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Witches, Midwives and Nurses: A History of Women Healers

3.95  ·  Rating Details  ·  977 Ratings  ·  87 Reviews
Women have always been healers, and medicine has always been an arena of struggle between female practitioners and male professionals. This pamphlet explores two important phases in the male takeover of health care: the suppression of witches in medieval Europe and the rise of the male medical profession in the United States. The authors conclude that despite efforts to ex ...more
Paperback, 48 pages
Published January 1st 1993 by The Feminist Press at CUNY (first published November 30th 1970)
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Community Reviews

(showing 1-30 of 3,000)
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Ivonne Rovira
Jul 20, 2015 Ivonne Rovira rated it really liked it
Is Witches, Midwives and Nurses: A History of Women Healers, first published in 1970, a bit dated? Yes. Does it contain an excellent history of how healing women (who once acted as midwives, yes, but as general healers as well) were first diminished by being deemed witches and then shunted into the supporting role of nurse? Yes, as well. This slim volume still makes for excellent reading, particularly to see how the Church and the emerging physicians’ associations made common cause in keeping wo ...more
Diana Bogan
Dec 29, 2011 Diana Bogan rated it it was ok
I am a fan of Barbara Ehrenreich's work as well as a fan of midwifery, and so it was with great interest that I picked up this pamphlet. However, I naively expected it to go in depth into the history of midwifery and women healers. I was not anticipating that having been written two years before I was born, the over-riding feminist perspective and thesis of this work. I have never stopped to consider that the nursing profession is a way of oppressing women and keeping them locked into the mother ...more
Jen
Dec 28, 2010 Jen rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I adored this book, especially since the authors included a caveat at the beginning which attempted to neutralize any overly-vehement or one-sided arguments, "...we ... cringe a little at what read now like overstatements and overly militant ways of stating things." From what I've read of Ehrenreich's work, I wonder if more of her books wouldn't be better-served to have this type of warning in the introduction.

Nevertheless, I was able to overlook what I thought were glaring omissions. For exampl
...more
Alice
Aug 26, 2012 Alice rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: health-care, nursing, 2012
This pamphlet obviously has some dated info. The statistics about male to female med school ratios are laughable in our time where numbers have largely equalized. Still, one of the main reasons I did not choose medical school as my own entry into healthcare is the ongoing if not out right patriarchy of medicine then at least its overbearing paternalism. I don’t think the answer necessarily will come from direct reform of the professional role of physician as much as it will come from the diversi ...more
Joana
Nov 19, 2011 Joana rated it really liked it
This was quite an interesting read for a non-feminist, 21st century medical student. From 1972, Barbara and Deirdre bring us an academic, synthesized approach to the History of female health professionals. It is quite obvious that women have always been the cornerstone of the medical arts, but for some obscure reason have never been regarded as so.
In the dark ages, we called them witches, inferior to the rational knowledge of physicians and sought out feverishly, for even when their treatments
...more
Jessica
Nov 22, 2010 Jessica rated it liked it
For a rather academic text, this is an easy read. It's organized in short chapters, (it's only 48 pages total), and lays out historical events in a clear narrative. It's dry, but you'll get an infuriating picture of how classism and sexism helped ruin our healthcare system and how the medical profession reinforces that classism and sexism. You'll also get more evidence that Barbara Ehrenreich is bad-ass.
Aviva
May 06, 2011 Aviva rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
This book was written when I was a preschooler, and it just boggles my mind what a different world it was back then. My mother has said that she started college studying pharmacology but after a year or two her father told her it was time to get serious and her career options were to be a nurse (as her SIL did) or be a teacher, which she chose and then hated.

