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Earth Medicine: Women Healers

Women have always used herbs. Historically, women have been the healers. The only medicine available came from the woods, beside streams, in gardens, and through trade with other women. Botanical medicine was used for the prevention of illness and dis-ease and for the treatment of common ailments that affected communities. Today women are using #herbs for a variety of reasons, partly because they are empowered and have taken responsibility for their own health and partly because herbs are more natural which resonates with many women. Increasingly women are losing faith in conventional medicine. Their growing concern over pharmaceutical therapies (the third leading cause of death in the United States) has caused them to dig in more and listen to their inner voice, their healing intuition. Mother Earth remains a trusted source for nourishment and healing.

Clinicians overwhelmingly have little knowledge about earth medicine and quite often are distrusting or even a bit aggravated when utilized by healthcare consumers further compromising therapeutic relationships. They sometimes alienate patients by minimizing the connection between mind and the body. Even when practitioners have a great deal of interest, reviewing the mass amount of literature available can be exceedingly challenging while also working to stay up to date in their clinical specialty. Having a knowledgeable clinician in #botanicalmedicine is important so that both the art and science of earth healing is effective and safe, but also so the clinician can offer education for empowering the client in self-care.

Women Healers through Time

It seems peculiar that we would have an abundance of botanicals with which we could heal ourselves and our ancestors well-recognizing their importance and value, but today have so many of those herbs in jeopardy of extinction and so few with any knowledge of how to utilize them. Given the botanical pharmacies available to women in ancient times, it is clear that many of these women were highly skilled with earth medicine. Few women published serious medical works however, so this knowledge was largely passed through the generations via apprenticeships. The oldest report of a woman physician dates to circa 3000 (B.C.E.). Egyptian queens were known to encourage women to become physicians and many priestesses in Greece were also physicians and keepers of healing traditions.

By the time of Hippocrates (400 B.C.E.) however, women's role in society had been minimized to that of a servant, and their role in healing was also marginalized. Agnodice, who you may be a little familiar, is the famed healer, born in Greece, and forbidden to study medicine so she disguised herself as a man, completed medical school and then opened a very sought-after practice until her gender was discovered by the authorities. The community of women she had cared for created an uproar, to the point of withholding relations with their spouses and even threatening suicide in the town square. Their efforts were ultimately successful and her life was spared. This led to more social and economic freedoms for women in Greece. Theano, Aphasia, Antiochis, and Cleopatra followed in her footsteps.

The Middle Ages brought more #oppression for women. The female body and her connection to nature was extended very little respect. Women healers were looked upon with suspicion and scorn. Churches began to prosecute female healers for practicing herbal medicine as "witches" resulting in a very sharp decline in their visible presence in Europe. Estimates range from several thousand to several million women were tortured and killed on the basis of #witchcraft accusations of a several hundred year period. Feminist historians have referred to this as the "women's holocaust." Mostly #midwives and herbalists, these women were punished if they were engaged in the healing arts or even ministered to the poor. Overall healthcare declined dramatically and no progress was made for nearly 600 years.

It has been assumed that these women, these so-called witches, were peasant women, uneducated hags, but they were actually the most educated. Historians have theorized that this witch-craze of the Middle Ages may be less about overcrowding, poverty, and disease in cities, and rather an organized and systematic campaign against women healers and others who did not conform to certain social standards. In fourteenth century England, educated women were also a target by English physicians seeking to rid themselves of "worthless and presumptuous women who usurped the profession" seeking fines and long imprisonment for women who attempted to practice healing.

Numerous lay books were sold with herbal medicinal cures for the 'gentlewoman' to use to keep her family well, and these teachings were very similar to what the physician healers were using. This transition offered some empowerment to individual families but the role of the women healers were forever altered. Attitudes about nature, women, and their bodies were so dramatically impacted that even today the mindset is less about working to support natural physiology and optimizing health, and more about conquering disease with medicine and technology. There are many documented stories of men working alongside women healers in the war and where physicians were unsuccessful, cures were offered by the women skilled in midwifery and alchemy.

