Dalla Costa : knowledge of the witches and masculinization of the obstetric field.

This combined strategy of “denying access” and “outlawing” well-educated urban healers in Europe was so effective that by the end of the fourteenth century the campaign by professional doctors against them was practically over. Male doctors obtained a monopoly in medicine for the wealthy classes.

Obstetrics, however, still lay outside their expertise and, despite a wealthy clientele, remained an exclusively female field for another three centuries. Obstetrics later came to face an alliance of the intent of the state, the church and the (male) medical profession, which advocated that this field also be given to the “regular” medical profession, controlled bu the state and the church, at the price of the exterminating of the “witches” – mostly midwives and healers who came from and worked among the poor. But this persecution formed part of a complex of social macro-operations that took place in various periods, some already early in the fourteenth century, and the most famous of which was the expropriation/enclosure of common lands. If the latter was used to create the misery necessary for the beginnings of the capitalist mode of production, by making available massive numbers for the workforce, the witch-hunt was used instead to expropriate from women their own bodies. This was accomplished first of all by depriving women of the knowledge and the power to decide with regards to their reproductive powers, because the reproduction of individuals – from now on, the reproduction of the workforce, as far as it concerned the expropriated and impoverished people – had to be under state control by means of the medical profession. […] Federici (1984) in particular observes how the witch hunt spread in Europe between the fourteenth and the seventeenth century, reaching an apex between 1550 and 1650, when it is estimated 100,000 women were burned alive, often after vicious torture. The victims were, as I have said, mostly country midwives guilty of knowing not only about childbirth, but also about abortion and contraceptives, as well as healers and women of ill repute. But it was much easier for women to be accused when they were alone, unmarried, old, and above all leaders of urban and peasant rebellions caused by rising prices, by the repeated levying of new taxes, and particularly by the expropriation of land. However, virgins and pregnant women were normally not sent to the stake. This (the greatest sexocide that history has ever recorded – and which represents a fundamental turning point in the history of the struggle between the classes and between the sexes, erased, even if never completely, along with the women who were executed, popular medicine, and especially the gynecological and obstetric knowledge that had been in their hands alone. This knowledge was replaced with an official medicine, controlled by the state and the church, that would need centuries before it was able to replace the void left by the extermination of healers and midwives with something authentically therapeutic. It is worth knowing that while there were witches who had acquired profound knowledge of bones and muscles, of herbs and drugs, the physicians of the time still made their prognoses using astrology.

Mariarosa Dalla Costa “Hysterectomy : A Woman’s view of its Medical Facets, Historical Development and Ethical and Legal Questions” in Hysterectomy, Capitalist Patriarchy and the Medical Abuse of Women, p. 35-36

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