I’m reading through, “Twilight Sleep,” by Henry Smith Williams (Harper & Brothers Publishers, New York and London, 1914). Williams was an American doctor who worked hard to campaign for the idea of “painless childbirth.” The book is an ad campaign of sorts for the advancement of lying in hospitals and the routine hospitalization and medicalization of all birthing women.
“.. in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children….”
Dr. Williams begins his thesis by addressing the childbirth “curse” as laid out in Genesis 3:16, and works to establish why it is no longer necessary for women to take such a passage literally.
I paused and considered at great length the rouse that Williams was choosing in his coercion to win women over to his hospital agenda. Christianity and its strong dogma of subversive women was a hefty cultural influence in the early 1900’s, and using this familiar language as a tool is not isolated to Dr. Williams. (See my exploration of Dr. DeLee’s cultural / religious language surrounding his argument for the abolition of midwifery here for further examples.)
In order to appreciate his marketing, one must understand the feminist implications of the early 1900’s. Women, in the throes of the Suffragist movement, were looking for equality for women and girls, specifically in having a political voice as they demanded their right to vote.
Laying the framework for “breaking free” from a rigid “curse” damning women to pain in birth was surely the key to finding easy allies in women by encasing the proposal as part of a liberation movement.
Mary Daly points out in “The Church and the Second Sex,” (Beacon Press, 1986) that
“If women’s subordination were really so ‘natural,’ it would not be necessary to insist so strongly upon it. It would seem that people would not have to be told authoritatively to behave ‘naturally.'” (Daly, p. 116-117)
Williams recognized this, and used this very idea to his advantage. As he lays out his argument over the absurdity of the “curse” he exclaims:
“…the suffering of childbirth is a natural phenomenon that “does good” to both mother and child? A “natural phenomenon”! …. to say that this suffering does good, in any ordinary interpretation of the words, is to travesty language. To prate such words is but to make up a cheap paraphrase of the Scriptural dogma that the pains of childbirth are the fulfilment of a primal curse.” (Williams, p. 11)
So Williams uses women’s natural, human desire for autonomy – their need to break free from the oppressive religious text defining birth – to lure them by means of a promise of “Painless Childbirth.”
With analysis, and the clear hindsight that comes with being removed from the immediacy of the cultural context, it is easy to make his motive and bias transparent.
Let’s first examine the “curse” text he is referencing. The full verse reads as follows:
“Unto the woman he said, I will greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy conception; .. in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children; and thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee.” – Genesis 3:16
It likely will come as no surprise to you that Williams only addresses the emphasized portion of the text and carefully omits the latter half speaking to a woman’s subjugation to her husband.
In addition, his language, itself, reveals an inferior opinion of women:
“Thanks to the progress of science, we are coming to understand a little more clearly man’s place in the universe and his relation to a normal environment. When we are just a little more enlightened, we shall blush to think that we could ever have been so credulous as to associate the sacred duties of maternity with the thought of punishment meted out by a supposedly beneficent Omnipotence.” (Williams, p. 11-12, emphasis mine.)
While he argues against the literal dogma of painful childbirth, he simultaneously reinforces the ultimate singular role of womanhood by referencing her “sacred duties.” And while referencing motherhood as “sacred” need not be inherently misogynistic, when we look at his agenda as a whole combined with the cultural expectation of the era confining women to singular identities, it becomes clear that his view of a woman’s role is that of a vessel. Williams works hard to assert that she need no longer experience pain, but it is obvious her occupation is to reproduce.
“…If God is male, then the male is God.”
Again, in “The Church and the Second Sex,” Mary Daly points out, “Briefly, if God is male, then the male is God,” (Daly, p. 38) and Williams demonstrates this concept of male superiority by his use and abuse of twisting words and and parceling phrases to orchestrate an intended outcome on his subject.
In doing so, he effectively participates in the evolution of the scriptural curse from that of a mental / spiritual / emotional state of enslavement, to one that involves physicality as well. Doubly drugged by the mind-erasing properties of Scopolamine, and the rouse of liberation through so-called “painless childbirth,” She experiences anything but.
Straps yanked tighter
discourage resistance –
(lambs wool ties,
a clever disguise).
Drugged, confined –
wild animal tamed,
alone, she floats in a pool
Isolated cries of horrific oppression
escape from her lips
protesting in vain.
Drugs that erase
straps that confine
tools that invade
solemn, sacred space.
Purify her from a
paganized passage where
dark, primal acts.
peddled to the masses –
redemption for women
from ecstasy of birth.
White men with
White coats and
White beds and
sucking her in –
black hole of
A calculated game –
cards laid strategically
slathered in fear.
The lure of safety,
illusion of freedom,
Man has invaded –
guts the village
raped of her birth,
devoured by wolves.