As we approached the rally at the capital in Denver last Saturday, the first activist we saw was a young woman standing along Colfax with the sign “My Body, My Choice.” I couldn’t take her picture with all the traffic passing, so I hoped I’d find her later as we crossed the street to the steps of the capital where the rally had just begun.
This rally was partly in support of the Wisconsin protests against their governor’s attempts to eradicate the collective bargaining rights of state workers, but it was also in support of state workers here, especially teachers, who suddenly find themselves vilified as making too much money for too little work. Anyone with children in the public school system knows how ridiculous that claim is, but in this polarized political climate, ridiculous claims are floated everyday as justification for the erosion of the middle class and the removal of a safety net for the poor, all to the benefit of corporations and moneyed interests.
Although some of the organizers were in their 20s, most of the people at the rally were middle-aged or older, people who have been fighting these same battles since the Reagan administration and before that, the Vietnam war. We’ve chanted “Whose Rights? Our Rights?” and “Ain’t No Power like the Power of the People” a thousand times but still the struggle over social justice continues. Now the right wing is using the economic crisis—brought on, as one poster reminded us, by the financial sector, not by teachers—as an excuse for the kind of social and economic engineering they’ve wanted all along. It’s easier to take away worker’s rights when jobs and money are scarce.
Organized just three days before, the rally was mellow, with most of the 3000 of us realizing that more rallies are undoubtedly to come. One Tea Party-type tried to argue the benefits of union-busting from the capital steps and was escorted to the sidewalk below by the police. It didn’t stop his tirade, though, as others gathered around, more for amusement than for conflict. The police hovered nearby but nothing got out of control and soon folks tired of the guy’s rant and wandered away in the sunshine.
Another rally and march were starting just after the one for workers’ rights, this time for women’s reproductive rights. As one speaker explained, the same people who want to curtail our rights to collective bargaining also want to curtail women’s rights over our own bodies. The assault on Planned Parenthood funding already shows that not only the right to choose a legal abortion but a women’s access to family planning, birth control, and reproductive healthcare are threatened as well. This rally featured a younger crowd and I was glad to see young women speaking out for their rights.
After running into old friends and wondering how much it would take to stop this class war on the poor and middle-class, we went to the used bookstore near the capital, as we generally do when we’re in that neighborhood. I wasn’t looking for anything in particular but let myself, as I often do, come upon a book serendipitously. That day I found The Birth House by Ami McKay and started reading it on the bus ride home. Unlike a lot of fiction that I run across, I didn’t get bored in the middle and skip to the end but read it straight through because its story spoke not only to the importance of the rally for reproductive rights but to all collective struggles against domination and injustice.
McKay is a US writer living in Nova Scotia who discovered that the house she had rented had at one time been a birth house, or maternity home, for pregnant women to have their babies safely delivered by a midwife. McKay made a documentary about the midwife and the birth house but then wanted to fill in the blanks that history had left ajar.
I’m always interested in stories about midwives, birthing, and women’s health communities so I was drawn to this story for its historical as well as fictional aspects. My grandmother’s cousin Daisy was a midwife who ran a maternity hospital in northwestern North Dakota where both my mother and her oldest sister were born. (Their middle sister was born at home during a blizzard when getting to town was impossible.) My own daughter’s birth was supposed to be a homebirth, but given her month-late arrival, the midwives accompanied me to the hospital instead.
The Birth House is set at the beginning of the 1900s in a small coastal town where the joint efforts of the insurance and medical industries are attempting to convince women that midwifery is backwards and dangerous. The main character, Dora Rare, is a seventeen-year-old girl who is apprenticing with the elderly midwife who delivered her and serves as the primary healer in the community, never charging for her assistance but living on the gifts of food, wood, and help offered in appreciation for her skills and care.
Miss B’s training helps Dora understand that women must listen to their own hearts: “Woman’s got every right to look after herself. . . . Only the woman knows if she’s got enough love to make a life.” When the new male doctor in town tries to turn women against the midwife to the detriment of their health and their children, young Dora must make choices about her own future.
Other conflicts arise with family and the law, taking Dora to Halifax and Boston where she learns about the struggles of women to vote and to control their own lives. Home again, she draws together the community’s women to protect their rights to natural birth through valuing women’s knowledge and friendships.
The Birth House is a beautiful rendering of women’s commitments to each other in the service of caring for their families while knitting together the larger community. But it’s also an important reminder of what life could be like without control over our own bodies. In the novel, the women draw wisdom from the past to create the future they want for themselves. In today’s struggle over reproductive rights, I hope that women my age will help young women like those at last Saturday’s rally do the same.