Today, men enter a female preserve. The University
of Houston's College of Engineering presents this
series about the machines that make our
civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity
Before the plague, childbirth
was women's business. Midwives were part of the
feudal balance. Farms passed to children. If you
had too many children, your farm split into small
units. Birth control was a key element in the
feudal equation. Midwives were confidantes and
advisors to medieval women. In that role, they
provided the means for population control.
By the mid-1400s, the plague had killed off
two-thirds of Europe. Midwives still delivered
babies, but they did so in a world that had to be
repopulated. They didn't reassert their role as
agents of birth control until the 1600s.
By then the new force of mercantile economics was
rising. Mercantilism used two kinds of exploitation
to balance trade. One was the use of colonies to
supply raw materials. The other was creating a
large lower class to manufacture goods for sale.
That meant fostering childbirth among the poor.
Historian Londa Schiebinger explains how midwives
collided with the mercantile agenda. It was then
that college educated physicians -- all males --
took an interest in childbirth. One can be drawn
into debate on two issues at this point. One is
whether 17th century medical men were conscious
agents of mercantilism. The other is whether their
intervention was for good or ill.
Midwives had no access to schooling. They were
often illiterate. They trained by apprenticeship.
Now the medical schools created a new professional
called a man-midwife. They armed him with surgical
instruments, whose use was denied to women.
Forceps, for example, could be a blessing. But,
like many drugs today, doctors overused them.
Midwives had worked around difficult births with
gentle tricks of repositioning. Man-midwives were
often reckless with their tools. Birth assistance
changed from succor among women to a profitable
These men mutated into today's gynecologists. Today
their field includes women. Yet the story leaves us
uneasy. Did men consciously block women's freedom
by opposing birth control and controlling birth? By
the mid-18th century, medical professionals
certainly had midwifery under attack. In 1760 a
midwife wrote a book on birthing. She angrily
charged that men were trying to "forge the phantom
of incapacity" in women's minds.
The history of birthing easily mires into sexual
politics. The technology of birth won't advance
when it's in the hands of politicians of either
gender. I'm hard pressed to name a more primary
technology -- or any I'd rather see out of the
hands of people with hidden agendas.
I'm John Lienhard at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds