Posted by: emjb | September 27, 2007

Birth rights and women of color


I don’t write about race issues, because, well, I’m white. What the hell do I know? Nearly nothing. When Navelgazing Midwife and Sagefemme asked on their blogs about the lack of midwives of color, they didn’t get much response…because there aren’t a lot of midwives of color, and all us lily-white types felt we didn’t have much to say. At least, I didn’t, other than regret that it should be this way.

Midwifery came back into the US as part of the second wave of feminism in the 70s, a wave that had many powerful women of color in it but is still symbolized, in white America’s eyes, by Gloria Steinem and women who looked like her. The third wave is still ongoing, is definitely more racially mixed, but has a lower profile in the media, and so doesn’t really have a lot of highly-visible leaders…except for a few older, mostly white, women.

So, although I have not had time to read it much yet, I did want to add Minority Midwifery Student to my blogroll, so that I can learn, and not be tempted to see midwifery as some sort of fancy-dancy white woman thing, which, frankly, it still tends to be in this country.

At any rate, I think all the midwives I linked above get into this issue much more intelligently than I can. Mostly I wanted to introduce another new link, the Black Breastfeeding Blog, because I think it’s an excellent example of personal=political. Breastfeeding, as intensely personal as it is, is increasingly a political act, much like birth, but more visible and less fraught with medical drama. The rights to breastfeed may even now be becoming a wedge to pry open a whole host of changes in the workplace, to make it reflect the needs of a workforce that is composed of many many people who gestate, birth, and nurse children as well as coming to work 40 hours a week. At least, I hope it will.

At any rate, while it takes time and lots of advocacy to get white women and women of color to change their minds about what makes a good birth, breastfeeding is a simple and powerful way to introduce women to their rights as gestating, birthing, breastfeeding human beings. Or rather, to what their rights should be. Women can stand behind unassailable, un-arguable medical evidence about the value of breastfeeding to demand more rights for women in general–among them, the right not to be hassled by Bill Maher, Barbara Walters, or any other ignorant types who think a breastfeeding woman should be locked away in a dark room until her child is weaned.

The recent protests at Applebee’s restaurants and today’s victory for a medical student who wanted time to pump breast milk (and thereby avoid severe pain and possible infection) during a nine-hour exam have kept this issue in the spotlight. And that benefits all women.

Of course, I’ve talking mostly about African American women, and when I say “women of color” I have to mention that Latina women face a different set of challenges for birth, midwifery, and breastfeeding, none of which I feel equipped to talk about intelligently from my small perspective. So if you see any good Latina (or any other nonwhite) midwifery, birth rights, etc. blogs out there…send ’em my way.



  1. Thanks for adding yet another site where this topic can be addressed! And yes, the Black Breastfeeding Blog is great. A short note: be careful saying “African American” because not all blacks are American… I know it used to be a term en vogue, but it isn’t always appropriate. Hence the Black Breastfeeding Blog.

    Thanks for being out here!


  2. Thanks NgM. I have been corrected the other way too (not “black” but “African American”) so I tend to let whoever I’m talking to let me know which term they prefer…I’ve had to take things on a case by case basis when it comes to self-descriptors. Another reason I don’t often discuss race issues….

  3. Hey there,
    Truth be told, racism has always been understood by women of color as a white people’s issue. The ideas about who we are as individuals and as collectivities are completely grounded in doctrines of white supremacy and white domination that predate Gloria Steinem by many centuries. I write often on my blogsite about black women’s low birth weights, horrific experiences of labour and birth as being a direct consequence of the actions of the ancestors of present day white people, white homebirthers, white midwives et al. This is definitely a conversation that is treated as hands off, which ends up perpetuating the idea of birth in this present wave as being something completely divorced from the fascist state unfolding in present day amerikkka. As a pro-midwifery homebirther who believes in an attachment parenting model and who does extended breastfeeding…my first for three and half years…who knows how long for my second…I’ve been writing posts every few days on my blog for about two years, many of which have been read by sage femme, navelgazer and minority midwife among other midwives including belly tales and rogue midwife. I’m hoping that at some the midwives, especially the white ones will claim this conversation in birthing communities as theirs and from there, that they will allow conversations about race to infuse their work, their blogs and their perceptions.

  4. Darkdaughta thanks for your response. It’s true that you cannot divorce the current reality for women of color from the history of oppression…nor the reality for all women, for that matter.

    I will keep reading and discussing these issues, because they are so important; like a lot of white people, I fear saying the wrong thing or otherwise looking ignorant when it comes to the experiences of people of color, but as I get older, that fear doesn’t hobble me as much.

    I will admit that I had not given much thought before to who my clients would be as a midwife; and yes, I mostly pictured them as white, like me. But “reclaiming birth” will hardly be achieved if it only helps white women. I am not sure how many women of color will be able to trust me as a midwife, if my being white will be a barrier; I hope that I can do my best to serve all women.

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