I would be very interested in learning more of the history of women healers, as the subtitle of this book says it is, but this felt much m
...more
Amena
Jul 06, 2015 Amena rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Reading the history of women healers and the development of the medical profession was fascinating. However, I was surprised at the authors' conclusions on the nursing profession at present. The authors state, 'The drive to professionalize nursing is, at best, a flight from the reality of sexism in the health system.'...a completely absurd statement and a very outdated perspective. It is truly a profession that requires skill and intelligence, in addition to showing compassion and 'nurturing ten ...more
Sara
Sep 05, 2012 Sara rated it really liked it
Recommends it for: Nurses, midwives, nurse-midwives, feminists, humans
A quick read that summarizes things that I've heard/read/intuited/somehow learned before, with additional elaboration and actual dates and times - tells the story of the Goddess-worshipping women that the men of the Catholic Church were so afraid of, with their healing powers and lack of sexual shame - and how that battle between ideologies and genders has been carried through today. Amazingly timely, considering it was written quite a while ago - unfortunately. It shows the inherent unease in t ...more
Pat
Oct 28, 2012 Pat rated it it was amazing
Shelves: non-fiction
Way more a treatise than anything, this little booklet appeared early-ish in Ehrenreich's career, clearly indicating the direction she would take as a critic of contemporary society. Excellent critique of the history of (mostly Western) healing. 5 stars for content and criticism. If you're not into feminist critique, don't bother. Her essay "Welcome to Cancerland," though, is an eye-opener for all women with breasts This history of women healers provides a rock-solid foundation for understanding ...more
Sophie-Marie
Apr 05, 2016 Sophie-Marie rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Très instructif, intéressant et très bien traduit. Lecture rapide et agréable.
Oriyah Nitkin
Although I'm pretty well-versed in the history of obstetric care in the US, this pamphlet gave somewhat of a broader societal context and analysis of how this came to be. It's amazing to see how far women have come in society since this text was written, but at the same time, how much work still needs to be done, and what valuable knowledge was lost to us due to the oppression and suppression of women as healers in times past.

There was a blatant "feminist theorizing" flavor to the book. As a fe
...more
Michelle
Apr 29, 2014 Michelle rated it did not like it
This book managed to piss me off with its shoddy scholarship. It read as one long thesis statement with little evidence to back it up. There were only 17 books in the bibliography for a pamphlet that was supposed to span Middle Ages to the 1970s.

Objective language is thrown out the window and history is given a value-judgment without much struggle in arriving at that value-judgment. The historian, whether feminist or not, will cringe at some of the value-laden words used in this small pamphlet.
...more
Veronica Beverley
Dec 19, 2014 Veronica Beverley rated it really liked it
This essay is an earlier work of Ehrenreich written in the second wave of feminism. I'd like to see if she's ever updated the text at all; what she says is thought provoking for mainstream and radical feminists alike. It's co-authored by Deirdre English.

The movement towards modern medicine beginning in the 1800s was class, gender, and--to a lesser--extent political suppression. The movement from expertise to professionalism was a siege of power by upper class white males that displaced and ostr
...more
Jessica
Funny story about how I came to own an original copy of this. The women's center at my alma mater was dismantled, sad story, and all of the books were left out in the campus center. I was looking through and thought this was of interest. I didn't pick it up until about 5 years later when I was doing research on childbirth and picked up For Her Own Good and read the introduction and realized that For Her Own Good is an expanded version of this pamphlet.
saizine
Jan 23, 2016 saizine rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Reading other reviews of Witches, Midwives and Nurses, it is clear that it's essential to approach the essay/book as what it was intended to be (which, in the Feminist Press edition, is clearly stated in the introduction): not an academic monograph, not a true "history", but 'a document from the second wave of feminism in the United States' and a pamphlet/booklet form 'that would be cheap, accessible, and engaging for exactly the kind of women who had been our students'. To complain about the bl ...more
Paige Ellen Stone
Jan 25, 2016 Paige Ellen Stone rated it liked it
This short book or long pamphlet dates to 1970 and it shows. There is a repetition of much history and there is the justified anger of the authors as feminists. For those who are not aware of this history, this is a good, if brief, primer.
I bought this because it promised an up to date conclusion. There is no such thing, so I thought I'd add just a couple of facts. Nursing has become a very scientific profession in its own right. The ratio of women to men in medical schools, today, forty years a
...more
Laura
Dec 23, 2013 Laura rated it it was amazing
A brief feminist treatment of the history of medicine. Its claims are astounding and illuminating. I see lots of room for future historians and writers to develop a lot of the themes raised in this volume.
Peggy
Feb 21, 2015 Peggy rated it it was amazing
This book is a MUST READ for everyone in the birthing/nursing/doula/midwife community.
I met B. Ehrenreich at a book signing for Nickle and Dimed, and I brought my old battered copy of Witches, Midwives and Nurses for her to sign.
I placed it in front of her, and she folded her hands in her lap and stared down at it.
When she raised her face, there were tears in her eyes, and she said, "This is still the book I'm most proud to have written.
My father read it in one setting (it's short and quick), an
...more
Shelly Shore
Dec 11, 2014 Shelly Shore rated it it was amazing
Shelves: 2014-books
Want to be absolutely infuriated about the history of sexism in medicine? This is the book for you! Ehrenreich and English do an amazing job of detailing the shift of the "medical profession" from the hands of women lay healers and midwives to white, upper-class males, and the divide and sexism that still exists in the field of medicine today.
Emily
Jan 02, 2015 Emily added it
I don't know how to rate this. I think I bought it on a whim years ago, possibly after starting the Outlander books. I was hoping for an inexpensive bit of history and got a feminist publication from 1973. There's some history, but the opinions kind of overwhelmed everything.
Jen
Jul 02, 2012 Jen rated it it was amazing
Shelves: history
This short read is packed with historical information. I read this for a feminist study course many years ago and it is one that has stuck with me. I believe that the topics discussed in this book are an important part of history that are unfortunately, not as widely known as they should. I do think that the text is somewhat out dated, being written in the 1970s. I also believe that the text would have been enriched by the pioneer woman's role in healing and midwifery. Of course the topic of thi ...more
Jen
Feb 28, 2016 Jen added it
The general history and argument of this book/pamphlet is so important, but it's flawed (like, really flawed) in its particulars. Wish someone would write a more rigorous, thorough version. (In the authors' defense, they wish for this too.)
Kay
Oct 25, 2014 Kay rated it really liked it
As always, Barbara Ehrenreich has achieved an approachable tone in a piece of academic writing. The only reason I gave it 4 instead of 5 stars is because it definitely reads like a pamphlet (which it originally was): slightly disorganized and maybe a bit flip in tone. The overall message is a highly useful one (i.e. smash the patriarchy, starting with the institution of medicine) but it suffers from a bit of a lack of credibility due to the writing/organization issues. Small complaint but still. ...more
Alex
May 25, 2009 Alex rated it really liked it
Shelves: history, patriarchy
This short pamphlet tells the story of males and the State taking supremacy over medicine, a field traditionally led by women healers. Most interesting to me is the history of the witch-crazes that helped launch capitalism.

