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Birth is a feminist issue, because is a woman’s rights issue.

Updated: Nov 10, 2021

In these days of heavy politics and confusion with the most basic terminology, when patriarchy has somehow managed yet again to dismiss, silence and mock us feminists.

I find myself concerned with concepts that challenge not only logic and coherence but the very core of the topics that have been my work, my life and my activism for the past decade.

I have been a birth educator, an activist and an author campaigning for the rights of women urging childbirth.

I have came to define my work as matriactivism. A word which is now used by other activists.

It was this work what led me unavoidable to feminism in general and more specifically to radical feminism. Which refers to going to the root of our oppression which is based in the division of the sexes mostly scientifically binary. Nothing to do with gender which to me and many others us the social construct that patriarchy promotes to oppress us and we want to abolish not choose, or play with.

So now after seeing some worrying developments that to me are going backward, I feel that is urgent to say that the only way to fight gynaeco-obstetric violence and reclaim reproductive justice for women must be within the frame of feminism, and that is not the neoliberalism that wants to dilute our movement while claiming they are part of it.

The new way of dismissing and silencing centuries of our struggle by suggesting that “pregnant people” is inclusive while women, more than 50% of the population and the political subject in feminism have no place to claim our rights, called themselves by definition or even fight back when our sex is abused, it’s a conundrum.

I wouldn’t even entertain the idea to demand of any rights movement to change their prerogatives to talk about all people.

The fight for the rights of Gay, Transexual, Lesbian, Black people and many other oppressed groups…Matter, and their definitions and specifics matter, they are at the root of their discrimination and so does feminism as the women’s rights movement, which has spent centuries seeking dignity, equality and justice for more than half of the population.

Worryingly some researchers and academics affected by new trends with little depth or factual information are embracing neologisms and have come sideways to talk about things such obstetric violence, feminism and gender in a way that suppresses and undermines women’s rights and our historical struggle.

And as an activist, feminist and specialist in obstetric violence I feel that this must be addressed.

In the 11 years that I have worked with women (and their partners in my classes) around the world, specially after we founded The Roses Revolution movement against obstetric violence, the two common denominators globally were that all the victims were women and all the violence was misogynistic. Of course midwives, partners and even grandmothers have reported been affected by witnessing or even perpetrated obstetric violence but the victims were always women.

We also realised that it was another level or cruelty with a component of racism or xenophobia and we coined the term etno -obstetric violence.

But even sentences were common to various countries beyond cultures and languages.

The misogyny during labour was in the repeated sentence to women with contractions:

“Now you complain but you didn’t when you were making it”

And immediately after while suturing (often unnecessary, therefor physical aggression) episiotomies they will say:

“I’m going to leave you even better than before, brand new, or as this student wrote beside his selfie with a woman in stirrups: “I’m going to leave your pussy at 0 Km“

I actually wrote a petition against the student and he wrote to me with the arrogance and macho attitude that I know so well as a woman in this patriarchal world.

To him I was a woman, inferior, an activist exposing him in anger. Me and the 11.000 signatures thought he should be fired but he wasn’t and instead he emailed me to mansplain how all women liked him and want him there. He loved women, he said…

When a male doctor in the U.S.A was cutting 12 times the vulva of a woman in labour while she was begging and crying for him not to do so, the doctor used all the power and talk that men have over women in society and tragically the mother of the labouring woman was telling her to listen to the doctor. The doctor knows best.

And yes the doctor (male) than the midwife (always female back then) and of course the woman, he knows best about our births since the end of 1700s when the knowledge of women over their bodies, the oldest profession in the world, which contrary to misogynistic belief is not prostitution but midwifery, our science, was appropriated, reinvented and regurgitated back to us, in a way that concluded that we were ignorant of our bodies, our abortions, our miscarriages, we lost our physical autonomy. We were the sufferers of our bodies, the sinners and the ones carrying the responsibility of them for othes, the men. And they will tell us how to birth for starters on the back the most uncomfortable and illogical position.

But while discussing physiological positions, an outraged male obstetrician told me once: What do you want?! Do you want me to go on my knees and look up to do my work? He left offended so I couldn’t reply: “well yes, that’s what my midwives did in my three labours and they were so lovely”.

But of course positions in labour are also a feminist issue because we women are subservient to the comfort of men. That happens from the bus ride to politics.

And the comfort or pleasure of men is what many professionals still joke about while suturing women’s genitals, and also in a trial for obstetric violence in the 21st century (Spain )

when the judge was addressing questions around the physical trauma on the genitals and sex performance of the woman to her husband. That’s also a feminist issue because our bodies and our sex as women is for the enjoyment of others. Our consent is the patriarchal discussion, our pleasure our feminist fight.

Because birth, breastfeeding and abortion was actually ours, even when we have no rights it did belong to women, now it doesn’t.

I always tell my classes about something I’ve learned from Sheila Kitzinger, how the word gossip in English comes from birth, comes from us women being sisters and networking, which originally were named godsibs (sisters in god) we were there in sisterhood supporting each other and using scientific evidence in its purest form, out of practice and observation.

I tell the story to remind us of our collective power, our sisterhood and our culture. The concept of being with women, comadres, and midwives.

Obstetrics was created from a complete lack of knowledge as men had no place in the birth room, and a total lack of physical empathy. And they had to infiltrate the births, they did that quite often dressing up as women and imposing themselves to women who didn’t trust them or didn’t want them there.

So they had to discredit midwives accusing them of being ignorant and drunk, and ultimately disempowering them.

