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A Sense of Knowing: Women Healers

Never has there been a time in my life where I remember not being completely in love with Mother Nature and in awe of alI her #plants and animals. As a clinician, it has always been part of my nature to look towards #botanicals for their healing properties. They offer a familiarity and comfort I simply don't find when prescribing pharmaceuticals. Plants ground me and while scientific literature is early in its support for this healing modality, and in fact is in its infancy for all of Western medicine, the traditional wisdom regarding herbal medicine is quite profound. However, this wisdom has largely been lost to the masses.



Long Legacy of Women Healers


Whether I have a direct linage to healers in my own family or not, I am completely unaware, but having been trained as a nurse-midwife at #Frontier Nursing University and being part of Mary Breckenridge's legacy, I do feel a deep connection to the women healers who have come before me. As new graduate students, we were expected to read Wide Neighborhoods, Mary Breckinridge's autobiography, and then again as doctoral students, we read through the text and discussed each chapter in great detail. There was a plethora of issues to explore in her journey towards increasing the standards for midwifery in the United States by combining the science of #nursing with the art of midwifery. Having opportunity to visit her home and bunk in the horse barns, which were also used by previous midwives as they traveled the hills of Kentucky, a sense of belonging to the generations of midwives before me became part of my heart and soul.


The profession has quite the difficult history however; medicine is deeply political and has always been so. The knowledge of women and their gifts for healing have intimidated men and churches within our communities. They were, in reality, the most advanced scientists of their days. Generations ago, midwives were using various herbs to ease the pain of labor for women, but the church felt women's suffering was necessary, a consequence of Eve's sin. Their ability to manipulate this consequence was threatening to church leaders, so much so that if someone suffered an illness for which male-dominated medicine could not cure, but a woman healer found natural remedy, she was accused of practicing witchcraft. Similarly, if a physician gave a medicine that aggravated the illness, he was not at fault; rather, the patient was bewitched. This resulted in midwives being burned on crosses during the Middle Ages, an attack upon science at the hands of the church.


What isn't talked about is the #rape, torture, and murder of women and girls, and even sadomasochistic force at work in these tortures and ritualistic murders, yet rape wasn't even considered torture at this time. Neither was public stripping or other practices designed to humiliate and denigrate the accused. Researchers have concluded that a major driving force of all witch hunts was sadistic sexual perversion. Girls as young as nine-and-a-half could be prosecuted. There is evidence of women being tortured with pincers, pliers, and red hot irons on their genitals and breasts. Many historical texts state that women were arrested as #witches for no other reason than so they could be raped. Women had no rights what-so-ever. They could not earn money, own property or even the clothes they wore on their bodies. Their children were not even rightfully theirs. A woman's ability to heal others was a significant threat to the patriarchal status quo. If women remained passive, submissive, and uneducated, they were largely left alone, but those who educated themselves and gained any authoritative respect were destroyed.


A vast amount of evidence exists to show that the word "witch" formally signified a woman of superior knowledge. Following the rapes and killings, women retreated. They backed away from public practice. Women scientists, #scholars, healers, and physicians were forced into self-study and to hand down their wisdom orally, in apprenticeships. Women's knowledge was not written down so it was no longer available to men, but it was ultimately also less available to women. Elisabeth Brooke states in her book, Women Healers, "the politics of Europe have been defined by white, male, Christian values. That is they have been, and are, racist, sexist, homophobic, and anti-Semitic. The struggle to prevent the 'underclass' from practicing medicine has been constant and bloody" (1995, p 1).


Women healers have offered innovative, scientific, humane, and caring practices and worked along their male colleagues, sharing their insights and discoveries with them, often to find them stolen or not accredited to her. Women built hospitals, taught in medical schools, developed theories, pioneered new methods of treatment, and discoursed with the great thinkers of her time. Yet she often practiced under the treat of death. It is hard to believe, but even I was threatened with death while practicing as a midwife and my closest friend, also a #midwife, was threatened with having her home burnt to the ground with all her children inside. The stories of women healers are sparse, and stories of black women healers are almost nonexistent. Why was and is it that women in medicine are so discriminated against? Why is it that the healing modalities of women are discredited today?


Women healers aren't the only women with a difficult history however; women seeking healers were also discredited, with every ailment the result of #hysteria. The #Trotula is arguably the most important medieval group of writings on women's medicine. Rather than discuss how to approach the treatment of or healing of dermatologic issues for women, for example, medieval remedy specialized is cosmetic coverups. Arabic encyclopedias which included sections on women's disease (of course always discussed after first addressing the issues of males) were very superficial with no real interest in diving into these conditions and better understanding their root issues. Writings as far back as 1080s demonstrate that while male physicians clearly diagnosed and prescribed for gynecological conditions, and recommended a wide variety of potions and herbs for difficult births, they were not actually performing physical assessments on females. Understandings at this time were as archaic as "if the menses are deficient, it is a good thing when blood flows from the nostrils." Men were grossly unfamiliar with female anatomy and physiology. Within my own career the #breast has evolved from nothing more than a fat pad to an organ with it's own fascinating pathophysiology.


