Women’s History: Rethinking Birth and Food

—Barbara Katz Rothman

It’s Women’s History Month! Let’s celebrate! Honor the first woman tenured at Harvard! First woman to win the Nobel prize! First woman astronaut! First woman whose art hangs in MOMA! First woman surgeon! First woman subway car driver! First woman chef! First woman architect! First woman Obstetrician! First woman….

Or wait a sec. Are we celebrating the first woman to DO something, or the first woman to be recognized and acknowledged for doing it? There surely were women artists before MOMA cared, women designing their homes, writing books, making dinner, catching babies… And wait another sec here—how did so many things that women do, across time and space, like catching babies and making dinner, get turned into award-winning accomplishments when men did them, and quiet back-room work when women do them?

Nowhere could that be clearer than in the kitchen and in the bedroom, where women have made food and caught babies for far longer than shining careers as Chefs or Obstetricians were imaginable.

Getting ‘out of the kitchen’ was a battle cry of 1970s feminism. But how did we get in there in the first place? How did food production get to be so splintered and so gendered? One of the games I played in school was “The farmer in the dell,” a ‘choosing’ game to establish grammar-school hierarchies. And the first thing that the farmer chooses is a ‘wife.’ How did the farmer get to be a man? It is neither inevitable nor universal that growing and harvesting food be men’s work, and getting it to the table women’s. Cooking came to be splintered into gendered worlds of daily dinners and mundane cooking for women, and fancy restaurants and the occasional barbeque for men. And now we have seen a social movement for men and for women to reclaim cooking, but beyond that, to go ‘back to the land’ and farm, hunt, tend the flock.

Birth, on the other hand, was always women’s work. Not all women gave birth, and not all women attended births, but it was a woman’s world, and stayed that way until relatively recently. About a hundred years ago medicine decided to claim birth, and created Obstetrics—a surgical specialty which claimed special expertise. That expertise has brought us about a third of American women having surgical (Cesarean) births, and considerably higher maternal mortality rates than countries with equivalent standards of living and midwifery care for birth.

There were women, like the radical midwives, and like the feminists who wrote OUR BODIES OURSELVES who tried to reclaim birth, just as there were women like Julia Child who celebrated the kitchen and the creative, intellectual work women did there.

But for the most part, second wave feminism was—reasonably enough, given the glass ceiling and the income inequalities—focused on getting out of traditional women’s roles, whether in the kitchen or the birthroom. The abortion movement went with Liberal Feminism; birth veered off, along with cooking, to a world where women aspired to become professional chefs and obstetricians.

Birth, like food, is being reclaimed by and for women, part of our cultural history and our traditional expertise. Not all women will give birth or ever want to attend a birth; not all women will want to cook. But when we do either of those, let us celebrate our traditions, our skills, our culture and our historical expertise. Let us not only celebrate the first woman to head an Obstetrics department, and the first woman at a five star restaurant, but all the women who came before them, whose knowledge is being threatened by professionalization and corporate industrial take-overs of both food and birth.

Barbara Katz Rothman is Professor of Sociology, Public Health and Women’s Studies at the City University of New York. She is the author of A Bun in the Oven: How the Food and Birth Movements Resist Industrialization.

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