And they still are in more sutil ways, suffering this disempowerment, some of them enduring trials, some of them as the Hungarian Ágnes Gerèb expending 3 years of house arrest, some of them giving up their independent practice due to unaffordable insurances, and some of them by not being looked after by the institutions.

Midwives have always been some sort of feminist mirror for women’s bodies.

The first thing Spanish midwives had to do when regulations were imposed in their profession was to swear not to practice abortions. Which they used to do of course, prior to that.

And this is also why birth is a feminist issue, because we women have lost our alliance with our sisters, our midwives.

Mary Wollstonecraft was writing about a community of women in her book Mary, she didn’t finish it because she also died after the birth of Mary Shelley* but what is perhaps less known about her death is how relevant it is to understand why some of us claim that birth is indeed a feminist issue.

Mary was against the new fashion of having a male doctor attending the birth and insisted on having a midwife, after the labour the placenta became retained and according to the new rules already created by the imposing obstetricians, the midwife was forced to call an obstetrician for that event.

An obstetrician, which at the time dealt with corpses and disease, put his hands inside Mary to remove the placenta introducing the fatal sepsis, which produced Puerperal Fever, something that went on to become the most common new cause of death after the introduction of male obstetricians and hospital birth for the next 80 years until the Hungarian doctor, Semmelweis discovered that the lack of hygiene was to blame.

Until then they blame us women of course, they even thought that the pus was perhaps the breast milk. And of course they blamed Mary Wollstonecraft for her decisions, for being a “difficult woman” a feminist, herself.

And yes, dying of sepsis out of ignorance disguised as dogmatic male knowledge was one thing women died in huge numbers back then. But today women can still die of sepsis as the recent tragic death in Poland of a woman named Izabela (her surname has not been made public) a death that has remind many of us activist, of Savita Halappanavar in Ireland, both of them let to die of sepsis because of religion and patriarchy hating women, controlling women and seeing us as mere vessels, sacrificeable, expendable, redundant. For believing that un unviable unborn fetus is more important than a woman. And that’s also why birth is a feminist issue.

The many women I have talked to through the years have also commonly talked about feeling raped in labour, and the term birth rape has even been coined.

Of course the discussions, as it happens with rape, are always what we activists call “tone policing”, lengthy debates about how offensive the term is to the medical professionals, how inappropriate to call it that, and how we should look for another word…Never mind what the experiences must be like for women to talk about them in such way,

And that is without taking into consideration the fact that 1 out of 3 of us women are survivors of violence (including rape) while suffering gynaeco-obstetric violence.

In fact perhaps is the other way around, when us women are told with our first menstruation that our bodies are dirty, that we should hide it, and to be careful in that classic euphemistic way of passing the responsibility for avoiding predators as if we were talking about I don’t know…potholes while driving.

Perhaps it is because we learn to hate our bodies, while harassed the minute we have breasts, and to observe the oppression in our mothers and other women, while we comprehend through ads, movies and songs that our body is for the enjoyment of others, the judgement of others and the decisions of others.

And because we get to finally figure it out, and then we see that we still have to debate our rights, when we are insulted, threaten and misjudged because we can’t even claim that our movement is about the oppresion of women, we can’t even define what women are despite us being them…Maybe it’s actually thanks to all of that, that violence can be perpetuated also in the ultimate battle for conquering our bodies in the labour room, and that is not because is a male or female professional in charge. that is because history, gender ideology, the protocols, the institutions, the instruments, the language, attitudes and the whole approach to our birth experiences came from the same patriarchy that works from the premise of the sex class man being superior thanks to the oppression of the sex class woman.

Patriarchy establishes itself with the control of women’s reproductive powers based on our sex.

As Grace Atkinson wrote in her foundational piece "Radical Feminism" (1969):[12]

“The first dichotomous division of this mass [mankind] is said to have been on the grounds of sex: male and female ... it was because half the human race bears the burden of the reproductive process and because man, the ‘rational’ animal, had the wit to take advantage of that, that the childbearers, or the 'beasts of burden,' were corralled into a political class: equivocating the biologically contingent burden into a political (or necessary) penalty, thereby modifying these individuals’ definition from the human to the functional, or animal. “

I will go further and my personal take on it is that the promotion of our reproductive power as a burden is also patriarchal propaganda out of ignorance and fear. And it is because we lost the autonomy to decide over our reproductive powers that they became a burden of course.

They still are, to many women in countries such as Ucraine, when disguised as modernity and progress we promote that surrogacy is an example of sacrifice and generosity and not the objectification and exploitation of women and the objectification and selling/“gifting” of humans (babies). That is possible because we are women and that is also a feminist issue.

It took us years to be able to say obstetric violence without being accused of being crazy, and it is still refuted. It has been recently refuted by the College of Doctors in my country Spain, a country sentenced by the UN because of its obstetric violence.

And because of all of this and much more, I ensure through a global movement that we will talk about obstetric violence on the feminist date of the 25th of November and as part of the many violences towards women. And now 10 years later that fight can’t go backwards at least not with me being silenced by the so called inclusivity that invisibilises women yet again.

As I have always said, birth is a feminist issue because we women want to

decide not because of what we decide.

Birth and reproductive justice to me is at the core of our oppression as women.

And there is only one way to fight the oppression of women and that is feminism.

Mattiactivista (Mara a.k.a. Jesusa Ricoy Olariaga)

*Mary was known as Mary Shelley after marriage, obviously not at birth. But she was know with her married name, our surnames another feminist issue

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