The Trotula also offers a fascinating evolution of the professional history for both midwifery and physicians including discussion of potentially the most important text on compounding medicines in the twelfth century, which promised its readers that by dispensing the medicines described in the text, "they would have an abundance of money and be glorified by a multitude of friends." This was part of a fundamental shift in the social status of the more learned, male medical practitioners. What we now understand as an exceedingly profitable empire, the healthcare industry had an about-face when men began to posture themselves as the healers of society, and deemed their female colleagues not trustworthy in spite of their own practices remaining entirely lay. Gradually, women started using the law to make their case to practice as licensed physicians alongside men, but as mentioned previously, the gender inequality issues surmounted great hurdles which continue to challenge midwives and advanced practice nurses even today.


Growing Revolution Against Mechanistic Medicine


The Renaissance period brought the transition of healing from that of an art, to that of a science. The connection between mind and body was dismissed. Our bodies became individual organs and systems, with specialists to address their individual and separate concerns. These new teachings and their educational programs were not extended to women. In fact, women were not even permitted to Harvard's medical program until 1944. The Lancet wrote on August 17th, 1878, "Woman as nurse is the natural help of man. Woman as doctor is a conceit contrary to nature, and doomed to end in disappointment to both the physician and the sick."


Elizabeth Blackwell and Florence Nightingale believed in ethics and spiritual values as part of their medical practice. They saw disease as being the result of a state of moral, physical, and emotional imbalance and appreciated the mind could not be separated from the body. Elizabeth Blackwell was passionate about preventative medicine through hygiene, diet, and sanitation. This theme is repeated over and over again in the lives of women healers; they prioritized using the gentle, healing approach to medicine, rather than surgery or drastic remedies. However, women healers have been witness to horrific care extended to other women, including forced castration on black female slaves. Female medical students have testified that women under general anesthesia for any procedure may be vulnerable to vaginal exams by a classroom of male medical students. Today even, nurses suffer some of the highest rates of suicide, in spite of being a predominately female profession, because they endure great hostility from their physician colleagues and because they suffer great moral injury witnessing assaults, negligence, and malpractice on patients they have little power to prevent.


"When a woman is seen to be threatening the male orthodoxy and taking the initiative rather than following established procedures, it can have serious consequences for her professional and personal life" (Brooke, 1995, p 123). That is, had women been seductive and had used feminine wiles rather than being assertive and using direct action, women might have more readily gotten what they wanted without fuss. Don't think this has resolved with the advancement of medicine. My own efforts to attain the required written practice agreement which restricts my ability to practice at the full extent of my training, has caused me to endure some of my own molestation and manipulation. These restrictions on our practice, those which the American Medical Association places on advance practice nurses (APRNs) through state legislature, serve no other benefit than to assert their dominance over a predominantly female profession which has the potential to dismantle the medical hierarchy.


More than twenty years ago now, Brooke (1995) claimed there was a growing revulsion against male-dominated, mechanistic medicine. We have seen a significant growth in women returning to their homes to birth with midwives, and the evidence demonstrates this is because they believe the home is their safest option (Boucher, Freeze, et al, 2008). Women feel more control of their own bodies and less vulnerable to men who dominate them, when birthing in their own homes. Medical ethics and human rights are constantly debated with one of the greatest arguments today surrounding mandated vaccines. No matter one's stance on vaccine effectiveness or safety, the ideal that the government may have the privilege of injecting anything they deem appropriate into its citizens is a gross violation on the individual rights of each and every human being. The third leading cause of death is medical error with pharmaceuticals playing the greatest role.


It seems exceedingly ironic that the most trusted professional for the last 18 years has been the nurse (in fact nurses have been every year except 2001 when firefighters surpassed them following 9/11) yet physicians succeed at creating restrictions on the practice of nursing in the majority of states across the country because the vast majority of our legislative leaders, those controlling these rules and regulations, are also men with hands deep in the pockets of those profiting from the pharmaceuticals pushed on the vulnerable masses.


