Subtitle: How a TV Show about the Mid-20thCentury is A Good Reminder for 21stCentury Audiences
I’m going to preface this blog post with something my youth minister used to say to us: my job is not to get you to believe what I believe. My job is to make you think. With that said…
As the most recent season of the ever-so feminist and beautiful Call the Midwife (CTM)wraps up, I find myself thinking more and more about its relevance to modern audiences. Yes, it’s very tearful, heartwarming, and lovely. But it’s also a damn good way of speaking truth to people who tend to forget history.
I could talk about the benefits of socialized medicine and the changes it brought to the UK back in the day and how a more modernized version would be amazing for the U.S. I could talk about the evolving life and the cycle of poverty depicted for both the white and POC residents of Poplar. But I think there’s a more fundamental truth laced throughout all 69 episodes of this highly under-rated show that I keep coming back to. Women’s healthcare and how vital it is. The nurses and midwives serve as the viewers’ entryway into a world that is either the polar opposite of their current existence or far too close to be believed.
When the show (and the memoir, which is really good) starts, it’s 1957. Oral contraceptives are four years away from being approved by the NHS. The number of births being handled by the midwives of the East End is insane. I can’t remember the exact numbers cited in the book, but it was several dozen. Per week. Women in abject poverty are hit the hardest by the lack of reliable health care in general, but especially when it comes to women-specific health care.
In a post-Roe v. Wade America, I feel like the realities of life before that landmark case, especially the realities for women, have become faded legends, whispered among women, but rarely laid out so starkly as they are in CTM. Prior to the advent of CTM, I only learned of the lengths to which women would go to terminate pregnancies from romance novels or female-centric historical fiction. (See this Jezebel article if you want to learn a more in-depth history of herbal abortifacients). If pennyroyal or tansy is mentioned, I know a female character is likely going to try to abort an unwanted pregnancy or “stimulate” her menstrual cycle to be on the safe side. In CTM, though, viewers are shown the lengths some women will go to in order to get rid of pregnancies—methods far more dangerous than herbs—and to hell with the law.
Medicine—and by extension the legalization/funding of it—has always been inherently biased against women. No. Don’t argue. Go read the Jezebel article I cited about. I’ll wait. You done? Okay. We’ve come a long way toward safer maternal medicine since the mid-20thcentury, but especially in the US, our stats for a post-industrial nation are abysmal. Hell, the women in the East End in the 1950s and 60s arguably had better access than some rural/inner-city-dwelling Americans in 2019. Nurses that came and checked on them regularly both pre- and post-natal—in their homes! Nurses who helped them decide on the best place to have labor for them (home, maternity home, hospital), etc.
But I digress. Probably the most sexist part of female health care is related to the menstrual cycle and pregnancy. In a way, it makes sense. For centuries, our primary job was to keep the species going while men did the politicking, farming, exploring, learning, yada yada yada. Women’s agency, what little they might have had, disappeared in the face of producing children. Hence, the birth rates in the East End pre-Pill.
See? I got back to the point. In CTM, the nuns were initially very opposed to the Pill, but they still agreed to trust the medical knowledge of the doctor rather than trying to insist on their own beliefs being applied to everyone in the community.
Even though the Pill was originally restricted to married women in the UK, it was still a revolution. Women gained agency. They gained the CHOICE to have children, rather than it being an inescapable side-effect of getting married. They could continue their newly budding careers or go out and get new ones when their kids went to school. Sounds familiar, right? Cycles of poverty begin to be broken, people begin to prosper, and society becomes stronger. Hmm…why wouldn’t you want women to have agency over their own bodies?
Here’s where the difference comes in though. Women who weren’t allowed to be prescribed the Pill still had to rely on the old methods. Either marry the father (if it was an accident with a boyfriend), slink away to have it in secret (if the father wasn’t in the picture), have it alone, or…abortion. Yes. I said the dreaded “a” word. And back then, it was…awful. If you don’t believe me, I recommend going to watch Season 2 Episode 5 of CTM. Or most of Season 8. In fact, I would love to have any politician watch these episodes, really watch them, and have them still keep their position on a woman’s right to choose.
Ultimately, crocodile dung, sponges soaked in vinegar (yes, both of the previous 2 were used as contraceptives), the Pill, IUDs, the diaphragm, condoms— none of it is 100% effective. Whether it’s legal or not, women have been having and will keep having abortions if they feel it’s best for them or their only viable option. History has proven it, and the episodes I mentioned are perfect examples of what happens when they don’t have access to legal, safe abortions.
There’s a lot I could say about being pro-choice vs. anti-abortion (no, it’s not a pro-life stance in its current iteration, but that’s a separate rant). But the message CTM focuses on is the reality of women’s stories. The stories they told are stories that could be set here and now or 500 years ago. Women’s stories can be long and fruitful and fulfilling. Or they can be cut short because someone has decided that they know better than the woman affected what health care they should have access to.
If you, like I, binge-watch shows, I highly recommend doing so with CTM. Look at the contrasts between the first season and the eighth. Look how much more active the women of Poplar are in their own lives. How much more agency they have. How much stronger will they get once they have access to safe, legal abortions—the last dirty secret of womanhood?
Do I judge women who choose to have as many kids as their health allows? No. Neither does CTM. It shows the beauty of that CHOICE.
Do I judge women who choose not to have sex at all and live a life of service? No. Neither does CTM. It shows the beauty of that CHOICE.
Do I judge women who choose to have abortions? No. And within the context of the time, CTM gives us a picture of what life was like before women were given the safe, health-forward option to have one. You feel compassion for the women. You understand their choice to do it. And you cry because they don’t have the CHOICE to have safe, legal options to turn to.
What CTM speaks about, more than anything, is the beauty of being female and the complexities and opportunities it provides. The women in the show with the agency to control their own reproductive health are able to see a world beyond poverty.
What would modern society be like if we accepted that?
What would modern society be like if we said “you know, abortion isn’t something I would choose, but my choice is not yours”? What would modern society be like if we were like the nuns who may disapprove of things like the Pill and abortion, but they still show up to support the women they serve, no matter what?
I wish the politicians of the world (and some of the more hardline people) would be more like the nuns of CTM. The world would be a lot less stressful and more productive if they were.