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Dancing through labor & delivery: the passion of Sheila Kitzinger.

Sheila Kitzinger, A PASSION FOR BIRTH: MY LIFE: ANTHROPOLOGY, FAMILY & FEMINISM. London: Pinter & Martin, 2015. 400p. notes, index. $27.95, ISBN 978-1780661704.

Sheila Kitzinger was passionate about birth. I, too, am passionate about birth, and this British social anthropologist helped make me that way. When I was pregnant twice in the 1970s, her books (she ultimately wrote 24) helped me understand not just what my body was experiencing, but the bigger context of how women's childbirth experiences, and women's health in general, fit into and were influenced by the larger medical and cultural context of the time.

Kitzinger was a world-renowned childbirth educator and advocate for birthing women. She can rightfully be credited with helping to disrupt routine hospital and medical practices and making childbirth a more woman-centered activity.

Many women in the 1970s wanted to be what Kitzinger called "active birth-givers" (p. 9). Working to control how they gave birth appealed greatly in this era of feminist activity. These women did not want to enter a hospital, surrender to its routine, go to sleep, and then leave as a mother. Rather, they wanted to own their own experiences and make childbirth itself and the power of women's bodies (not just the outcome) something always to remember. Childbirth educators, the natural childbirth movement, and feminism helped increase the options for birthing women in England and in the U.S., and Sheila Kitzinger was prominent among those who made this happen.

In her autobiography, published soon after her death in 2015, Kitzinger reviews episodes in her life. She was born at home in Taunton, in southwest England, in 1929; her mother was a nurse, midwife, pacifist, and feminist and clearly an important role model. Sheila had an unconventional childhood, learning early to be sensitive to cultural differences and intolerant of injustice. The family's home was always filled with interesting, exceptional, and international people. Her upbringing made her perceptive, but also very confident that her own viewpoints were the correct ones.

She went to Oxford University, where she studied anthropology and also met economist and international activist Uwe Kitzinger. They married, and Sheila had her first child in 1956 --in France, where Uwe was then Secretary to the Economic Commission of the Council of Europe and in the Diplomatic Corps. (By 1963 they had five daughters under the age of seven.)

While pregnant with her first child, as a diplomat's wife who felt she couldn't rock the boat, Sheila nonetheless shunned both hospitals in her town and sought a home birth with a midwife trained in psychoprophylaxis (commonly known as Lamaze). The experience of her first daughter's birth taught her that "working with my body in childbirth I was able to dance my way through labour. It was amazing!" She had found her life's passion: "to challenge women's powerlessness and victimization by a male-dominated medical system" (p. 70).

Back in England, Kitzinger became active in the newly created Natural Childbirth Association (later the National Childbirth Trust, NCT), a group that relied first on the Dick-Read method and then on Lamaze, expanding options for birthing women in the country. She ran group classes that included fathers, and she used her anthropology training to examine the larger culture of birth. She became increasingly fascinated by the emotions of birth. Her NCT work was "about women striving to reclaim childbirth as an exultant personal experience, rather than a medical event--and, in the process, creating a social revolution! Childbirth is a political issue" (p. 77).

After her own four deliveries (including one set of twins), Kitzinger wrote her first book, The Experience of Childbirth (1968), creating her own language of birth that encompassed the physical and emotional sensations of labor and delivery, and finding "words for the rush of energy as contractions welled up and squeezed the uterus, and the power that builds mountains was released in your body, for the feeling as the baby's head crowned as if in a ring of fire, and the birth passion" (p. 89). In contrast to American Marjorie Karmel, whose book Thank You Dr. Lamaze she found "sycophantic" (p. 89), Kitzinger described instead an intense psycho-sexual experience.

The family lived in Oxfordshire and had a summer house in France. They traveled widely, sometimes for Uwe's work and sometimes for Sheila's. Starting in 1968, Sheila travelled back and forth to the U.S. to lecture and publicize her books. Norma Swenson of Our Bodies Ourselves said Sheila had a "groundbreaking role in changing the discourse in childbirth" (p. 138).

Kitzinger was very critical of Lamaze training in the U.S., finding its reliance on breathing technique too rigid, destroying what the body might want spontaneously. She wrote,
   For me the power of birth is
   like the strength of water cascading
   down the hillside, the
   power of seas and tides, and
   of mountains moving. There
   is no way of ignoring it. You
   cannot fight it. Techniques
   cannot enable a woman to
   control it as she might be in
   control of a car or a computer.
   I believe that whoever is helping
   should aim not to manage,
   conduct, or coach, but to
   give her strength and confidence
   as she allows her body
   to open and her baby to press
   through it to life. Midwives
   can help use this powerful
   sexual energy to keep birth
   normal, (p. 145)

During her lectures she frequently got up onto a table and lay on her back, holding her legs, to dramatize medicalized birth and then more natural birth. Audiences flocked to her unusual and lively talks.

