Was Sarah Stone an Early Feminist?

Essay, 2016

6 Pages, Grade: 3,0


and/or child. These male midwives were very well trained in the use of forceps, the design of
which was made public between 1733 and 1735. Beforehand it was the strictly kept secret of
the Chamberlen family, whose ancestor Peter Chamberlen devised the original forceps in the
seventeenth century. Male midwives were mostly called for assistance when a baby had to
be delivered stillborn and the mother's life was in danger. In these cases they used a
crotchet, a sharp hook, to pull the lifeless child out by its head. The reputation of male
midwives suffered badly under these circumstances. This changed drastically once the
forceps became a common instrument: more and more children survived delivery with it
(ibid). Sarah Stone did not approve the use of such instruments. She stated that she "never
found [them] requisite above four times in [her] life." (xiii-xiv). It would not have made a
tremendous difference if Stone praised them or not: female midwives faced a distinct
disadvantage as they were forbidden to use these instruments (Sommers 91). Which is why,
one can argue, Stone promoted them to be useless and instructed women on how these
difficult deliveries can be done without forceps, based on her own experiences.
As mentioned prior, it was fashionable in the eighteenth century to have a male midwifery.
Especially among wealthy women, men in this field of work were held in high esteem. They
were regarded as "'smooth, polite and confident' in contrast to the `traditional lower-class and
uncouth women'" (ibid). It became a common occurrence for elite mothers-to-be to request a
male midwife in order to distinguish themselves from women of a lower status in society.
Therefore, men were not turned into obstetricians by their own desire, but by women's choice
(ibid). The knowledge about the reproductive body was now a topic worth discussion, even
outside the medical community in the eighteenth century. Suddenly it was en vogue to
discuss aspects of childbirth and male midwives in coffee houses. Print media published
issues reporting about sex and reproduction (Sommers 92).
Stone was particularly concerned about the less education male midwifes received,
especially since she herself invested a large amount of time into her own apprenticeship.
Male midwives usually practiced surgeries on corpses and had a lot of theoretical training
where their female colleagues had no or little access to formal training and therefore had to
learn from experienced midwives. These enlightening advantages that came in the benefits
of men "arrived to that height that almost every young Man, who hath served his
apprenticeship to a Barber-Surgeon, immediately sets up for a Man-Midwife; altho' as
ignorant, and, indeed, much ignoranter, than the meanest Woman of the Profession." (xi).
Stone was convinced that their education lacked in quality and improved neither the mother's

nor the baby's safety. "For, give me leave to tell those young Gentlemen pretenders, who
undertake the Practice of Midwifery with only the knowledge of dissecting the Dead, that all
the Living who have or shall come under their care in any difficulty, have and may severely
pay for what knowledge they attain to in the Art of Midwifery." (xii). Other work fields required
a much longer period of time to finish training. It is obvious that midwifery was an
underestimated working field. Stone clarifies that point by stating that "if seven years must be
served to learn a Trade, I think three Years as little as possible to be instructed in an Art
where Life depends." (xvii).
Stone saw not only the patients' welfare endangered, but also the reputation of female
midwives who were less knowledgeable on the medical aspects of childbirth than their male
colleagues but did not threaten the mothers' modesty the way male practitioners did: "I am
well assured, unless the Women-Midwives give themselves more to the Study of this Art and
learn the difficult part of their business, that the Modesty of our Sex will be in great danger of
being lost, for want of good Women-Midwives, by being so much exposed to the Men
professing this Art." (x-xi). In her opinion more well-trained female midwives were needed so
that the patients would not have to be examined by men and therefore lose their modesty. In
this context she did not just criticize male midwives but also specified why she believed
female midwives to be more talented than their male opponents: "For dissecting the Dead,
and being just and tender to the Living, are vastly different; for it must be supposed that there
is a tender regard one Woman bears to another, and a natural sympathy in those that have
gone thro' the Pangs of Childbearing; which, doubtless, occasion a compassion for those
that labor under those circumstances, which no man can be a judge of." (xiv-xv). This
argument has been much discussed in eighteenth century England. Advocates of male
midwifery problematized the relationship between female practitioners and their patients:
They argued it was "too close to allow [...] the necessary distance required to achieve
objective understanding." (Sommers 90) On the other hand, proponents of female midwives
argued that women had traditionally attended births and that it was the most natural route for
them to continue to dominate this medical field as it had already "stood the test of time." (93).
They also believed that women did not need extensive medical knowledge of anatomy as
"nature was the book and experience the guide." (ibid)
Before the rise of capitalism in the seventeenth century, women were busy with affairs
concerning households, estates and the government. The consequence of the economy's
growth was the withdrawal of married women from all productive activity (Raven, Small,

Tadmor 162). Mary Astell's work
A Serious Proposal to the Ladies,
published in 1694,
encouraged women to read more French works in order to improve their tongue and less
romances (ibid). She wrote three pamphlets on that subject, concerned that women's place
in the social order would drop dramatically if they did not occupy themselves with educational
pieces of literature (O'Brien 35-36). Astell was considered the first English feminist
(Batchelor). In her publication she points out the advantages of educated women and
"exposes the unjust strategies through which society bars them from `those Advantages with
the want of which they are afterwards reproached'" (ibid). She continued by proposing the
idea of a college, which was especially designated for women to follow a syllabus of "prayer,
learning and charitable pursuits" as that would improve the country of England to a "Kingdom
with pious and prudent Ladies" (ibid).
Before examining if Sarah Stone can indeed be called an early feminist one needs to define
the terms
. Their origin is uncertain, though according to French
dictionaries and many earlier historians, Charles Fourier, a French philosopher, invented the
in the 1830s, which was a synonym for women's emancipation (Offen 19).
By 1894-95 had the words arrived in Great Britain (ibid). But, can a person support and
influence the development of feminism precede the invention of these words? Yes, as long
as a careful definition of terms, grounded in historical evidence is given. Karen Offen,
historian at Stanford University, defines feminism as "a comprehensive critical response to
the deliberate and systematic subordination of women as a group by men as a group within a
given natural setting. [...] [The] concept [...] encompass both a system of ideas and a
movement for sociopolitical change based on a refusal of male privilege." (20). She
addresses the imbalance between the sexes as the main motive women standing up against
subordination. Noting that she uses the term
and not
­ Women do
not have to feel oppressed to be subordinated (ibid). Feminists seek to destroy masculine
hierarchy but not sexual dualism as such. They want to establish a balance between the
sexes in the name of their common humanity but with respect for their differences (21).
With regard to Offen's quote about how to define feminism, one can make out clear
similarities to Stone's work. Her book is clearly "a critical response to the deliberate and
systematic subordination of women as a group" (Offen 20). Where Offen addressed women
in general Stone wanted to reach the group of female midwives while also bettering the
circumstances of labour for both woman and infant. Feminists' demands for equality of the
sexes in terms of morality and intellectual and educational opportunities mirror in Stone's
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Was Sarah Stone an Early Feminist?
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Julia Merten (Author), 2016, Was Sarah Stone an Early Feminist?, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/375454


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