“So I could be easeful”: Celebrate and Support New Scholars

Posted on May 4, 2012


The Chronicle of Higher Education is a tabloid that few outside the academy will have heard of, and fewer insider the academy actually read than might be indicated by its ubiquity in campus administrative offices. It becomes relevant to many new or nearing completion PhDs because it contains employment ads.

While the image conjured up by the name is the paper edition that graces many offices on campus, the Chronicle is also, like all viable media today, online. The editorial content covers general issues of interest to academia: currently, top articles include a discussion of blogging as scholarly activity, social networks, and dealing with student crises, while further down the home page there are a mass of links to articles about new developments by Harvard and MIT, and the role of Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal in the state university.

And like every online news outlet today (it seems), the Chronicle has blogs. One of those has set off a firestorm, rightly directed at what has to be the meanest, most ignorant, most anti-intellectual post I have seen in a supposedly legitimate media outlet.

Like many people, I heard of the blog post from an independent blogger who writes at Tressiemc. Following her lead, I am not linking to the Chronicle blog post, which attacks the research of Northwestern University’s first cohort of doctoral students in African American Studies. Her irritation seems to have been sparked by coverage of an event celebrating these and other historic programs covered as a news item by the Chronicle, along with a profile of doctoral students in the program.

Tressiemc does a fine job of making the case why this is shameful– and why the Chronicle of Higher Education should be ashamed of itself. She and others have spoken out to condemn the wretched person who wrote the original post. There are petitions. There is a response by the the faculty at Northwestern. There is outrage and it should be maintained.

But we all have to do more. There needs to healing; there needs to be an antidote to poison.

So here is my contribution.

One of those whose work was mentioned in the original blog post is a woman named Ruth Hays. For me, the most amazing thing about the attempt to ridicule her work is– it has the opposite effect. Here’s the original text (courtesy of Tressiemc):

Ruth Hayes’ dissertation, “‘So I Could Be Easeful’: Black Women’s Authoritative Knowledge on Childbirth.”… began because she “noticed that nonwhite women’s experiences were largely absent from natural-birth literature, which led me to look into historical black midwifery.”

What’s there to make fun of and dismiss here? This is women’s history pursuing an interesting and relevant topic; this is a place where asking questions about race is indispensable. Long-time readers of this blog will remember that one of the core texts in my course on archaeology of sex and gender is Laurie Wilkie’s book The Archaeology of Mothering: An African-American Midwife’s Tale. That book won the James Deetz Prize given by the Society for Historical Archaeology.

Am I wrong? is this not a legitimate topic?

Well, a quick search in the database America: History and Life turned up almost 250 scholarly articles dealing with midwifery.

Feminist Studies, a central journal in the field, published an article in 2010 titled “Downplaying Difference: Historical Accounts of African American Midwives and Contemporary Struggles for Midwifery”, by Christa Craven and Mara Glatzel, dealing with the way discrimination was downplayed in a selected of co-authored African American midwives’ memoirs.

Another article published in 2010, this one in Women’s History Review, by Tanfer Tunc, examines pregnancy and childbirth on pre-Civil War plantations, linking white and black women, and how professionalization of medicine changed the relationship between black midwives and the white women who they assisted to give birth.

I could go on at some length: the point is, the study of race, ethnicity, and the role of midwives is a well-established field of academic research. Work in this vein adds significantly to our understanding of health care delivery in the United States, and to differences in these experiences among different segments of the population.

I look forward to adding the work of Ruth Hays to the reading list for my course next year. Brava, and congratulations to her and to her mentors, professors, and cohort members at Northwestern.