Of Courage Born
Reflections on Childbirth and Manly Courage
Childbirth is more admirable than conquest, more amazing than self-
defense, and as courageous as either one.
Childbirth is no more a miracle than eating food and a turd coming out of
These two epigraphs express quite different attitudes toward childbirth. Steinem associates childbirth with heroic battle and manly courage while for Hicks childbirth is a merely animal process in which neither volition nor agency is present. Hicks’s joke is hostile, but is there something to it? Is childbirth not something that happens to women? And if so, how can what happens to a woman in childbirth be fairly compared to what a warrior does when, given the chance to run away from battle, he chooses to charge ahead to save his fellow soldiers? On the other hand, have women not faced risks of injury and death in childbirth in order to save the lives of their children and to contribute to the preservation of their larger communities? This chapter explores manly courage and childbirth.1 I will first characterize manly courage and say a little about why it matters now. Then I shall touch on two sexist conceptual frameworks within the Western tradition that have prevented us from seriously considering reproduction and childbirth in particular, as an arena for manly courage. The first of these has its roots in Christianity’s interpretation of pain in childbirth as a punishment for sexual sin, and the second concerns a gendered public/private understanding of courage traceable, in part, to Aristotle’s claim that only men can possess true courage in the noble activity exhibited in defending the city-state in battle. Finally, I will argue that childbirth is an arena for the display of courage in spite of the fact that some of the most important