Philobiblon: Painfully slow change

Tuesday, January 04, 2005

Painfully slow change

I've had a semi-reorganisation of the bookshelves over Christmas. (Soon there's going to have to be a total sort-out to make more space, but I can probably shove volumes in a few more corners before I have to take that drastic step.)

One of the books for which I was trying to find a place opened at the page about the efforts of Lucy, Countess Baldwin, wife of the British Prime Minister, to increase provision for pain relief in childbirth. (She was also instrumental in the passing of the 1936 Midwives Act, which created a paid national service.)

In 1929 she had set up the Anaesthetics Fund - there were others but this was the biggest (The term then covered both genuine anaesthesia and other forms of pain relief). "She believed pain relief was a democratic right, just like the vote. 'In Finland, that little progressive nation which was the first in Europe to give the franchise to women,' she liked to point out, 'they always give anaesthetics to women in childbirth."(p.42)

But "the common view, especially of men, observed the Public Health Committee of the London County Council in 1933, was that a woman would be doing 'something morally wrong' in evading the pain of labour."(p. 42) (Such a lovely teaching of the churches - the repayment for "original sin".) Of course the doctors were also opposed, because they thought that midwives' administration of drugs was trampling on their territory.

And it wasn't just men. Even after the Fund had distributed large amounts of equipment, much of it was going unused. In part this was due to problems of lack of training, and the provision that two trained midwives had to be present when it was used, but there was also resistance from women. "A key goal of her campaign was to eradicate the common assumption that women who accepted the benefit of anaesthesia did not care about their children." (p. 51)

However, by 1936 most voluntary and municipal hospitals, the later largely attended by working-class women, offered pain relief. Virginia Woolf wrote in Three Guineas: "Since chloroform was first administered to Queen Victoria on the birth of Prince Leopold in April 1835, normal maternity cases in the wards have had to wait for 76 years and the advocacy of a Prime Minister's wife to obtain this relief." (quoted p. 58)

However, about half of women still gave birth at home, and only about 20 per cent of them were given pain relief. There was still non at all in Scotland.

But by 1946 the public mood had changed. A survey then found the most common reason for dissatisfaction of treatment in labour was lack of pain relief. A survey in 1945 quoted one woman as saying: "Rich people don't suffer, why should we?" (p. 58)

It only took a generation.

From Ladies of Influence, A. Susan Williams, 2000, Penguin. There's astonishingly little about Lucy on the Web - yet another sign of how women disappear with astonishing speed from history.


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