Buying and Selling Labor: Childbirth in the United States, 1930–79

Thursday, January 3, 2019: 3:50 PM
Water Tower Parlor (Palmer House Hilton)
Naomi Rendina, Case Western Reserve University
Over the course of the 20th century, obstetrics became a booming business. Because of the rise in managed care, and the interference of hospital systems and insurance companies, childbirth became a highly profitable medical event. Buying and Selling Labor argues that while professionalized obstetrics mainstreamed, natural childbirth was also heavily commodified. This project brings together the literatures addressing childbirth and consumerism in the United States by examining the classroom literature, popular media, handouts, event fliers, booklets and conference materials from mid-20th century childbirth education courses. I focus on how the birthing ideologies of British obstetrician Grantley Dick-Read and French obstetrician Fernand Lamaze were disseminated to American women as consumable goods available for purchase. I also argue that between the early 1930s and the late 1970s, childbirth became a widely sought after commodity that sat at the intersection of the counterculture and the pervasive consumerism of the prosperous post-war American society.

The established narrative argues that natural childbirth and other “alternative” birthing methods were popularized during the height of the mid-century second-wave feminist movement, and were not only part of the counterculture, but reflective of wider trends for patient autonomy. Buying and Selling Labor examines advocates and organizations that spread natural childbirth information to mothers of various communities. Through videos, classes, and literature, they sold mothers on the idea of natural childbirth as a “purchasable” good, service, and experience. When medical choice is provided through these commodities, marginalized women who do not have the social and economic capital to access these products have limited autonomy as “childbirth consumers.” Re-periodizing the natural childbirth movement allows a better understanding of the longevity of the patients’ rights movement of the late 20th century, and the injustices associated with access to natural childbirth resources. Although natural childbirth liberated some women, it further disenfranchised other populations.