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Birth in the 1970s, and beyond

Diane Speier

The 1970s were a time of convergent activism in the United States, as the women's liberation movement, the women's health movement and the childbirth reform movement challenged male dominance in the birthplace. It was unusual in that maternalist and feminist objectives overlapped regarding the conduct of labour and delivery. As women gathered in groups to share their experiences with each other, feminist consciousness-raising revealed how women were being controlled by the hegemonic discourse of the biomedical model. This awareness developed into strategies for women to reclaim control of their own embodied experiences. The results were self-help clinics, home birth and other alternatives in childbirth, the resurrection of midwifery, and a general reconsideration of the authority of 'expert professions', predominantly male at that time.

I was present on the American scene during the 1970s as a certified childbirth educator. Although changes evolved from the 1970s exposure of patriarchal structures surrounding childbirth, these changes were more cosmetic than strategic, as dehumanised and medicalized childbirth continues unabated. Feminists moved on to other issues of reproduction, with a particular focus on abortion and new reproductive technologies. The problems of technocratic childbirth remain - excessive technological and pharmacological interventions, caesarean section rates of one in four women in the US and UK, the 'confining' determinants of institutionalised childbirth, and the wholesale denial of the personally transformative aspects of childbirth. Feminism needs to re-examine childbirth as a uniquely female embodied experience in order to wrest control from the discourse of obstetrics and the biomedical model.

The 1970s were a pioneering time for women's reproductive health, but it was a premature birth. The unfinished business of restoring control over women's bodies, in the particular arena of pregnancy, childbirth and lactation, remains an unrealised outcome. This paper will explore the multifaceted confluence of energies that demanded change in how birth was conducted a generation ago, and the legacy of that time period for potential women-centred childbirth in the 21st century.

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