Why are women’s experiences so standardized?Why are women’s experiences so standardized?Theme:Birth as initiation in a technocratic cultureSummaryDiscussionTranscriptRelated Insights
I remember reading one of those studies in a book that Lewis Mehl-[Madrona] had something to do with all those years ago, one of those early books, and getting so angry about my own experience, realizing that I’d been had by the medical establishment, and throwing the book across the room because I was so furious!Coming
I had thought that I was going to do this dissertation from a folkloristic narrative point of view, that I was going to be setting women’s stories because my Ph.D. was a double one, in anthropology and folklore. But, as I got more into it, in trying to answer this question: Why are women’s experiences so standardized? Why is birth treated in such a standardized way in the hospital, given that it is such a unique experience for every woman that she will remember it until the day she dies? I had to start looking at obstetrical procedures and trying to figure out why they were so routinely used, when the science clearly said—and this was . . . I got my Ph.D. in 1986, so I started doing the interviews in like1983—even then we had plenty of science showing that . . .
We didn’t have the randomized controlled trials, but we had a lot of individual studies that were showing that this wasn’t necessary.
I remember reading one of those studies in a book that Lewis Mehl-[Madrona] had something to do with all those years ago, one of those early books, and getting so angry about my own experience, realizing that I’d been had by the medical establishment, and throwing the book across the room because I was so furious!
Then I realized that I was doing medical anthropology, that I was now studying medicine, you know. And I didn’t have a framework for that because I wasn’t trained in it in graduate school. So, I started reading everything I could get my hands on in medical anthropology. I quickly figured out that I needed to also study symbolic anthropology because what I was dealing with were obviously, clearly to me, rituals. It became obvious to me that these procedures had no sense to make in the world, except for the fact that they were rituals that were enacting, and I came to see rituals as symbolic processes that enact the core values of society.
I asked myself, If that’s my definition of ritual,—which I came to after reading a whole ton of stuff on ritual, I came up with my own definition because I wasn’t satisfied with the ones I was reading—I said, so what are the core values of American society? And I just looked around, and I was like, OK, what I see is money, but it’s not the money, itself; it’s where the money goes; it’s what the money is spent on, and that was science and technology. Ironically, science, even though these procedures aren’t scientific, but they purport to be, they pretend to be, they imitate science. So, science and technology were clearly their institutions. Tons of money goes into institutions. Then I noticed that all of these things were supporting the patriarchal structure of society.
So, I decided on my own that the core values of American society that I was going to analyze in my work were going to be science and technology, institutions and patriarchy, those four. I could see that they were juxtaposed over and above the interests of families, women, individuals and nature, and that you could always shift that paradigm and you could put science and technology in the service of families, individuals, women and nature. I could see individual practitioners doing that, with some women having amazing experiences when their practitioners did shift the paradigm. But, I realized that the vast majority of women weren’t having those kinds of experiences, that mostly it was this way [as her experience had been].
So, I had to become an expert all my own on Symbolic Anthropology, which is now called Interpretive Anthropology, and on ritual studies and on Medical Anthropology. I remember going to my very first Medical Anthropology symposium and the American Anthropological Society Association meetings, and thinking I’m going to be so far behind everybody else; I’m not going to have a clue, and in fact, everything they were talking about was all the stuff I had been reading. I was able to participate in the discussion and feel like, Oh my God; I’m a self-made Medical Anthropologist. It was exciting for me in an intellectual way in terms of pursuing my anthropological interests, which were no leading me in entirely new directions. But, it was also heart rending and very emotional to realize how many women were suffering what we now call obstetrical violence, or disrespect and abuse, in hospitals. We didn’t have those terms in those days. We weren’t in those terms, but it was just clear that many women were suffering unnecessary cesareans, unnecessary interventions, unnecessary episiotomies, etc., and disrespectful and, sometimes, even abusive treatment when they tried to say, “I don’t want that. I want a different kind of birth.”
M: And this was back in the early ‘80s?
R: Yes. I started doing my research for my dissertation in 1983, and as I started doing it . . .
Peyton was born in 1979, so it was around 1980 or ’81 that I finally had to pick my topic. I was still finishing my course work when she was born. And I picked the topic, and I immediately started asking women questions and doing interviews. Then, by 1983, I went to my first childbirth convention and I decided that I needed to get to know the birth activist movement as part of my field work and figure out what they were protesting against, and was I a part of that, and where did I fit in all of that? So, I went to an International Childbirth Education Association (ICEA) meeting, in some town on the East Coast, north of Knoxville, Tennessee. I remember driving through Knoxville to get there, and it was at a university in this big auditorium. I remember there was a panel with Diony Young up on the stage, who has been the editor of Birth: Issues in Perinatal Care, forever. I remember raising my hand and saying, “Is there any place for an anthropologist in this movement?” Diony looked completely bewildered, and she said, “I really don’t know.” Then, I just thought, OK, I’ll just find my place; I’ll just make a place or figure out where I fit.
So, that was ’83, and then by ’85, I was being asked to give talks at ICEA conferences. That’s kind of where I started out. That was interesting in terms of my anthropological work because the first talks I gave were heavily theoretical. It was as if I was speaking to other anthropologists. The childbirth educators I was speaking to would look at me like, Well, that’s fascinating, but what does that have to do with us? How does this help us teach our classes? So, very early on—I finished my dissertation in ’86—while was in the process of doing the research and writing it, I learned that I had to make what I was doing accessible to the average, intelligent lay reader.
My work wasn’t going to serve anybody . . . I didn’t want to be the anthropologist that writes for the .001 percent of the population that anthropologists are.
Unfortunately, anthropology is a valuable, amazing discipline that can give you insights into so many things, but the field is enveloped in jargon that’s very intense. The more you use it, the cooler you are in the field, and the better chance you have of getting those grants and getting your degree, dissertation, and all that. I didn’t want to be that anthropologist. I wanted to write it in a way that could be admired and appreciated by anthropologists, but would be intelligible to the average reader.Coming