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Witches, Midwives and Nurses: A History of Women Healers

3.94 of 5 stars 3.94  ·  rating details  ·  799 ratings  ·  71 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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Diana Bogan
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
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
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
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
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.
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
Sep 05, 2012 Sara rated it 4 of 5 stars
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
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
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
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.
Veronica Beverley
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
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.
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
Shelly Shore
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.
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.
Jul 02, 2012 Jen rated it 5 of 5 stars
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
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
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
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
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
For a much better version of this theme, arguing for much more than the mere inclusion of women into the medical industrial complex, please read 'Caliban and the Witch' by Silvia Federici. Compared to this book 'Witches, Midwives and Nurses' isn't worth a second of your time. The writing and history is somewhat sloppy. What can one expect from a cursory glance at the witch trials of Europe and witchcraft but an obvious lack of nuance meant to justify an inclusionary bourgeois politics? Barf. The ...more
Poses a lot of good questions and makes many good points for consideration but in the end makes few conclusions. I can see it as a necessary part of the process, bringing these issues to light, but it is definitely an incomplete part. I'm looking for books that explore the issues more thoroughly and maybe with a bit of distance from the more militant feminism expressed. I could see it necessary at the time, but I'm more interested in a historical analysis. While it can never completely objective ...more
Loved this. Had a copy for many years...
A very short but informative read. More of a pamphlet than a book, but gives a great overview of the history of women in medicine. What once was primarily a female healing role (particularly in the realms of birth and obstetrics) was coopted by male-dominated "science." Eventually even birth was taken from the hands of women, especially in America, where midwifery is still considered by some to be fringe and "dangerous." One of the most fascinating parts of this book was how the role of nurses w ...more
A brief read packed with a great deal of information. It will provide you with information on how women have fought to be healers or care providers for centuries often to be thwarted and/or punished by male leaders both political and religious, as well as male professionals. Knowing much of this information prior to reading it, as a female care provider, I still found myself often times angry as I read it. It was a great history lesson for me.
Short, but very interesting book. Starts with history of witch hunts in Europe, and up to our medical system of today. Only 42 pages. A worthwhile read!
Deserves more stars than I gave it. It made me angry, probably because it is true. Packs a punch on the history of women health care providers and how they were edged out by male "professional" institutionalization of the health care system. I first got an inkling of this history while reading "The Diary of Martha Ballard". When we experience the system today, we could wish for a lot more care and a lot less "professionalization".
Not so much history as polemic. Written during the 1970s, there are some misconceptions (eg the number of executed witches was then estimated to be in the millions, whereas it is now thought to be in tens of thousands as the new preface acknowledges.) However, I liked it that the authors recognised that this was a class issue as well as one of gender. Though a bit over-simplified in parts, it still makes powerful reading today.
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Barbara Ehrenreich is 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.

More about Barbara Ehrenreich...
Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America Bait and Switch: The (Futile) Pursuit of the American Dream Living with a Wild God: A Nonbeliever's Search for the Truth about Everything For Her Own Good: Two Centuries of the Experts' Advice to Women

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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
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