Radical Sexual Surgeries
In the late 1800s and early 1900s, the surgeries that are called “Oophorectomy” and “normal ovariotomy” became very popular in the United States. Between 1873 to the early 1900s this surgery, which removed healthy ovaries — also called “castration” was used as a way to control outspoken women, “moodiness” and female sexuality.
This time period in U.S. history was a very dark one for women. The sexual surgeries were carried out most often without women’s consent. The practice of cutting into women took an all time high in this era. It is also the time that the Western medical establishment took birthing from the hands of women and midwives and medicalized pregnancy and birth. Pregnancy and birth were declared “illnesses” that required medical attention. This medical attention more often than not included a hospital room, an unconscious woman and a knife. The fields of gynecology and obstetrics rose to prominence. It was likely a reaction and backlash to the large-scale suffrage movement that was happening at the same time.
In Alabama, J. Marion Sims, often called the “Father of Gynecology,” operated and experimented on impoverished black women without anesthesia. What he learned from these operations catapulted his career and this whole field of “medicine.” The removal of women’s healthy ovaries was taught in medical schools, and performed as routine surgery.
Clitoridectomies, the removal of the clitoris, became a popular way to “cure” masturbation and promiscuity. Orgasm itself – in women – was seen to be dangerous. Viewing women’s bodies as sick, dirty and in need of constant medical attention became big business. The practice continues today with the amount of unnecessary hysterectomies and C-sections in this country.
The Systematic Elimination of Midwifery
In the U.S. midwifery was legally outlawed in some states, while more subtly removed in others. While Massachusetts fully outlawed it, New Hampshire declared the cutting of the umbilical cord “surgery.” Only licensed doctors were allowed to perform surgery. Cutting the umbilical cord by a midwife in New Hampshire became a criminal act.
This trend was a particularly American one. Midwifery has never gone out of style in other countries. It is not the typical evolution of technological progress, as some would think. The elimination of midwifery paralleled the elimination of other forms of medicine in this country including homeopathy and naturopathy. In the early 1900s, homeopathy and herbal remedies had a large following. These other, popular, modalities presented a huge challenge to the fledgling American Medical Association of allopathic physicians.
A well thought out and deliberate attempt to eliminate these other fields was carried out and successful. One of the ways this was accomplished was by requiring licensing from people who had no access to the schools that gave out licenses. Women were not allowed in most medical schools. Immigrant women who carried a deep tradition of Wisewoman ways from their native lands lacked mastery of the language or the means at their disposal to get a higher education.
The Loss of the Wisewoman Way
Many midwives were also Wisewomen. The Wisewomen were healers who included other components of the human being in their healing, including the spiritual mental and emotional lives of their patients. They embraced and held the entire community with their medicine which was held in deep connection to the earth and local ecosystem. They were most often also herbalists and homeopaths and even viewed as “doctors” in their communities of origin.
There was a time when women knew how to care for their bodies and handle their own reproductive issues. This knowledge/wisdom was held by women in the communities with the wise woman at the helm.
The Wisewoman tradition was also excised at this time. Wisewomen who had immigrated from Europe and other countries were threatened with incarceration for practicing midwifery, providing herbal supplements, most especially any kind of contraceptive device or abortifacient. Indeed many midwives did go to jail. Many killed themselves in an attempt to avoid jail time. This is well documented in newspaper articles of the time.
Like homeopathy, naturopathy, and midwifery, which all went underground only to arise again in the 60s, the custom of the Wisewoman has struggled to return to its rightful place. The desire for assimilation to the dominant culture of the United States, loss of community and the disenfranchisement of women, all contributed to this. The Italian Streghe tradition is but one lineage of the vast practices of Wisewomen healers that existed in every culture on this planet. Women’s health and reproductive sovereignty is one of the largest parts of these customs. May the Wisewomen tradition find its way back to us now.
~Theresa C. Dintino
The Horrors of the Half-Known Life: male attitudes toward women and sexuality in 19th century America by G.J. Barker Benfield
Witches, Midwives & Nurses by Barbara Ehrenriech and Deirdre English