Thoughts on Witches, Midwives, & Nurses: A History of Women Healers, Second Edition

Back in 1973, the early days of feminism’s second wave, Barbara Ehrenreich and Deirdre English wrote Witches, Midwives, & Nurses: A History of Women Healers. The marvelous Feminist Press at the City University of New York reprinted it in this, its second edition, in 2010. It’s a fascinating little book, and also, I think, a hot mess. But I’m not sure, especially if we read it as creative nonfiction, that the hot mess part really matters.

This isn’t much of a review, because I need to dig up additional sources before I write that, and find data and statistics and information to back up what I’ll say (and the things I’ll critique). I’ll also add a bit of a disclaimer: I’ve already said that Witches, Midwives, & Nurses is a hot mess, and I definitely think it to be, well, a hot mess, and one that doesn’t always read real well in this day of our Demon Lord the COVID-Plague. But I also enjoyed it, read it incredibly fast, and will likely read it again.

Ehrenreich and English were, understandably, angry, and their fury blasts through on every page of Witches, Midwives, & Nurses. As a generally angry person myself, I definitely understand rage. I mean, I’m pretty sure my dad’s family bred for rage the same way my mother’s Southern relations (the ones around whose Hoppin’ John recipe I built an essay) bred for gentility and money in the family. Anger is a thing I know, and sometimes cherish, because I’m always in pain, and have spent years depressed, and at least anger gives me enough energy to get through the day. (I’m doing a lot better now! But that’s still a reality with which I live.)

Because I’m so familiar with anger, however, I am also familiar with building a case for myself. I don’t want to be called out for directionless wrath, and I want to lay out a sensible argument so people will see for themselves why I argue what I do. There are a few times, throughout Witches, Midwives, & Nurses, when Ehrenreich and English let that rage get the better of them. They herald the herbal medicines of old-school cunning women and “witches” while condemning “Science” and what they call “heroic medicine,” all of which reads, at this historical moment, in a not great way. One of their end notes, meanwhile, puts the lie to what they have said earlier: we should reject the “hoarding” of science, not the science itself (Ehrenreich and English 101), they write, which is fantastic and should have been made more clear throughout the work.

There were also some odd omissions. As they discuss at length the misogynistic collusion between “Church, State, and medical profession,” Ehrenreich and English note in an aside that “Of course, there wasn’t any way for a woman to study” (56). Which is, like, pretty much inaccurate. Throughout Europe and the Americas, learned nuns were writing poetry, composing music, tending to the sick and wounded, studying for the hell of it, keeping convent books, training novices, selling their confessors on all sorts of stories, corresponding, and otherwise partaking in and shaping their cultured and cultural worlds.

Was theirs a perfect solution to a fucked up time? Hell no! But nuns were so much more than “barren sister[s] … chanting faint hymns to the cold fruitless moon.” (Although thank you for that oddly erotic image, Shakespeare, you randy old bro.) All Ehrenreich and English needed, there, was a sentence. Maybe they could have noted that most women, unlike Santa Teresa of Ávila or Hildegard of Bingen, didn’t have access to libraries and (book) learning. Maybe they could have said that while nuns did have access to learning (and could write their mystic visions, which were, to be honest, often kinda racy), they didn’t have the freedom of movement allowed laywomen. Or something. It wouldn’t take much to make me happy there.

The day after finishing Witches, Midwives, & Nurses, I started reading Kristen Sollée’s Witch Hunt: A Traveler’s Guide to the Power and Persecution of the Witch. It’s a much more recent work, coming, most likely from the grounding of the third or fourth wave of feminism, and the women Sollée chronicles are a much more human bunch, some of them petty, some of them scrappy, none of them saints but all of them people, trying their best to survive in a world dead-set against them. I’m enjoying it, rather a lot. (I mean, it has flights of fancy—which Solée acknowledges at the beginning. But pretty much everything is solidly backed up with research, which she demonstrates throughout—and also cites.1) In many ways, I think Solée’s combination of narrative history and travel log is closer to what I wanted from Witches, Midwives, & Nurses: engaging, researched, and filled with acknowledgements that these wronged women (and men) of the past were not so very different from people today.

Ehrenreich and English had—and have—every right to be angry. The U.S. medical system is a disaster and a mess, and women’s health—particularly that of women of color—suffers at every step.2 But I think that in the midst of their (truly) righteous indignation, they were too quick to paint all accused “witches” as healers, and too quick to dismiss earlier generations of feminists and suffragists. (Who were, by the way, a LONG shot from perfect.) Many an accused witch was nothing more than a cranky single woman, determined to hang onto what was rightfully hers. Others were, as Ehrenreich and English have posited, truly healers and “cunning women,” who treated those around them. (I mean, others were “treating” people by offering love potions, which were fucking terrifying, but that’s another kettle of fish.)

As the granddaughter of a difficult woman, and as someone who runs toward anger, I’m uneasy with painting historical women with too broad a brush, with assuming that all accused witches were the kind cunning woman next door who helped with women’s health care and tended babies and learned stuff through trial and error. I’m pretty sure plenty were like me, odd single women who loved their cats above all; others were probably like my grandmother, sharp-tongued and cranky. I do truly believe that by broad-brushing accused witches as Ehrenreich and English do here, we are doing all of us—living and dead—a disservice.

1Witches, Midwives, & Nurses has a bibliography, but no footnotes, endnotes, or in-text citations. I’ll be honest: the lack of any kind of citation bugged the HELL out of me. I’m not sure it’s fair, especially since I’ve read this was originally a pamphlet. But, hell, it bugged me. I’m an academic and a nerd and I want my goddamn sources cited.

2There are a lot of resources dealing with disparities in women’s health care, and medical racism; these are just a few:

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