True Equality?
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- Women's Rights Today

By Connie Banack, CLD CPD CCCE

As the saying goes, "We have come a long way, baby"! In the last century women have achieved amazing things, equality as a person, ownership of land and possessions, equality in the workplace, and so much more. We now take this for granted and are reaping the benefits earned by the hard work our foremothers fought for. But has our passiveness in assuming this should be normal caused us to lose sight of what these brave women worked so hard for? Do we still have advancements to make for true equality in all aspects of our lives?

Until the 20th Century, most women were without rights. They were often, in most cultures, a possession of their father who in essence sold them, via a dowry, to their husband. Women were not allowed to own property and all they had was, by law, property of their husbands.

Before the second world war women rebelled against this, asking for not only the right to vote, to own land, and not be deemed a possession of any male they resided with, but to be equal with men. And we have gained so much from their hard work and determination! Our society today is greatly influenced by their beliefs of equality and their unending achievements have greatly enriched the lives of both men and women.

As women slowly gained their independence, they left their homes and went to work in pursuit of this equality and freedom from the "women’s work" of keeping the house and raising children. Though wages were not equal, and sometimes are still not today, women slowly earned their equality through sheer determination and hard work. Today over 50% of women work out of the home. Others choose to work from home and the number of women-owned businesses is increasing substantially. Women are, for the most part, equal to men on the work front, proving themselves in both conventional and non-conventional work environments.

But at what cost have we won our freedom? For the many two-income families where mothers work out of the home others are raising their children. Starting with daycare or day homes, then proceeding through preschool and school where most of the learning is done in a child’s life – outside the influence and input of parents. When the family meets in the evening other matters take precedence, often because of the limited time available to parent. Dinner has to be made, shopping done, clothes washed, house cleaned, and don’t forget the extra-curricular activities parents and children participate in. When the woman is the one doing the bulk of the work, as is done in most households, is that equality?

The Women's’ Rights Movement also gave women an independence from having to birth at home, an extension of the role women loathed of being homebound. Between the First and Second World Wars, women moved from giving birth at home with a female midwife in attendance, to hospitals with male doctors delivering their babies in droves. Women believed that part of their independence from the home was giving birth without pain and in a hospital atmosphere. A leisurely 7-day stay at the hospital replaced recovery at home, a wonderful reprieve from housework and caring for her children, even including her newborn. Nurseries were invented to care for these newborns while their mother’s recovered in their own wards or private rooms. Pediatrics became a new specialty in response to caring for these children as Obstetrics evolved to provide specific care for women in childbirth as a replacement to the midwives who had attended women at home. Independence also meant not having to breastfeed their infants, choosing an alternative milk substitute given with a bottle, which allowed her the freedom for herself and to work.

Women have also gained great strides in learning about the often-misunderstood bodies we are housed in. Midwives knew the knowledge we had of our bodies and of birth, often instinctually, but incredibly accurate. This wisdom of the midwives that brought countless generations through the labours of childbirth and other life changes. This knowledge was proven and handed down from midwife to midwife as new life was brought forth – one woman at a time. Tragically, this wisdom was lost when women moved to the care of hospitals and doctors – at the time all male – and doctors started anew in learning of the mystery of women’s bodies. Today our cycles, how we conceive, grow a fetus, give birth and lactate are well understood. Yet this knowledge is most often found in clinical terms from a male perspective.

Ninety five percent of women today give birth in a hospital with a doctor or obstetrician in control. Most women do not question their care or the frequency of cesarean rates, artificial induction, and assisted delivery (episiotomy, vacuum extraction, and forceps). Studies show clearly the risks these and other interventions have on both mother and baby, yet women continue to hand over their rights when they enter the hospital, believing that a doctor will make the right decisions for them.

In order to give birth women submit to the decisions of their doctor, often despite their instincts and their knowledge. As a result, too many women and their baby’s suffer needlessly due to routine interventions such as external fetal monitoring, limited mobility during labour, restricted or prohibited food and fluids, limited positions during pushing, and immediate cord clamping and cutting. Interventions are too often deemed indispensable in a hospital setting despite their being proven useless or even harmful to mother and/or baby. Midwives had this knowledge, they knew limiting a birthing mother or controlling her would adversely effect her labour. Only in the last few years have the important aspects of birth such as psychological and emotional been explored or re-learned. It is this newly re-found knowledge that was lost when midwives were replaced, the knowledge that interference would cause problems. The very problems that doctors are trying to correct through further restrictions and protocols… leading to the insanely high intervention rates – especially seen in induction, augmentation and cesarean rates today.

I find it hard pressed to even count on one had the number of women I know who have had a non-interventive labour in a hospital setting. The fear women have today of birth is tragic when birth should be a time of bittersweet ecstasy shared with those closest to her. It is this fear and the mechanical interventions, even in the homey birthing suites of today, that leave so many women feeling like they have missed something. Sadly, every woman knows of someone who was treated badly during birth, suffered physically or emotionally at the hands of her doctor, or even worse, was harmed - or even died - because of his or her care. What happened to the equality issues for women at the most vulnerable and life-changing period in their lives? What has allowed women to give up their rights when they should be using them the most in protecting themselves and their children?

Midwives, whom almost became extinct in the 1940’s and 50’s, have slowly increased in number recently and homebirth is slowly increasing again. Regrettably, most have lost their autonomy to the very male doctors who whom women gave their rights to when entering the hospitals to give birth. Rarely today is a midwife allowed to support women during pregnancy and childbirth without the heavy handed male doctors overlooking their every move. Midwives have proven that their care is superior to that of doctors, and homebirth is as safe or safer than hospital birth, every study has shown this. Yet when a midwife does have a rare incidence of morbidity (injury up to but not including death) or mortality, the doctors bring the law down on their heads, though rarely with any success. In contrast, when a doctor’s patient is injured or dies because of their care, even a simple inquiry is rarely done. Is this equal rights for women who choose natural birth and their caregivers?

We need to learn from the mistakes of our sisters, who fought so hard for equality in the workplace we enjoy today. We need to take back our right to birth with dignity, to make informed decisions based on accurate information, to avoid the unnecessary interventions that are routine in hospitals today. We need to be protected during the most vulnerable time of our lives, when we bring a new life forth from our bodies… one of the most pivotal times of a woman’s life. We need to stop listening to the obstetrical societies’ guidelines, which were set-up to protect the obstetrician first. ACOG and the SOGC are designed to protect their members first, from litigation, from competition, from professional harm and most importantly, for abundant compensation. Only after they are protected are patients’ lives taken into consideration.

That, my sisters, is the reason we must stand up for our rights in all aspects of our lives, especially during the most valuable experience we as women can have – the birth of our babies. It is only then that we can take steps towards an emotionally and physically healthier future for our children and ourselves. We will learn that birth is not a "means to an end" but the life changing and enriching experience it was meant to be as the beginning of our new role as mothers. No longer will mothers and babies be separated when bonding is so vital, babies will receive the perfect milk made specifically for them, and mothers will not have to deal with surgical recoveries, postpartum depression or the uncertainty motherhood can bring without the support of her midwife. We can once again look at the powerful and significant role motherhood is without fear of prejudice from our working sisters, knowing that for a few years at least, we can devote our time to our most precious resource, our children.

Copyright Mother Care, 2002. Written by Connie Banack, CLD, CPD.

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