labor nurse has been reborn and shares her experiences as a new nurse-midwife, woman, and blogger

Sunday, May 18, 2008

The Jungle and Midwives

Imagine my surprise at how the "midwife problem" of the early 20th century crept into the popular socialist novel The Jungle. For those of you not familiar with the novel, it was written in 1904 by Upton Sinclair, a socialist newspaper reporter. He did some investigative work in the meat-packing industry in Chicago at the turn of the century and was horrified by what he saw. Sinclair first began to write short pieces for a socialist paper, but the feature was not continued. But he continued to write about the lives of the meat-packing workers and ended up with The Jungle.

The story revolves around a Lithuanian family that immigrates to the United States in search of the American Dream. What they find is hardship, poverty, and horrible working conditions; as well as the establishment of worker's unions. The main character's wife becomes pregnant, and there was the dilemma of providing good care. You see, all they could really afford was a local midwife, but midwives are a sordid type and couldn't be trusted. They were considered unskilled and evil. So instead they scrape together enough money for a "man-doctor" because, as the main character believes, the "man-doctors" are respectable and can provide better care than the midwife.

Now, all of this is laced within several paragraphs; not much in the grand scheme of the novel. But the fact that such an "issue" even made it into a novel, which was a reflection of real life and society in the early 1900's, speaks volumes about the power in which the "midwife problem" was propagated. If I remember correctly, the coined phrase was not official until 1910, but the movement of the medical community to push out and marginalize midwives was well underway. So much so a socialist reformer who advocated for poor immigrant factory workers even knew of the "midwife problem".

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