Feminism Has Focused On The Boardroom But It Is Time To Remember The Birthing Room

04/10/2016 13:23

This Saturday saw the inaugural Women's Voices Conference in London.

You've probably not heard of it. Unsurprising, considering it dealt with women's voices. And women's voices? Often not heard. Frequently silenced. Rarely truly respected.

As a feminist and breastfeeding counsellor, I am naturally interested in women's stories and narratives. I wrote Liberating Motherhood, which I exhibited at the conference, to speak to mothers, to reflect so many of the truths and fears which so many women have shared about a subject which is increasingly taboo. Motherhood. I argue that maternity and maternal bodies have become a minefield within identity politics, feminism and public policy alike and that it is time for a movement of women to improve the position of mothers - from birth, to breastfeeding, to the right to provide maternal care and freedom from discrimination in our jobs or careers.

The conference featured first-hand accounts ranging from what can only be described as silencing, undermining and disrespect of pregnant and labouring women, sabotage and post-traumatic stress disorder, to courage, optimism and stories of powerful - dignified - birth. Vaginal deliveries after multiple c-sections, gentle c-sections (for example, a recent birth which gathered 11m views online), and freebirthing were all featured. One Born Every Minute it most certainly wasn't.

The conference was brave and bold. It was unashamedly about women. About owning our birth experience, protecting our rights and pushing for improvements in maternity care. We are reminded that during labour we are at our most powerful and yet most vulnerable.

There were tears, whoop-whoops, applause and gasps of shock and dismay. We heard moving speeches from obstetrician Florence Wilcock, midwife Sheena Byrom, the founder of the Positive Birth Movement, Milli Hill, and CEO of Birthrights, Rebecca Schiller, among many inspirational women. Kati Edwards treated us to wonderful poetry. Louise Oliver stunned us with her account of her strength and conviction in pushing for a vaginal birth in the face of serious resistance. Organiser Michelle Quashie, herself 'strong since birth', was very pregnant, tenacious and committed to improvements in maternity care. We were encouraged to get involved with Maternity Service Liaison Committees to have our voice and experience heard.

However, the reality is that maternity is practically an embarrassment within modern mainstream feminism - not least because it raises that very uncomfortable of issues. Women's bodies.

We all know the drill. Women need to lean in, show up and lead: the boardroom is the pinnacle of success, the focal point of a modern feminism which equates success and status with the traditionally masculine world of business and politics.

During conference season, we can be treated to a carousel of policies from Labour, Momentum, the Conservatives and, later, the Women's Equality Party. And the chances are that none of these will speak, once, about maternity services. About the experiences of women in underfunded, stressed and understaffed institutions which risk sabotaging birth and failing women at a time of intense need.

According to the World Health Organisation, every day, approximately 830 women die from preventable causes related to pregnancy and childbirth. Maternal mortality is higher in women living in rural areas and among poorer communities. Skilled care before, during and after childbirth can save the lives of women and newborn babies. Since 1985, the international healthcare community has considered the ideal rate for caesarean sections to be between 10-15%. Since then, caesarean sections have become increasingly common in both developed and developing countries. About one in eight women has an assisted birth, where forceps or a ventouse suction cup are used to help deliver the baby's head. Postnatal depression affects more than 1 in every 10 women within a year of giving birth. Maternity services are overworked, understaffed and struggling to cope. Breastfeeding rates in the UK are woeful.

For starters.

If we really want to improve services, as the conference on Saturday showed, we have to start to listen to the women at the centre of it. About their experience, their treatment, their strength and their wishes.

Issues surrounding maternity care affect millions of women in this country. The majority of women experience pregnancy or become mothers at some point in their lives. It is not a fringe issue.

To adopt the language of other campaigns for a moment. If men got pregnant and gave birth, we could well assume that there would be a bleedin' medal and a tangible slap on the back after every delivery. If men gave birth, the act would be elevated to heroics, documented in books and revered. Birth would be sacrosanct, sacred, protected and dignified. Men would have the freedom to choose the place and mode of delivery. Consent and respect would be the cornerstone of birth attendants' ethics and practice. The birthing father would retain the power of language over their experience.

Simple things. Choices. Respect. Dignity. Owning. Naming. Empowerment.

But men don't give birth. Women do. Indeed, it is our reproductive capacity as females - the potential for bearing and birthing life - which lies at the heart of our historic oppression as a sex class. It's feminism 101. It's uncomfortable, but we have to start to see that the treatment of women in pregnancy, birth and the vulnerable post-natal period demonstrate in a microcosm the wider issues facing women. That we are not heard. That we are not valued. That we are Other. And no more so than when we are a mother.

In short, if we are feminists, and if we are women, the least we can do is to talk about the birthing room, not just the boardroom. We need to listen to women.