The opposing figures in my title are from Adrienne Rich's book Of Woman Born: in interpreting the history of childbirth, she urges, we must rid ourselves of these stereotypical opposites. 1 But feminist historians have not so much rejected these stereotypes as reversed their valuation: the male obstetrician may be "highly trained," but he is remote and impersonal, bent on controlling women's bodies through the routines and technologies of the medical institution. The peasant crone may be "filthy," but she has the wisdom of nature and can restore women to confidence in the power of their own bodies. The history of childbirth is seen as the gradual encroachment of men--male doctors, men- midwives--upon an originally wholly female preserve. The men are associated with the increased use of instruments--from forceps to fetal monitors--and consequently increased intervention. The women-- midwives and the mothers themselves--represent a more "natural," instinctive approach, a faith in the female body and its power rather than a will to regiment and control it. 2 The power of male obstetricians over female bodies has been convincingly linked to the history of "scientific" discourse and its claims of definition and control over a "female" Nature. 3
The clear polarity between clinical male expertise and a more natural, intuitive female approach to birth has been very attractive to contemporary women writers in constructing fictional narratives of childbirth: stereotypes and polarities are the very stuff of narrative structure, even if the eventual aim is to undermine or confuse them. In the history of childbirth in the twentieth century, the two figures of my title can be taken to represent the growing medicalization of
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Publication information: Book title: A Question of Identity:Women, Science, and Literature. Contributors: Marina Benjamin - Editor. Publisher: Rutgers University Press. Place of publication: New Brunswick, NJ. Publication year: 1993. Page number: 74.
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