture, when people could start to accumulate resources, that inequality emerged.”
I believe that, while the superior physical strength of men may have enabled them to dominate women, it was the advent of religion that brought with it the most power to control.
“Man enjoys the great advantage of having a god endorse the code he writes; and since man exercises a sovereign authority over women it is especially fortunate that this authority has been vested in him by the Supreme Being. For the Jews, Mohammedans and Christians among others, man is master by divine right; the fear of God will therefore repress any impulse towards revolt in the downtrodden female.”
-Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex 1949
Women were figuratively and literally silenced by the rise of the Christian Church. One of many verses in the Bible that condemn women to silence states:
“Let the women learn in silence with all subjection. But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence. For Adam was first formed, then Eve. And Adam was not deceived, but the woman being deceived was in the transgression.”
(I Timothy 2:11-14)
Women were not allowed to have roles in the church, thereby giving them no voice in regulations which the Church imposed. This gave the Church (and in effect, men) free reign to oppress women, especially those who dared to “disobey” them. Once they had taken the women’s right to be heard, deeming them inherently evil and unintelligent, they began to strip away the very essence of being a woman, not only claiming it to be “immoral”, but even illegal.
One such example is that of the admonition of “witchcraft”. People, especially women, who practiced any sort of healing, herbology, and even midwifery, were viewed as heretics, witches, and were looked upon as “going against God”. As early as 975 CE, there was a punishment on record for such women:
The English Confessional of Egbert said, in part: “If a woman works witchcraft and enchantment and [uses] magical philters, she shall fast for twelve months…If she kills anyone by her philters, she shall fast for seven years.” Fasting, in this case, involved consuming only bread and water.
Then came the the more popularly-known torture and execution of said “witches”.
1326: The Church authorized the Inquisition to investigate Witchcraft and to develop “demonology.” This is the theory of the diabolic origin of Witchcraft.
1330: The popular concept of Witches as evil sorcerers is expanded to include belief that they swore allegiance to Satan, had sexual relations with the Devil, kidnapped and ate children, etc. Some religious conservatives still believe this today.
We aren’t talking about women in pointy hats standing over bubbling cauldrons here. We’re talking about normal, everyday women. Mothers and grandmothers, taught by the women who came before them how to cultivate and administer herbs to heal their sick relatives. This invaluable knowledge saved countless lives, far more than it killed. There has been a resurgence of interest in herbalism in recent years; but sadly, much of the knowledge that we once held was incinerated in the fires of Salem and the like. Not to mention, herbalism is still viewed as “dangerous” and “irresponsible” by the vast majority of society.
With the demonizing of women’s innate ability and knowledge to heal, the Church stole away a big chunk of the value of being a woman. Women are supposed to care for their families, emotionally and physically. It’s in our nature to nurture. But now, they were not only forced to submit to their fathers, husbands, governments, and churches, but also to men of science and medicine, thus relinquishing a large part of their feminine identity.
Next came the assault on traditional birth. We can agree that knowing the importance of hand washing, drinking clean water, not washing dirty diapers in wells, and properly disposing of trash and sewage were important discoveries. However, giving birth at home is perfectly safe with basic rules of sanitation in place. In fact, it’s now suggested that it may be safer for women who have previously had an uncomplicated delivery than giving birth in a hospital. (article and research)
By 1800, in America, most wealthy women were turning to doctors, rather than midwives, to care for them during childbirth. The common belief being perpetuated was that midwives were untrained and unintelligent, and therefore inferior to the newly trained obstetricians of the time. This is the same mentality as the persecution of “witches”.
By 1900, less than 5% of births occurred in hospitals, but half or more of births were attended by doctors rather than midwives.
After 1900, most women were attracted to hospitals because hospitals could offer painless birth not available in homebirths.
1914: Twilight sleep was introduced into the United States. Upper-class women formed “Twilight Sleep Societies.” Obstetric anesthesia became a symbol of the progress possible through medicine.
Twilight sleep…is an amnesic condition characterized by insensibility to pain without loss of consciousness, induced by an injection of morphine and scopolamine, especially to relieve the pain of childbirth. This combination induces a semi-narcotic state which produces the experience of childbirth without pain, or without the memory of pain.
