A Review of Barbara Ehrenreich and Dierdre English’s Witches, Midwives, and Nurses: A History of Women Healers (by Bethany)


Recently I was accused of planning a witch-themed English I syllabus. I had done nothing of the kind, of course, but once I thought about it for a minute or two I realized that it was a great idea. The reading list could include not only Anaya’s Bless Me, Ultima, Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, and Shakespeare’s Macbeth (these were the three texts that earned me the accusation) but also Things Fall Apart, which is full of witches and oracles and faith healers and whatnot, and The Odyssey, which includes lots of other elements besides witches, of course, and surely some of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s short stories involve witches. You could even play around with Grimm’s Fairy Tales, and of course mythology from all over the world has elements of witchcraft in it and – well, and a lot of things. It happens that the ninth grade English class that I used to teach did include most of these texts – everything but Marquez and Grimm – but I never planned it that way or thought about connecting the texts through the motif of witchcraft.

Once I started thinking about witches and magic as a thread that connects these texts, I immediately became aware of how universal this motif is. Every culture has its witches, its witch hunts, and its interwoven web of respect and fear for the healing powers of women.

After this conversation about the role of witches in world literature, I came up with not one but two writing projects involving witches. This is a dubious pleasure, because I didn’t really need any more unfinished writing projects, and also because I really don’t know much about witches, and so now I have to familiarize myself with a whole new genre. I started with Barbara Ehrenreich and Dierdre English’s Witches, Midwives, and Nurses: A History of Women Healers, which I’ve had on my Kindle for some time now. Like Ehrenreich and English’s other short book, Complaints and Disorders: The Sexual Politics of Sickness, this book is really just a pamphlet that the authors put together on a shoestring when both were young mothers in the early ‘70’s. Both pamphlets feel like rough drafts of Ehrenreich and English’s later full-length book, For Her Own Good: Two Centuries of the Experts’ Advice to Women, which was published in 2005.

This pamphlet provides a great introduction to the question of women as healers. It was written in an era when female doctors existed but were often viewed with skepticism, and when the nursing profession consisted almost entirely of women. The authors make the claim that women have held roles as healers far more often than men in Western history (they briefly survey this history from the twelfth century to their own time), and that in two key eras these roles were forcibly and often violently taken away from them by men. The first of these two eras is the series of European witch hunts that took place from 1200-1600, when universities had recently started to flourish in Europe, and the males who graduated with the title of ‘doctor’ (having studied primarily Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas, and the Bible and usually having never once examined a patient or dissected a cadaver) felt threatened by women healers who worked in the communities they had known all their lives, who had decades-long relationships with some of their patients, and who had plenty of experience handing and treating actual patients (they were not as well versed in Latin, however). The second era is the 19th and early-20th century in the United States, when a general attitude of experimentation and independence after the Revolution led to a panoply of practitioners promising miracle cures and promoting special diets, each claiming to possess the secret to health and longevity. In backlash against this age of open experimentation, formalized medical schools were opened – first at Johns Hopkins; later at other major universities – and the American Medical Association was founded. Male authorities in medical schools and in the AMA declared that only practitioners who graduated from accredited medical schools were “real” doctors. This era gets significant emphasis in For Her Own Good as well.

Like most feminists, Ehrenreich and English are fairly predictable. This is not the kind of book that a reader is likely to read on tenterhooks, wondering if the next page will bring a Dan Brown-style reversal and all of a sudden the men will be the good guys. This pamphlet proclaims its loyalties on every page. But still, it’s interesting. If you are interested in this topic, I highly recommend Ehrenreich and English’s For Her Own Good, which is more extensive and more up-to-date. That book, however, says very little about the years before 1800, so if the European witch hunts are of interest to you, this pamphlet will be a helpful supplement.

For my own purposes, the most helpful part of this pamphlet is the bibliography. The authors appear to have researched their topic very thoroughly, and their sources include several books and articles that were written about the changing nature of the medical profession in the United States as these changes were happening, in the years from 1850-1930. I was able to get some of these documents for free on my Kindle because they are no longer protected by copyright. They reference several secondary sources too, of course. This book is a fine introduction to the history, sociology, and anthropology of the way gender politics and other social issues (namely class) contributed to creating the medical system we have today.

Thanks for reading. Now I need to go and write a book about a witch. And then I need to go and write another book about a witch.

This entry was posted in Authors, Barbara Ehrenreich and Dierdre English, Non-fiction - History, Nonfiction - General, Nonfiction - Science, Reviews by Bethany. Bookmark the permalink.

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