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Society, Women, Epidurals - Part One

Tracing Factors Bringing Us to Where we are Today, PART ONE


Adapted from DELIVER ME FROM PAIN: Anesthesia & Birth in America by Jacqueline Wolf


In 1976  31% of women with children less than one year old worked outside the home; by 1998, 59% did....In 1963’s The Feminine Mystique, Betty Friedan bemoaned society’s emphasis on motherhood to the detriment of other avenues for women. However, the dramatic social change of women entering the paid workforce in unprecedented numbers, did not have the precise impact that Friedan originally anticipated. In 1981 she lamented in another book, The Second Stage, that in their attempts to juggle motherhood and a full-time job, young women had become more oppressed than their mothers  (italics mine).


Friedan acknowledged that government and society had not responded to the transformation in women’s lives with institutionalized support systems....American women were not to enjoy the paid maternity leave, subsidized day care, shorter workweeks, and national health care systems that mothers in other industrialized countries could take for granted.


In a 2005 Newsweek cover story titled “Mommy Madness,” Judith Warner described a generation of women “sleepwalking through life in a state of quiet panic.” Data indicated that 30% of mothers of young children suffered from depression. Women who should have been enjoying the fruits of the women’s movement were instead isolated and struggling. Overwhelmed, they accepted without complaint the privatization of their problems, not unlike the women of Friedan’s pre- The Feminine Mystique generation. “Instead of blaming society, moms today tend to blame themselves.”


Times had changed dramatically since the women’s health reform movement of the 1970s, which portrayed natural childbirth as transforming and empowering. Labor without anesthesia now seemed draining and dispiriting. How could one more punishing activity amid a series of punishing activities be empowering? “In a world where women are constantly proving their worth, epidural anesthesia seemed an ideal choice for an ostensibly painfree and stressfree birth."


Whereas a previous generation extolled natural childbirth because it afforded them control, women now praised epidural anesthesia (and induction) for the same reason. The meaning of control in the context of birth had changed, however; natural childbirth conferred control by allowing women to take charge of their labors and be the central character. Epidural anesthesia, in contrast, conferred control by allowing laboring women to maintain their composure and socialize normally. These different definitions of the same highly valued cultural concept reflected the divergent identities and values of two generations of American women.

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