From my limited readings (not just this pamphlet), my understanding is that during the 13th-15th century in Europe there were regular peasant rebellions against a decaying feudal order. To undercut these movements, aristocrats and the Church created the bogeyman of witches (m
...more
Todd McGinnity
Jun 08, 2015 Todd McGinnity rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Informative

I read this as a student midwife and really enjoyed learning a little about the history in the field. Some information wasn't new to me but it's interesting to see how deep some ties are.
Hannah
Jan 26, 2015 Hannah rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: gender, theory, borrowed
skip the introduction that implies that 1970s feminists were maybe a little too angry and that we don't have good reason to still be angry, but otherwise this is a delightful/infuriating read.
Parin Stormlaughter Stormlaughter
Interesting start to sorting the overreaction against certain people engaging in healing activities.

Unfortunately, it fails to recognize that historically, witches, midwives, and wise women engaged in activities that far exceeded the healing that the authors ascribe to them. Healing can be accomplished by sorcery and energy manipulation should one wish to go that route, and the Church realized the spiritual danger in such a decision by Christians. Hammering the evildoers was a terrible choice f
...more
Laura
Jun 10, 2012 Laura rated it did not like it
Although this book did raise some interesting points, it left out lots of key parts of history and frankly missed the point on a lot of strides in medicine. I do believe that up until recently medicine was certainly a male dominated field and nursing was largely subservient. However, licensing and professional standards are not designed to exclude classes of people from medicine, they are designed to protect the patient and society from lay practitioners (they can be very dangerous when it comes ...more
Sonja
Jun 13, 2015 Sonja is currently reading it  ·  review of another edition
"Lady with the lamp"

I have to say, as a (female) practical nurse and a feminist, I'm slightly embarrassed I've never come across or thought of this perspective. In nursing school we were taught that Florence nightingale should be considered a hero.
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Barbara Ehrenreich is an American journalist and the bestselling author of sixteen previous books, including the bestsellers Nickel and Dimed and Bait and Switch. A frequent contributor to Harpers and The Nation, she has also been a columnist at The New York Times and Time Magazine.

http://us.macmillan.com/author/barbar...
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“Women have always been healers. They were the unlicensed doctors and anatomists. They were abortionists, nurses and counselors. They were the pharmacists, cultivating healing herbs, and exchanging the secrets of their uses. They were midwives, traveling from home to home and village to village. For centuries women were doctors without degrees, barred from books and lectures, learning from each other, and passing on experience from neighbor to neighbor and mother to daughter. They were called “wise women” by the people, witches or charlatans by the authorities. Medicine is part of our heritage as women, our history, our birthright.” 3 likes
“We were not supposed to know anything about our own bodies or to participate in decision-making about our own care.” 0 likes
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