Appreciating how women healers have suffered throughout history is especially important when one is working to establish their own healthcare philosophy and evaluate who may best serve their healthcare needs. There are unethical practices certainly, in both conventional and alternative medicine and among both nursing and physician groups, but more and more, healthcare consumers are growing concerned with the medical orthodoxy which has changed from a life-giving art of healing into a deadly science of modern medicine. Consumers are losing trust and are seeking providers who honor the healing powers of the human body and the nourishing traditions of clean food and botanical medicine.


The Scars Remain


While women are no longer burned alive or tortured for healing practices, oppression and hostility continues. Midwives today often do feel rage for the injustice of ancestors past. Our heritage is engorged with mindless cruelty and bigotry. Our legacy has been nothing short of a holocaust of women healers. I feel deep in my psyche that I can't step too far out of line, that I can't openly challenge or be too demanding even in the presence of gross negligence. This awareness has created a significant trauma for myself and for many of my midwifery colleagues. Sadly, in spite of this awareness, women certainly don't unite and stand for one another, as we know if we stand up to the establishment, we risk accusations on our sanity, if not our own careers and lives. Midwives witness their colleagues endure threats to their licenses and national smear campaigns when they make waves, even being beat into submission through threats of losing collaboration agreements or our ability to practice entirely.


Women healers know they must work within patriarchal structures, whether we practice conventionally or alternatively. We have to accept these conditions. Speaking out when a physician requires that we let them molest us for a collaboration agreement, or turn our family home into transitional housing for addicts will marginalize us. We'll be silenced by ridicule or contempt. Speaking up to fraud, ethical violations, or hostile work environments will result in loss of income or resources. We have to juggle our consciousness with our desire to be available to serve at all. We suffer moral injury. The waltz we must master in balancing our integrity with our ability to respond to our calling is an exhaustion that sleep will never cure. How does one remain silent, hidden, and careful while also outspoken, fearless, and inspired?


Women are Connected to the Rhythms of Nature


While our history is plagued with sexism, bigotry, misogyny, and great oppression to the point of gang rape and burning at the steak, women healers have held tight to the connection shared from generation to generation. We feel deep in our souls how our bodies are interconnected and find healing only in harmony with the health of our minds and both also require connection with the Earth.


It may be that midwives appreciate this the most; women naturally birth more often at night, near the full moon, and more often when their children are sleeping. Our labor patterns have a rhythm that midwives are well in tune, and can use to monitor labor's progression often without need for vaginal exam. This is another point of contention between the more medical obstetrical model and the physiologic birth model honored by midwives. Even our own monthly flow more typically initiates at night, so much so that the Amish will call me for consultation when one of their women start their menses during the day. Women ride a wave similar to the ocean's tide. Mother Earth has her seasons as do all the animals in the kingdom. This connection has always been a bit beyond the understanding of man and therefore, another intimidating point often deemed as sorcery or magic.


One can't deny however, that modern medicine and our growing dependence on these conveniences are disrupting our biological processes. One in six women today are struggling with fertility. Natural childbirth is an enigma with the cesarean rate greater than 50% in more than one Indiana county today. Maternal and child mortality is higher in the United States than in any other industrialized country in the world. More surgery is performed for gynecologic problems than for any other health problem with nearly half of all women undergoing hysterectomies by the age of 60, most of which are not medically necessary. Beyond women's health though, we can see worsening health outcomes across the country in a plethora of ways. Projected rates of thyroid cancer by 2035 show an anticipated increase of 77% while autoimmune disease has become one of the most common disease categories, ahead of cancer and heart disease, both believed to be the result of changes in our environment which in turn is causing changes in our bodies.


One of my greatest passions in caring for clients of Eden is to guide them in honoring their own needs. This is what I call becoming embodied, or moving away from living disembodied. It is truly knowing oneself and embracing the responsibility of committing to a life of vitality. We can work towards optimal health, which certainly looks differently for each individual and may start with addressing the underlying cause of chronic disease for some, but choosing to prioritize our own health is a reflection of our own self-value. It is hard to argue that someone committed to abusing alcohol or unwilling to protect themselves from a toxic relationship is someone with a healthy sense of self-value. This may be where a healer focuses initially, but there are many tools for self-empowerment. Botanical medicine allows for a more personalized alternative to what may otherwise be a very depersonalized medical approach. An approach that honors nature is also more resonant with personal, philosophic, and ecological world-views for many, while also offering some a more feminine or intuitive connection to the Earth. Understanding botanical medicine in the context of both ancient and modern use has been my desire. As discussed above, conventional medicine has historically not placed the interests of women first and is a profit-driven industry. My charge then is to gain an understanding of healing modalities both within and outside of those controlled by man, but also, to appreciate each person as a whole - their experiences, concerns, fears, life-style choices, daily challenges, interests, and joys - so that I can see the person for whom I hope to offer healing and guide towards their greatest potential.

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