So tell me a bit more about the medical surroundings to birth in the sixties.
Birth was getting more and more mechanised. Doctors were trying to find ways of doing ‘just in case’ obstetrics, which they got rather good at and many of the times these problems would never have cropped up, but they did something so it couldn’t possibly anyway. But of course then another problem probably cropped up that they’d caused by doing the things like rupturing the membranes or getting the woman to push before she was really ready. So all unnecessary intervention can lead to other interventions and it’s cumulative. And that was happening a lot then.
How were midwives trained at this period?
Training didn’t begin until, ooh, my mother left midwifery just as the registration of midwifery came in and she couldn’t have registered as a midwife, although she had vast experience, because she hadn’t been to college to study midwifery. So the training was very much to do with how midwives must toe the line, really, I think. They were hardly encouraged to be independently thinking and more and more it turned into doing what the doctor told you and obeying the obstetrician.
So the hospitals at this time, in the sixties, what sort of service were they providing?
Well, they provided a bed and it was often assumed that the woman would be on the bed, which when women had been in their own homes, it wasn’t assumed. Women would go up and down stairs or out in the garden or into the kitchen and do things and often keep quite busy because they needed to sort out the house before they had the baby. And this is why it made a great impression on me, this whole business of episiotomy, that this was often assumed. And so I decided to try and find out what episiotomy rates were in different hospitals and asked a whole lot of ‘em. The management didn’t know. They weren’t recording it. And so then I went to a lot of obstetricians. They hadn’t a clue either. So nobody knew why or how or when women were having episiotomies. So that was a very important early study of mine and I, as it were, gave it to the National Childbirth Trust and they publicised it, to ask women what their experiences were and looking back on it how it felt and how it affected the whole experience of birth and what happened afterwards of course, the women who were, huh, mutilated.
What did you find out, what effects did it have on the woman, both physical and emotional?
Oh, there were often short term effects, but often also long term effects. Some women felt they could never have sex again. Women often had heavy bleeds, they were stitched up all wrong. They really felt less and less adequate with birth because after all, if you can’t get a baby out, you must be at fault somewhere, what’s wrong with you? And this all tied in with different editions of my book, The Experience of Childbirth, because I could add research material as I went on and did other research too.
It was serialised in The Observer. And I got hundreds and hundreds of letters from women from that.
Can you give me the gist of some of those letters?
For some it was simple relief that we could talk about these things and for others a sense of yes, there’s a movement starting here and I’m going to be in on it. And I think it encouraged many women to ask questions where they hadn’t dared question before. But you know, this is an ongoing thing. It’s not as if women are terribly brave about asking questions now or they may be told, you know, you don’t want to harm your baby, do you? And they feel put down by this and less and less able to cope. That’s why it’s to do with women’s liberation, with feminism. It isn’t just about being nice to mums or mums even bonding with their babies, although I think that’s very important, it’s a worldwide movement and a worldwide challenge as women everywhere, in developing societies too, learn how to take control of their bodies, not in the sense of gymnastic exercises and ordering their bodies to behave in certain ways, but trusting them, living through them, expressing themselves. And that affects sex of course and our feelings about our sexuality, whatever it is, as well as childbirth.