Most people who know me will tell you that I enjoy fewer things more than foraging in archives. I have been an archive rat since my days as a researcher on a national historical commission. My love of unusual nuggets (an asbestos sample), dust-encrusted fingers, and the tangible vestiges of previous researchers (documents bedecked in cigarette burns), is even becoming a monograph about one archive and its uses and abuses in the post-World War II era.
This slightly Rankean digression about documents is to say that I feel very comfortable in archives and with the ever-richer body of interdisciplinary scholarship on them. Yet, for all of my archival confidence and the recognition that my current project, a history of childbirth in Germany from 1750 to 2000, would not require the same ‘deep archiving’ as my first, I nevertheless found myself having to confront and reframe my own conceptions of ‘the archive’ anew.
The conference ‘Archiving, Recording and Representing Feminism’ provided a perfect forum in which to marry my two primary research interests. But ‘Archiving Feminism’ further introduced the question of the medialization of feminist activism in the 1960s and 1970s. This gave me the opportunity to step away from physical archives— not possible during a pandemic in any case— and explore another facet of childbirth. Examining media coverage allowed me to draw on a considerably richer body of sources that revealed women’s voices and agency in childbirth after a century of techno-medical, male-controlled deliveries. Ultimately, this shined a light on the important intersection of archives and feminist childbirth activism in the 1970s that media inhabits. In turn, however, it also raised questions for me about archival materiality and fixity and the ways in which I conceptualize ‘the archive’, spurring me to consider the decentralized corpus of feminist childbirth activism in the media as an ‘interstitial archive’ that operates in the liminal spaces of state and medical records.
The conventional—and most abundant—sources on childbirth in the modern era are clinical and administrative hospital records, medical research, material from mother and foundling homes, and government files. They are typically readily accessible, often in published and online collections. But for all of their accessibility, I also realized in working on German birth practices in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries that traditional iatrocentric documents do not uncover, to borrow from the eminent scholar of the foetus and pregnancy Barbara Duden, the woman beneath the skin.1 Rather, these fixed sources reflect the gendered techno-medical hierarchies which held that patients—especially women patients— were unintelligent and required a physician to ‘infer the nature of the patient’s experience from chance remarks and patterns of institutional practice.’2
These established systems began to slowly shift as the women’s health movement coalesced in the late 1960s. An outgrowth of the women’s movement, the women’s health movement sought to challenge male-dominated medical structures and empower women through self-help. Childbirth was a battleground for both movements, and in the United States and West Germany, feminist activists initially employed the feminist press and radio as the primary vehicles by which they could pursue their goal of reshaping birth cultures. Later, as the childbirth reform movement gathered steam, feminists were able to wield mass media to circulate their messages. Media gave feminists a forum in which they could foster discussion, offer consultation, and disseminate written information about childbirth. Moreover, print coverage and radio interviews recentred childbirth on the parturient woman because, as one retired midwife recently described, ‘women were more or less raped in the hospital…one had no right to a voice.’3
With their voices largely blunted in official spaces, German and American feminist birth activists turned to the groundwork established by Boston Women’s Health Book Collective (BWHBC), which self-published its 1969 conference proceedings as Women and Their Bodies: A Course. The BWHBC emboldened women to educate themselves and exercise control over what happened to their bodies through a friendly, familiar-toned combination of essays, personal stories, and images. Drawing on this model, West German and American feminist birth activist groups composed an impressive array of booklets, conference proceedings, oral and written histories of birth experiences, medical essays, and so-called ‘reproduction artwork‘. These birth activists either self-published or used feminist presses to publish their early media. Among these were the Kreuzberg [Berlin] Women’s Centre, which circulated the feminist magazine Courage, and New Moon Media, which underwrote both the The Monthly Extract: An Irregular Periodical and the First International Childbirth Conference.4
As their mission to reshape childbirth culture gained wider traction, some of this grass-roots media was re-issued as new editions by major publishers and translated for global audiences. Moreover, American and West German feminist mass media outlets such as Ms. magazine and EMMA began covering birth reform activism in their pages. Coupled with proposed legal amendments brought before the West German and American legislative bodies, the popularity and proliferation of childbirth reform in the media into the 1980s suggests that feminist birth activists were increasingly successful in their attempts to de-centre obstetricians (who were overwhelmingly male and openly hostile towards their female colleagues and patients) in favour of gentler, woman-centric birth processes that valorized choice above normative birth cultures.
