Birth Story’s most popular posts of 2010

Well, go figure. My very most popular post by far this year was one I wrote for Women's History Month that had very little to do with the Birth Story per se.

Anne Hutchinson
Anne Hutchinson at her trial

My top post for 2010 was about Anne Hutchinson, a midwife in the Massachusetts Colony, who deftly though unsuccessfully defended herself against heresy charges in 1638. The colony's governors were so shaken that they embedded into the mission of the new Harvard College the mandate to train religious leaders rigorously enough that they would never again be so intellectually pummelled.

Anne figured in another top post as well, "A monstrous birth," about the danger midwives and mothers alike faced after anomalous births in the American colonies.

My second most popular post was a recent one about Ian Shapira's Facebook-driven story in the Washington Post chronicling the death of new mother Shana Greatman Swers.

Supermodel Gisele Bundchen came in third with a post about her much ridiculed assertion that all new mothers should be required by law to breast-feed.

Here are Birth Story's 10 most popular posts of 2010:

1. Anne Hutchinson, Colonial midwife  3/1/10

2. A sad Facebook story 12/10/10

3. A "boob" on the right side of breast-feeding 8/9/10

4. A "monstrous" birth  3/3/10

5. The Pregnancy Meeting 2/8/10

6. Amniotic fluid embolism 1/14/10

7. Fascinated with blood 6/28/10

8. The Frontier Nursing Service  3/15/10

9. The Goodriches one year later  1/11/10

10. The mother of the Apgar score  3/19/10

Another “monstrous birth” in New England

Allow me one more post on this last day of Women's History Month about Anne Hutchinson, the midwife in the Massachusetts Bay Colony who was banished to Rhode Island for heresy.

The pregnancy Hutchinson had been carrying during her civil and ecclesiastical trials turned out to have been probably the first hydatidiform mole, or molar pregnancy, in New England, according to a 1959 article in the New England Journal of Medicine.Anne Hutchinson

This freakish obstetrical event, which occurs in about 1 in 2,000 pregnancies in the United States today (it is 10 times more common in Asia), happens when a pregnancy goes awry and turns into a mass of tissue in the uterus. The mass might grow for several months, and lumps of tissue might eventually be "delivered." Such a "birth" event would likely be upsetting to anyone, but given the beliefs of the time, it carried a dark judgment on Hutchinson's state of grace.

She was safe in Rhode Island, but the event was sensational news. Imagine the response of her nemesis, Gov. John Winthop of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, when he heard that not only had Hutchinson attended Mary Dyer's "monstrous birth," but now had also delivered one of her own.

I can't stop wondering how Hutchinson felt about this. Although the austere religion practiced in the Massachusetts Bay Colony never allowed anyone to take salvation for granted, according to Calvinism, God's favorite people should be easy to spot: They prospered in this life as well as the next.

Hutchinson herself had had a comfortable life in England, and even in Massachusetts she was a member of the church, the wife of a prosperous textile manufacturer and the mistress of an elegant home right across the road from Gov. Winthrop's, according to Selma R. Williams in Divine Rebel: The Life of Anne Marbury Hutchinson.

Yet her life in America was one catastrophe after another. Hutchinson was a deeply religious woman. Did she feel God's presence so strongly that she was able to dismiss the evidence others saw of His disfavor? Or was she constitutionally unable to listen to people she judged unlikely conduits of the word of God? In any event, she spoke her mind, she stood for what she believed in, and she moved us all forward.

A woman’s voice

Women's History Month reminds us that women have had to fight not only for the right to vote, but also to own property, control our fertility, get an education, work outside the home, keep custody of our children, have violence toward us taken seriously, and even to say what's on our minds.

For me, this month presents an opportunity to take a closer look at some of the advances women have made, and at some of the women who were involved in our progress in one way or another.

Most of the women I am writing about are famous for something having to do with the birth experience, but their stories also relate to the development of a woman's voice -- that is, getting to the point where expressing ourselves and asking for what we need is a normal event.

On the road from Anne Hutchinson to the belligerent Susie Greene from HBO's "Curb Your Enthusiasm," many women risked a great deal to make some part of the world safe for outspoken women.

A “monstrous” birth

Having a baby with a birth defect could get you killed in colonial America, and attending such a birth as a midwife was also perilous.

Anne Hutchinson, the subject of the previous post, was already in serious trouble in Puritan Boston for her unorthodox ideas when she was summoned along with another midwife, Jane Hawkins, to the childbed of her friend, Mary Dyer, who had remained loyal to Anne. On that day in October of 1637, Mary bore a deformed, stillborn baby girl.

The birth of a "monster," as such a child was called in colonial America, was seen as a sign of God's disfavor, at the very least. The charge that the mother and her attendants had been consorting with the devil was always possible, and the penalty for witchcraft could be death.

Anne asked her old minister for help -- John Cotton, who had sided with the religious authorities against her. Summoning some of his old friendship for her, he advised the secret burial of the dead infant.

However, in March of 1638, when Anne was excommunicated and sent from the congregation, Mary got up and followed her. Someone at the emotional scene, perhaps a fourth woman who had been present at the birth, cried out that Mary had borne a monster. Governor John Winthrop's interest was piqued.

Winthrop interrogated Cotton, who confessed his role in covering up the birth. Winthrop had the child exhumed.

In his journal, the governor reported that the dead infant had, among other features, "four horns, hard and sharp," two mouths, and three claws per foot where her toes should have been.

The birth was, Winthrop declared, evidence of  "the Lord declaring his detestation of their monstrous errors." By this time, however, Anne and her followers, including the Dyers, were safe in Rhode Island.

In 1660, long after Anne's death, Mary Dyer was hanged on Boston Common for the crime of having become a Quaker. She had come back from Rhode Island knowing she would likely be executed, to strike a blow for religious freedom.

Anne Hutchinson, Colonial midwife

Anne Hutchinson, an early Boston, Mass., midwife, was a brilliant and original thinker and an ardent defender of the right of the individual to make up her own mind.

Anne Hutchinson

Anne Hutchinson depicted at her trial

Hutchinson and her family followed their minister, John Cotton, from Boston, England, in 1634. She was a prominent member of her Puritan community in the Massachusetts Bay Colony and a highly regarded midwife, who reportedly attended women in birth free of charge.

Religion was a major focus of her life, but Hutchinson claimed the right to forge her own relationship with God. She soon ran afoul of the Bay Colony's authoritarian leaders, and was charged with heresy.

Hutchinson's major claim to fame lies in the brilliance with which she defended herself in civil and ecclesiastical trials. At the time of her civil trial, presided over by Governor John Winthrop, she was 46 years old, the mother of 14, and pregnant. During the trial, the governor called her an "American Jezebel."

In 1638, Hutchinson was found guilty and sentenced to banishment to Rhode Island just four years after her arrival in the New World.

The leaders of the Massachusetts Bay Colony were so shaken by the quality of both her theological and legal arguments that they determined to educate their religious and civil leaders to withstand future assaults on their authority. That determination became part of the mission of Harvard College, which had been founded in 1636.

After Anne's husband, William Hutchinson, died in 1642, she left Portsmouth, taking her youngest children to the area now known as the Bronx, N.Y., then held by the Dutch. The Hutchinsons unwittingly walked into a bloody altercation between the Dutch and Native Americans that became known as Kieft's War. In 1643 Hutchinson and several of her children were murdered by Indians.

When word of Hutchinson's death reached Boston, the church bells reportedly pealed for a full 24 hours with joy that God had finally taken retribution on this troublesome woman.

Illustration by Edwin Austin Abbey