Women’s Bodies, Women’s Worlds

A few years ago, in the midst of the Downton Abbey craze, my friends and I discovered another show that’s flown a bit more under the radar. If you’re a PBS watcher, you probably know Call the Midwife; if you haven’t caught it yet, this is the best woman-centered drama you’re missing. (Link to episodes here.)

For the past four seasons (Season 5 just premiered this week), Call the Midwife has consistently brought great storytelling and great history as it recounts the experiences of young midwives in London’s East End in the 1950s and early 1960s. Based on the memoirs of Jenny Worth (voiceover by Vanessa Redgrave), the show follows several young midwives who live in a convent called Nonnatus House. The midwives include both lay midwives and nun midwives, each of whom brings a distinct perspective and background.

What’s remarkable about this show is, in no small way, how it brings attention to the every day, banal facts of life for working-class women in postwar Britain. Their situations may be unique, living in the East End with the rise of the National Health Service after the war, but there is a universality to the experiences as we watch women endure the physical challenges of hardship, navigate labor and delivery, rejoice and weep with them and their families, and just take time to pay attention to the reality that has long been women’s lives.

Women’s bodies are at the center of it all in a way you won’t see on any other medical drama on television. Whether it’s a storyline involving a young unwed mother who gives birth on her own and tries to hide it (resulting in complications from a partially-undelivered placenta), stillbirth, an older woman suffering from a prolapsed uterus, or the complicated, yet everyday fact of labor – women’s bodies matter here. It’s a remarkable thing.

As a historical drama, we watch as practitioners debate the shift to hospital-based maternal care by physicians, or the increased use of gas as a pain relief option for childbirth. The show has looked at what happens when things go wrong, never shying away from considering what happens when someone gives birth to a child with Down’s Syndrome or, most recently, one of the first thalidomide babies.

Call the Midwife is at once phenomenal storytelling and some of the most important attention to women’s history brought to popular culture today. In looking at what might seem like the most mundane of all topics – maternal health in postwar Britain – the producers and writers have tapped in to one of the most crucial topics of our time. Call the Midwife is arguably the most important feminist shows on television today: here, feminism doesn’t appear as a frightening thing, but an empowering and necessary force. Don’t miss out on this – and spread the word.

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