(1972) An understanding of the politics of biology was essential to women's liberation. from Womankind (March 1972)
(Editors Note: One of the goals of the women's liberation movement was to fight oppression with knowledge. Women were kept deliberately ignorant of their bodies and were often overwhelmed by the pain associated with childbirth.)
In thinking about health or health care, we do not usually think directly about pain. But pain is very definitely a part of our physical existence, and to a large extent the degree of pain in our lives depends upon our physical and mental health.
It seems to me that we often take pain for granted as a fundamental part of our lives, but we don't recognize, for instance, that our attitudes are very definitely shaped by our culture and that the ways we experience pain are therefore culturally shaped.
Our attitudes towards pain are also affected by our financial capabilities for buying drugs and by our knowledge of physiology. We are less afraid of sin if we know that we can simply get rid of it by rushing to the medicine cabinet for an aspirin or if we know that physiologically the pain does not signify anything serious. But there is a fly in the ointment here. Most of us are very ignorant of how our bodies work, and our ignorance is certainly not reversed by watching drug commercials on television. We end up being caught in a vicious circle: because of our ignorance, (and our fears of disease, death, and pain), we are especially gullible to TV's promises of comfort; and because the drug industry and medical profession have so successfully created a dependence on drugs, we tend to equate drugs with cures instead of seeing them as temporarily relieving our symptoms of illness; thus we tend to avoid thinking about the real causes of our distress.
In part, our attitudes towards pain seem to be determined by our attitudes towards death. A pain which seems to suggest something seriously wrong is quite frightening, mainly because it also suggests the possibility of death.
Death is something which we have great trouble dealing with for a variety of reasons (which I won't go into here). Culturally, we tend to fear death more than most societies; it is no coincidence that we also fear pain. A fairly common reaction for a person who experiences an alarming new pain is to avoid seeing a doctor because the doctor might confirm suspicions that he or she is going to die.
For women, our attitudes towards pain are especially relevant in terms of childbirth -- the event often considered to be the most painful in a woman's life. Here, particularly, social and cultural attitudes seem to play a large part in shaping our experience. For a pregnant woman, used to living in such a highly anesthetized society (where drugs are used to kill pain, induce sleep, quiet the nerves, and give people pep), having to bear the pain of labor which is unprepared for, inexplicable, and long-lasting, is a truly frightening experience. A trip through the labor room of any modern, "civilized" hospital will bear this out. Women literally sound like they are being tortured, as if they are undergoing an excruciating and barbarous experience. They scream and cry out not simply from the pain of labor, which is unprepared for, but from a deep-seated fear of that pain.
Women delivering their first child have never felt this kind of pain before; they can't take a pill and make it go away; they can't imagine how they can continue to bear a pain which seems to get worse and worse; and doctors and nurses seem oblivious to their cries for help. Of course they scream! They are largely unprepared by their doctors, by books, or by social conditioning to deal with pain in any other way.
Fear of pain is further reinforced by rumor and false consciousness. The dark foreboding surrounding childbirth are part of our social conditioning -- we learn to expect that this is a unique, awe-inspiring, but extremely painful event. We have heard that women are better able to bear pain than men; that women are "born to suffer," that pain is somehow an integral element in the definition of woman. These are part of the mythology which serves to keep us oppressed. Because we have absorbed these ideas so thoroughly, pain -- particularly that of childbirth -- becomes a mysterious kind of avenger which we are powerless to deal with.
When, in addition to this, we are told that it is strong to "bear" pain, weak to "give in to it," the trap of oppression is closed: women, frightened of pain and made to be passive in its grasp, are then expected to find strength in their suffering.
Finally, pain seems to be made worse for us by our not knowing or understanding what is happening to our bodies. In childbirth, especially, ignorance of anatomy and physiology works against us since it reduces contractions to mere feelings of pain. If we knew what was going on physiologically, that is, if we understood what a contraction was and what purpose it had in terms of the whole process of labor, we would feel less threatened by pain. In addition to this, without knowledge of what we can do to actively help the process along, we are left helpless, unable to exert control, absorbed solely by wave upon wave of pain.
Ignorance, tension, fear -- all these contribute to making pain worse, and especially where childbirth is concerned, it is clear that cultural conditioning increases rather than diminishes the pain of our experience. This is why it is so necessary to understand our cultural attitudes. It is possible to "decondition" ourselves -- that is, to "unlearn” attitudes, myths, and rumors that make childbirth a negative experience, once we understand how we got these attitudes in the first place. It is also possible to learn the techniques and exercises (such as those taught in the Lamaze method) which can help women maintain control over their bodies during childbirth.
These things are absolutely necessary if women are to really enjoy this event. It would certainly be liberating to be able to look forward to childbirth with expectations of joy rather than with helpless terrors about pain.