#Trotula, a female healer in the Middle Ages, has become a legend for her work in educating men and prioritizing healthy diets, regular exercise, hygiene, and reducing stress. Hildegard was yet another famed healer, living between 1098 and 1179, in Germany. She created a system of diagnosis based on four humoural types: sanguine, phlegmatic, melancholic, and choleric. This helped to assess appropriate behaviors for lifestyle, diet, stress reduction, and moral behaviors. She also depended on astrological predictions in her healing, including also #gemstones, incantations, and hydrotherapy.

In the Victorian era, women interested in the healing arts and plants were directed more towards the study of botany and were discouraged from the practice of medicine, eventually even midwifery. The care of women during #childbirth was ultimately taken over by an untrained class of physicians referred to as barber surgeons, which is an accurate classification, as they were in fact barbers. Women were said to need protection from the rigors of intellectual exercise, as they were the weaker of the sexes. It was during this time that a sharp distinction was made between science and superstition. A line was drawn between the intuitive, folkloric, and non-academic approaches of the traditional healers and the liner, more academic approaches of medical doctors and scientists. It is no surprise however that the remedies of the early physicians proved unsuccessful, and the use of heroic treatments such as purges, bleedings, and mercury-based drugs, often led to more harm than good. While herbal remedies weren't always overwhelmingly successful, they were almost never dangerous as were the 'cures' of the 'regular' doctors.

As settlers of the United States build their communities, women again assumed their roles as active community healers. They brought healing remedies from Europe, planted herb gardens. Many learned from indigenous healers about local plants. The politics in American soon gave rise to the American Medical Association and eventually, once again, usurped the role of the community wise woman. "From witchcraft accusations, of seventeenth century New England to the systematic discrediting of midwives and women doctors through the early 1900s, the history of medicine in the United States tells a story of competing political interests, smear campaigns against 'irregular' doctors and women, and the development of the medical monopoly by regular physicians" (Room, 2007, p 9).

Women's rights movements have brought attention to women's suffering in medical practices and demands for humanizing health care has been a long and arduous effort. The status of women has presumably been enhanced socially, economically, and politically since we successfully fought for the equal right to vote, but potentially society continues to turn the cheek to the post-gender inequality issues just as we have post-racism following the legal abolishment of slavery. In the early 1900s, the progressive era largely wrestled with the issues of legalization of contraception. Prenatal care was also established at this time. The 1960s and 1970s the women's health movement, once again arising to challenges fought among a male dominated medical system, tackled issues such as abortion rights, #rape, women's cancers, #childbirth reform, and the excessive use of surgeries, such as hysterectomies, mastectomies, and #cesarean sections.

Following the Civil War, a women's self-help movement reclaimed herbal medicine due to perceptions of the medical system taking too much control over women's bodies and ignoring their rights. Gentler and more natural remedies were sought and many desired advanced training in healing herbs, hence the birth of new age herbalists. Women also found themselves training as #midwives to meet the increasing need of women once again seeking births at home in order to avoid unnecessary medical intervention and being bullied into procedures necessary due to medical protocol. Many of the legendary midwives still popular today were those that began studying both herbs and midwifery during the sixties and seventies.

Rediscovering Earth Medicine

Healthcare consumers are becoming a bit disenchanted with the forced interventions and impersonal nature of medicine, particularly within obstetrics and gynecology. Many have shared concerns of medical monopoly and even medical kidnapping, so that a strong public interest has developed in herbal medicine creating an economic boon in the natural product industry. Scientific evaluation of herbal medicines has begun and traditional uses of various herbs are sparking interest among researchers. Both midwifery and herbal medicine are experiencing resurgence, but these area of healing practice remain largely hostile to those in practice. Women are once again making the connection between their health and their environments. They are recognizing the impact their personal lives, their work lives, as well as their physical, ecologic environment, their stress and past abuses have on their overall health. We are potentially in another state of #transformation in healthcare.

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Feb 23, 2022

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