Embodied Herstories

Advocacy, Childbirth, Doulas, Events, Midwifery, Reproductive Rights

Choices in Childbirth had the opportunity to collaborate with Mamas of Color Rising in organizing a special event to work towards birth justice and equity. The leadership of midwifery organizations and birth advocates from around the country gathered in New York City for an intimate weekend of reflection on and analysis of racial, economic and gender inequities in reproductive and maternal health. The first day was primarily personal, with the group doing body mapping, sharing personal experiences of privilege and of marginalization, and discussing the impact of “allostatic load” or the chronic stress that research shows contributes to poor birth outcomes.

With skilled facilitation from Mamas of Color Rising, group activities became increasingly political, coalescing in a powerful person-by-person interpretation exercise using visual images of African slavery, American Indian boarding schools, and white women’s suffrage, followed by a historical timeline of exploitation in reproductive and women’s health from the 1880s to present. These little-known stories include the often regarded “Father of Gynecology” J. Marion Sims, who developed today’s speculum based on invasive experimentation on female slaves, the origins of the Gaskin Maneuver, which Ina May learned from midwives in Guatemala, and of forced sterilization occurring today in prisons.

An important take-away from the weekend was the importance of to being clear, honest and transparent in all our work about “Who is (and is not) in the room?” “Whose goals are (or aren’t) made first priority?” And “Which voices consistently make the final decisions?”

According to this framework:

Charity is work done on an issue when none of those directly affected by the issue are in the room. Despite being done with good intentions, a spirit of charity reflects a limited understanding about how to effectively and sustainably address the issue.

Allies working together can include working with those who are affected by an issue, but the affected communities may be viewed as recipients of services/projects, rather than leading the discussion or setting the goals and decisions. (Policies, procedure, and funding requirements can sometimes set the goals and conflict with work on the ground, and those who are “non-offensively” black or gay, etc. are invited into – but don’t lead – the discussion while others perceived as aggressive, uneducated, inexperienced, not well-spoken, etc. may be left out.)

Solidarity means working as professional and financial equals with those directly affected by an issue, where those most affected have full self-determination to set the goals and make decisions in the movement. Those not directly affected do leadership development and capacity building up until the point when those affected can carry the issue alone.

Overall, the weekend invited midwives and birth advocates to think deeply about the issues of their own communities, and to apply an anti-racist and anti-“ism” lens for all of us to better understand ourselves as persons caught within an unfair system and a reminder that our work is always political.