As promised, this week’s Feministing Five is with the legendary Ina May Gaskin. Ina May is the famed “midwife of modern midwifery” and has revolutionized the way the world views this ancient practice since the emergence of her seminal book “Spiritual Midwifery.” This past month, Ina May was awarded the Alternative Nobel Peace Prize in Sweden called The Right Livelihood Award, which “honours and supports those offering practical and exemplary answers to the most urgent challenges facing us today.” And indeed, Ina May does. A pioneer in the natural birth movement, Ina May firmly places control back into women’s hands from what she calls “male-centered, misogynistic birthing processes” which views women’s bodies as defective designs and allows for profit to be made from women’s fears of their own bodies.
Born in 1940, Ina May was an English major who accidentally fell into midwifery. Her and her husband Stephen Gaskin (also winner of The Right Livelihood Award in 1980 and infamous teacher of the Monday Night Class in the 1960s) went on to establish The Farm, a 1,750-acre commune in Tennessee, with a population once at its highest of 1500 residents, where Ina May runs The Farm Midwifery Center. The cesarean rate at The Farm’s clinic is less than 2% and people from all over the world come to receive their home birth services.
Ina May has written several books, her most recent being “Birth Matters: A Midwife’s Manifesta.” She is the only midwife to have an obstetric maneuver named after her, called the Gaskin maneuver, which resolves shoulder dystocia during childbirth.
It was such an inspiration to interview Ina May. The passion that she has for her work is infectious. A staunch advocate for woman-centered childbirth processes, she is a firm believer in taking back the power to give birth when and how we choose. How much more feminist could that be?
And now, without further ado, the Feministing Five, with Ina May Gaskin. (And don’t forget to stay tuned next week for a special Part II of this interview!)
Anna Sterling: How has feminism impacted your midwifery work?
Ina May Gaskin: Feminism was very powerful to me when I got the phrase from Robin Morgan, “Sisterhood is powerful.” I was experiencing those three words as a new mother because I was realizing that isolated, I had no power. During my first birth, I was subjected to insane treatment– mandatory forceps delivery. I came into contact with women a year and a half later who were saying,”This is not going to happen to us again,” and stayed at home to give birth the next time. They persuaded a friend who was a labor and delivery nurse to act as a midwife. These women came out of this experience so powerful, happy with the birth and baby obviously healthy and doing well. Instead of being scared afterwords in her new role as a mother, she was powerful and you could feel it. That excited me.
Another three or four years later, I was lecturing at Yale and I thought people would be excited about the midwifery portion because the women in my village found it so empowering that we didn’t have misogynistic obstetricians that were so prevalent back then jamming forceps into us and pulling our babies out. Instead, we could give birth ourselves. I was booed off the stage and I thought what are these young women reading? This doesn’t feel like feminism to me. What could be more feminist than taking back the power to give birth on your own terms and saying, “No, I don’t want a male obstetrician who is really misguided into thinking my body is some sort of defective design brewing around my legs and yanking my baby out with instruments before I give him a chance to show him what I can do?” There was no choice then. I guess we started a revolution in birth because I wrote a book with the help of a lot of community members and it became the first big selling midwifery book in the country and has been credited with helping nurse midwifery get off the ground.
AS: Who is your favorite fictional heroine, and who are your heroines in real life?
IMG: Katarina Schrader was a Dutch 17th century midwife who attended more than 3000 births before C-sections were done and had a lower maternal death rate than the U.S. did in 1936. This is amazing. There’s a complication and it’s pretty prevalent in the U.S. because it’s related to how high the C-section rate is. At that time, it was rare because there were no C-sections. It’s when the placenta plants itself over the cervix so when the baby is being born, the mother has a profuse hemorrhage and can lose her life quickly. The first time this midwife encountered this rare complication (now, not so rare) the mother and baby died. The second time, she thought it through and she was ready for it. She scooped the placenta out, she put her hand into the woman’s vagina, pushed up on the baby’s head, pushed her hand further up until she could reach the baby’s feet and gently pulled the baby up by its feet. She saved mother and baby seven times she encountered that. Today, women are still losing their lives due to this complication. That incident has gone up as a result of the high rates of C-sections.
Also, Ignaz Philipp Semmelweis. He was a young doctor, Hungarian by birth, in Vienna, Austria working in a time where you had two clinics. Poor women went to the doctor’s clinics and the women with more money went to the midwives clinic. The death rate at the midwives clinic was almost zero (speaking of mothers) and in some seasons, it was 50% at the doctor’s clinic. The reason these women were dying was because the doctors wouldn’t wash their hands. They were doing autopsies where they were learning anatomy on the bodies of dead women and then do a vaginal exam and a healthy young woman would die 3-5 days after giving birth. Semmelweis had the courage to open his mind and learn what might be causing this and he could prove that washing hands would save the lives of women, but he couldn’t convince the other doctors to do it. He died in an insane asylum. We’re kinda back there. That man was so heroic that he deeply inspired me. I also had to learn from him how not to go crazy knowing how to save lives without pissing people off or making them feel guilty that they can’t learn from you.I’m reading a book right now in German. I think that our distorted views of birth that we have here in North America stem from the European witch craze that took place between the mid 15th century and 18th century when midwives were the principal victims who were executed in a lot of different European countries—Germany, Italy, France, U.K. This story is about a young woman who was accused of being a witch. We’re now in a simmering witch hunt. I read the reviews that some had to say and they found it hard to believe that it would ever be that bad, but it was. It’s history. It’s fictionalized history, but it’s history.
AS: What recent news story made you want to scream?
IMG: That home birth isn’t safe. To suggest automatically that planned home birth isn’t safe is to accept a propaganda that’s being put out for more than a century in this country that is now sweeping the world because it’s a way of scaring people and a lot of money can be made from that. If you don’t have home birth as one of the choices women have then we can be exploited and birth can become a commodity the same way water is being grabbed and sold to people and the way food is being controlled by multinational corporations. For women to get it that we’re not inferior to squirrels, cows, rabbits and elephants, is a very radical thought that’s actually true. When you have about 5000 species of mammal and we’re encouraged to believe that we’re the only one that can’t give birth, that’s mis-designed? That takes quite a stretch but that’s the overall belief system our culture has taught us to adopt, and it’s not true. For someone like me and most of my partners who have not had formal medical education, how could we produce such good results? We had 186 babies from the beginning before we had a need for a C-section. Now 1 in 3 and in some places half the women are having C-sections? Who is benefiting from that?
AS: What, in your opinion, is the greatest challenge facing feminism today?
IMG: You have to put mothers into feminism. I think second wave feminism found the motherhood question so difficult that it shied away from it and so the only part of reproductive rights had to do with abortion rights. Yes, we have to have that but we also have to have choice in how we give birth, with whom, where and how. We shouldn’t have corporate entities like multinational insurance companies dictating how we give birth. Insurance dictates to hospitals and to doctors and doctors dictate to midwives and all of this dictates to women, “This is how you’re going to give birth. In essence, we own you. You don’t.”
AS: You’re going to a desert island, and you’re allowed to take one food, one drink and one feminist. What do you pick?
IMG: Water. I’d probably have something Japanese—sushi with miso. Elizabeth Cady Stanton rocked. She found it possible to imagine that you could be a powerful mom. She had help from Susan B. Anthony who would take care of her 7 kids while Elizabeth went into the attic and wrote powerful speeches. I love that kind of feminism where you had someone who didn’t have kids and someone who did team up and put their energies together. I think what those two women had was amazing and I think we need that kind of cooperation amongst feminists today.