Remember, ever since Victorian times, women were viewed as weak, frail beings who could not handle pain, hard work, or the like. Obviously, this only applied to the upper class, but those with money are the ones with power. They control the media, they sway public opinion. Everyone wants to be like them because they are so powerful. As maternity wards became more prevalent and affordable, coupled with popular belief that midwives were incapable and indecent, deliveries in hospitals began to soar.
Enter Dr. Joseph DeLee.
1915: The Association for the Study and Prevention of Infant Mortality published a paper in which Dr. Joseph DeLee described childbirth as a pathologic process. He believed that childbirth was not a normal function and that midwives had no place in childbirth.
Dr. DeLee’s name is one of the most well-known in the field of obstetrics. He defined “professionalism” for many decades by his theory that childbirth was itself a pathologic state, about as “normal” for the mother as “falling on a pitch fork”. He insisted that the baby was inevitably damaged by being used as a “battering ram” against the mother’s “iron” perineum. These philosophies elevated the routine use of episiotomy and forceps as a crucial adjunct to “good” obstetrics and are still influential today. He also invented obstetrical forceps that bear his name and the DeLee mucus trap, used the world around to prevent meconium aspiration in newborns.
… he acknowledged the deplorable circumstances of obstetrical education and admitted that more mothers died at the hands of physicians than midwives.
At this point, women had been subjugated to their fathers, husbands, government, religion, doctors, and hospitals. They had been led to believe that they were incapable of decision-making, self-control, education, healing, and if that wasn’t enough, they were now told that giving birth was unnatural and that it was rare for the delivery to be uncomplicated. Soon, not just the birth event was micromanaged, but the entire pregnancy. Women couldn’t seem to do anything without the help of men, not even something so instinctive as giving birth (something that can actually be accomplished with absolutely no outside assistance or knowledge, by the way). But if you thought that was the last straw in the affront on women’s abilities, you are sorely mistaken. The one thing that women had left was their ability to nourish their babies from their breast, right? Wrong.
With the invention of the modern feeding bottle and nipple, the availability of animal’s milk, and the change in society’s acceptance of wet nursing, artificial feeding became a popular choice. As a result, medicine began to focus on infant nutrition from an alternative milk source.
This was at about the turn of the 20th century, when most babies were only fed via wet nurse or bottle due to maternal death or inability to lactate. Although most upper class women had preferred a wet nurse for centuries, due to concerns about “ruining their figure”, and the inability to wear fashionable clothing or participate in social activities expected of them.
The use of artificial feeding substances grew rapidly and was significantly influenced by advertising campaigns. This had a profound negative effect on breastfeeding trends, despite research that revealed many discrepancies between breastfed and artificially fed infants.
In 1885, John B. Myerling developed an unsweetened condensed milk, labeling it as “evaporated milk.” Myerling’s product was also a popular choice for infant feeding and was highly recommended by pediatricians from the 1930s to the 1940s.
As formulas evolved and research supported their efficacy, manufacturers began to advertise directly to physicians.
By the 1940s and 1950s, physicians and consumers regarded the use of formula as a well known, popular, and safe substitute for breastmilk.
In fact, after giving birth in hospitals, women were separated from their babies and only allowed to see them for a matter of minutes, approximately 6 times per day. (I apologize for not being able to find the source where I originally read this. If I find it later, I’ll edit it in here.) That is nowhere near the amount of time that newborns need to spend nursing. What happened was that the mother’s milk would dry up or not come in at all, therfore creating a “need” for formula where there shouldn’t be one. Remember, money is power, and there is a lot of money to be had in convincing women that they not only “need” prenatal care and hospital deliveries, but that they “need” formula and baby bottles. My grandmother told me that she was instructed by her doctor to stop nursing at 6 months and give her babies cow’s milk mixed with corn syrup instead.
So there you have it. By the mid-1950s, women viewed as weak, indecisive, wicked, unintelligent, and incapable of curing illness, giving birth, or nourishing babies without great help or guidance from men. And that brings us to greatest push toward equality since the time of the hunter-gatherer. I think that if we are to achieve social equality between the genders, we need to start by taking back the natural abilities of women. The ability to heal, and the ability to produce and sustain life. These are innately ours, as women. We can heal most ailments naturally, we can give birth naturally, we can breastfeed our babies (most times that women think they can’t, it’s because they lack experience and/or support of what “normal” breastfeeding is). Take back the realm of femininity and empower the next generation of women!