Childbirth and trauma, 1940s to 1980s

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This article analyzes trauma in mid-twentieth century hospital births, focusing on the United States, but with additional evidence drawn from Great Britain and France. As many as half of women today experience childbirth as traumatic and no evidence suggests that the figure was lower a half-century ago. Drawing on women’s birth narratives and psychiatric literature, this article highlights the striking consistency over time in how women describe their experiences of traumatic birth. By the 1970s, however, women proved less ready to accept their trauma as the product of their own psychological shortcomings. Under the sway of second-wave feminism, they pushed back against care they defined as inhumane in both conventional maternity care and in natural childbirth. Psychiatry too demonstrates change over time. Hegemonic at midcentury, Freudian thinking began to yield to critiques that questioned gender norms and the preeminence of the subconscious. Based on private letters to maternity caregivers and between physicians, as well as a wide array of medical journal articles, popular magazines, and newsletters from childbirth education and birth advocacy organizations, this article argues that, despite different approaches to trauma in birth and clarity about how best to minimize it, contemporary maternity care has to date proven unable to heed the lessons of history.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)52-72
Number of pages21
JournalJournal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - Jan 2018


  • Childbirth
  • Trauma
  • Freud
  • Deutsch
  • Horney

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