Yet, the successful mobilization of the media by feminist birth activists is significant not only because it played a key role in upending long-standing, gendered medical hierarchies, but also because of the international body of records it generated. In working on this project, I’ve been surprised at how substantial they are. Each source, whether grass-roots or mass media, invariably leads me to new feminist birth reform initiatives and their publications. Many of these sources, the ‘stuff’ historians take such delight in finding, were composed primarily for their heuristic value, albeit with an overarching political goal. With the exception of The Monthly Periodical, which prominently notes on its back page that copies are on file at the International Women’s History Archive in Berkeley, it is clear that most of these initiatives were not necessarily thinking in perpetuity.
Yet, the medialized products of feminist childbirth activism nevertheless form a decentralized repository that in turn complicates conceptions of the archive. Birth reform resources are often neither spatially fixed nor is their materiality necessarily visible or tangible, circumstances sometimes referred to as ‘post-custodial’ archiving.5 I want to put forth that childbirth media constitutes a transnational archive sui generis, one that I call an ‘interstitial archive’.
In medicine, interstices are the spaces between organs, filled with fluid that is vital to healthy body function. This interstitial archive has empirical value beyond its original didactic purpose and is crucial to revealing women’s experiences as well as writing a more inclusive history of obstetrics and childbirth. Coverage of childbirth in print, radio, and film fills the spaces between institutional and other official medical and governmental archives, and hints at the ways in which the media was also an active agent in reshaping birth cultures. Childbirth media further serves as an important counterpoint to the tendency of official archives to discount what historian Samuel Schortt called ‘equally fruitful sources’ such as lay press, travel records, memoirs, transcripts of malpractice suits, and coroner’s inquests in his ground-breaking work on the social history of medicine.6
Recovering these sources, voices, and women’s agency through the triangular interdependence of archives, childbirth activism, and the feminist and mass media has raised further questions, though. Some issues I continue to grapple with are: how do I account for the media as an agent in childbirth activism and reshaping birth cultures? How have media and digitization changed my understanding of the archive, evidence, and the granular histories of childbirth, feminism, and feminist activism? What are the ways in which some types of media in and of themselves constitute an archive? How did feminist engagement with media help democratize the archive as well as deradicalize and normalize childbirth and the parturient body? What are the ways in which this media is recoded over time and how does that affect its integrity and original meaning? Finally, how do we account for the editorial process in media, which parallels the role of the archivist in shaping specific narratives? Although I have posed these questions specifically about the interplay of feminism, childbirth activism, media, and archives, they nevertheless engage broader questions that we find ourselves asking about sources in the ‘uncharted territory’ of what Ian Milligan recently called ‘history in the age of abundance’.7
The featured image shows a figure from Jakob Rüff, The Expert Midwife, or An Excellent and Most Necessary Treatise of the Generation and Birth of Man (London, 1637), 123. Artwork in the public domain, reproduction provided by the Wellcome Collection under a CC BY 4.0 license.
- Barbara Duden, The Woman Beneath the Skin (Cambridge, Mass., 1991).
- Samuel Shortt, ‘The New Social History of Medicine: Some Implications for Research‘, Archivaria, 10 (1980), 5–22, at 19.
- Caroline Rosales, ‘Hebamme: “Ich würde eine Frau nur im Notfall zu Hause entbinden”,’ Die Zeit, 23 July 2020.
- Courage’s chosen birth stories and images also emphasized that women had choices of where and how to give birth. One of the founding members of Courage was Barbara Duden, who later became an eminent scholar on pregnancy.
- Terry Cook, ‘The Concept of the Archival Fonds in the Post-Custodial Era: Theory, Problems, and Solutions‘, Archivaria, 35 (1993), 24–37.
- Schortt, ‘New Social History’, 21.
- Ian Milligan, ‘Historians’ Archival Research Looks Quite Different in the Digital Age‘, The Conversation, 19 August 2019. Online resource, last accessed 24 March 2021.