Kitzinger lectured around the world, visiting 31 countries. She promoted her books, which included Giving Birth: Emotions in Childbirth (1971), Place of Birth (1978), The Good Birth Guide (1979), Women's Experience of Sex (1983), and The New Good Birth Guide (1989). Often, she found herself "in conflict with feminists who saw birth in very simplistic terms of women's right to labour without pain, and failed to analyse it in terms of institutional power and women's relative powerlessness" (p. 155). She believed that "[b]irth is a major life transition. It is--must be--also a political issue, in terms of the power of the medical system, how it exercises control over women and whether it enables them to make decisions about their own bodies and their babies" (p. 156). She worked hard to reduce the number of inductions in hospitals and to give women greater voice in making that decision.

She spoke about episiotomy rates (which she considered "our western way of female genital mutilation" (p. 170)), rooming-in, fetal monitors, routine use of medications and epidurals, C-sections, breastfeeding, and fathers' participation; her aim was to increase women's knowledge about what was possible and encourage them to ask for the services they wanted. Her mantra was that childbirth was shaped by culture and that practices could be altered to meet women's needs and desires.

Kitzinger has sometimes been accused of seeing birth through rose-colored glasses. She addresses this, understanding that women want different things out of birth. She admits that some women want a hospitalized, medicalized experience; her concern is that they should be educated to know what their options are. She herself strongly believed that birth is more than a biological or medical event:
   Sometimes I hear a doctor
   say that the one thing that
   matters is a live and healthy
   baby. For most families it isn't
   the only thing that matters.
   The way one feels about that
   baby, and the bonds that link
   you with it, are important too,
   and there's really no point in
   producing a perfect, well-oxygenated,
   healthy little animal
   unless the relationship between
   the baby and its parents
   is a going concern. That's why
   I think we have to look at the
   whole culture of childbirth in
   our society and see what we
   can do to make it a celebration,
   a joyous occasion ... My
   own approach to giving birth
   I described as 'psycho-sexual',
   a term I used because 1 believe
   birth is essentially a sexual
   activity ... By this I mean not
   only that sex starts the baby
   off, but that the rhythms of
   birth are essentially sexual,
   if we allow them to be ... the
   rhythms come in waves--both
   the rhythms of contractions
   right through the first
   stage, and the bearing down
   urges in the second stage, (p.

During her speaking tours in countries around the world, Kitzinger always asked to be with women in childbirth. She devotes a long section of the book to describing these experiences country by country. In Hungary, for example, she worked hard to support Dr. Agnes Gereb, an obstetrician and trained midwife who was arrested for doing home deliveries. In Russia, she tried to loosen the rigid standards that governed hospital deliveries. She not only lectured, but also was politically active wherever she went, supporting midwives and woman-centered childbirth. Of her experience in Fiji, where she talked with traditional midwives, she reported that birth was a dance: "a pelvic dance, slowly rotating and rocking their hips ... It was an instinctive birth dance shared across cultures. We didn't have to talk about it. We knew. Birth is movement. Birth is a dance!" (p. 289). In the U.S., she linked closely with Ina May Gaskin's midwifery experiences at The Farm in Tennessee.

This autobiography of a woman never at rest is a bit of a hodgepodge, racing across events in a full and active life. Readers may often want more about some activities and less about others. Kitzinger is sometimes preachy and judgmental, although she strives for openness. Her personal story is revealed episodically, as her husband and five daughters (three of them lesbian) teach her to pay attention to new issues. She was a vegetarian, and she writes about some memorable meals and even provides some recipes. She was interested in birth because of her own very positive joyful experiences; but in her career she also listened to others, especially those who saw birth as violence, even as rape. "[M]y political understanding has been sharpened by awareness of the abuse that many women suffer," she wrote. And she saw birth as part of "a much wider challenge that concerns our lives as a whole, women's lives everywhere in the world"(p. 339).

Kitzinger's autobiography ends with the obituary she wrote for herself, and it is also a fitting ending to this review:
   She strove to validate women's
   experiences, to give words
   and meaning to female life
   events and transitions, and to
   challenge male autocracy and
   a medical system dictated and
   moulded by men. (p. 357)

[Judith Walzer Leavitt is the author o/Brought to Bed: Childbearing in America, 1750-1950 and Make Room for Daddy: The Journey from Waiting Room to Delivery Room.]
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Author:Leavitt, Judith Walzer
Publication:Feminist Collections: A Quarterly of Women's Studies Resources
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jun 22, 2016
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