Wednesday, March 7, 2012

IWD: maternal mortality

International Women's Day is celebrated on March 8 every year. What would Mary Wollstonecraft make of it? Last year was its 100th anniversary, and so it got more of a media splash in the UK than it has done for some time. 2011 also saw the unveiling of the most recent plaque commemorating a place where "England's first feminist" lived or worked. This year, again, there is a corporate-sponsored website aiming for comprehensive coverage of events. (They do things differently in France.) Let's focus on two themes: maternal mortality and girls' education. Today, the first.

Mary Wollstonecraft died in childbirth. Two graphs "about this cause of avoidable mortality in women", pulled together by Ben Goldacre, the doctor who likes statistics, famous for his Bad Science columns, blog and books. One is the UK, 1880 to 1980. The other is international, 2005. Do you want to guess the worst time and place? It was about three times as bad in Afghanistan a few years ago as it was at its iatrogenic peak in the UK in the 1890s. With adjustments for population: for every woman who dies in childbirth in El Salvador, more than ten die in Afghanistan. For every woman who dies in Canada, more than twenty die in El Salvador. Logarithmic scales of difference, in our world, here, today. Almost a thousand women die every day of pregnancy-related reasons, according to Women Deliver. I'l repeat that, louder: A THOUSAND DEATHS A DAY.

Ruth Franklin, stimulated by the arrival of Shelley's Ghost in New York, asks in The New Republic if Frankenstein was really about pregnancy and childbirth. It's not a novel argument. A cursory acquaintance with a few biographical facts makes it evident that, as she puts it, "not only was Mary Shelley pregnant during much of the period that she was writing Frankenstein, but she had already suffered the birth and death of an infant." A later miscarriage brought her close to death. What Franklin doesn't explore is the impact of motherlessness (or, conversely, that of the Wicked Stepmother) on young Mary. Had the obstetrician washed his hands, the world might have had decades more of paradigm-shifting political writing, but we would not have had Frankenstein. That is a book that could only have been written by someone who knew that her birth had killed her mother.*

The perils of maternity was not the lesson taught by Mary Wollstonecraft's life but that imposed on her legacy. The death of artistic creativity after childbirth, famously summarised by Cyril Connolly as "the pram in the hall", was supposed to be so much worse for women. Instead of one type of creativity feeding the other, they were seen to cancel each other out. There was no point in educating girls, because they disappeared into multiple motherhood, or died in the effort. Or they went mad - the wandering womb - The Yellow Wallpaper. The lucky and exceptional ones, exceptionally educated, could aspire to become men, like Elizabeth I.

The lesson explicitly taught by Mary Wollstonecraft was the value of education. Tomorrow, on International Women's Day itself, we'll explore what that means in 2012. In the meantime, for inspiration, check out this eclectic collection of IWD 2012 posters.  

Logo from Education International"the world's largest federation of unions", 
representing "organisations of teachers and other education employees across the globe".
*This brings to mind "Each man kills the thing he loves." Happily married Oscar Wilde had his views on pregnancy too. 

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