Late in her life Jennifer Lee Worth wrote three books about her life as a midwife/nurse in the 1950s in London’s poverty ravaged East End. The books, “Call the Midwife,” “Shadows of the Workhouse” and “Farewell to The East End” are a kind of 20th century mirror of the conditions written about by Charles Dickens. In Worth’s version, however, we get the persistent battle that women fought against the social apathy surrounding the poor.
Now PBS (which candidate Romney is eager to defund!) is airing the BBC-produced short series, ‘Call the Midwife,’ based on her work and it brings to life the triumphs and the horrors of post-war life and death in London’s poorest neighborhood. Although used as a source of comedy in shows like East Enders, the survival of that area’s inhabitants is not all laughs.
At first I wasn’t especially interested in watching a show about a group of midwives who spend their days and nights delivering babies. I am deliberately childfree and not the type who goes googaw when friends pull out endless snapshots of their newborns and first soccer games. And to add to it the midwives work out of a convent…with nuns! Unlike most lesbians I was never fixated on nuns…most of the nuns I had as a child were mean and racist. They never would have joined in to fight the papal bullying like some nuns are doing today.
But I tuned in because, to be honest, Vanessa Redgrave is the narrator and I dream about her voice whispering in my ear…but that’s another blog!
What I’ve come to love after two episodes is no surprise: the way women take care of each other is a source of joy and a reminder that the power we have is quadrupled when we hold hands. The prime example is the older nun who is either a mystic or just slightly mad; but the younger nuns know she is as important part of their circle as any of them.
The series starts with a new midwife who had no idea the poverty she would face when she left her middle class comforts to take on one of the few careers open to women at that time. She’s appalled when she is delivering a woman’s 25th child who appears to not have survived the premature birth. My contemporary self felt relieved: not yet another mouth for the parents to feed. But the mother has an extreme case of seeing the world as plentiful. Her efforts to keep her child alive are meticulous and heroic. She teaches the midwife more about giving life than any classes could.
Underlying the premise, of course, is the understanding that women had no choices in this matter. If they had sex, they had children. And poverty soon followed because work was hard to find, low paid and there were no safety nets. The National Health system was just beginning to emerge—one woman who has lost four children because she can’t afford a cesarean section delivery finally successfully delivers her fifth.
The stories seem remote, unbelievable even; somewhat like watching “Mad Men” and seeing the episode where a husband call his wife’s psychiatrist to learn what she’s revealed—and the psychiatrist tells all! Yet, the stories are still happening in some underdeveloped parts of the world…in some parts of this country. Any place that religion holds sway over how women’s bodies are used for society rather than for themselves sees women living in poverty. In the US we’re still fighting the battle for not just the right to abortion but to simple birth control.
The religious right would take away any access to that control and put it into the hands of male experts…like the House Republicans who refused to hear testimony from any women about the issue. And when one woman, Sandra Fluke, Georgetown law student, spoke before House Democrats this year about birth control she was called a ‘slut’ and ‘prostitute’ on national radio by one of the darlings of the Republican party, Rush Limbaugh. He was sounding an awful lot like the upper class, Victorians who thought the poor created their own problems.
When the midwives teach the new, chubby recruit how to ride a bicycle, their only form of transport; when the middle class newbie sits down to tea with the syphilitic mother who’s just lost her child; when they rush out at night to an emergency call…they exemplify the heroic spirit of Jennifer Lee Worth and the thousands of other women who would not let their sisters suffer or die alone.
The joy of the show comes not so much from the babies delivered…yes, those are emotional moments…but from the way each of the midwives comes to know herself and the women she works with and the women they all serve. It’s through that knowing they give each other new ways of being in the world. Like the birth of a baby, there are really no words for the wonder of it; but it sounds like feminism to me!