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.

Channeling the women’s rights movement

Women were thought to be more sensitive and spiritual than men in the mid-19th century, so people weren't completely surprised to discover that spirits nearly always chose women to serve as "mediums" to convey their messages to the world of the living.

The medium was the central figure in the Spiritualist faith. Women didn't choose to be mediums -- the spirits chose them -- and they often found themselves doing things they wouldn't have believed women could or should do.Radical Spirits

Mediums not only channeled messages from the dead in small seances, but they also stood up in front of large groups and lectured. When they did so, they were in a trance. Nevertheless, some of these "trance speakers" became hugely successful on the lecture circuit, the historian Ann Braude writes in her book, Radical Spirits: Spiritualism and Women's Rights in Nineteenth-Century America.

To close the loop on our discussion of the role Spiritualism played in preparing American women for a public role in American life, women had been making inroads in some religions, but had not served a primary role before Spiritualism, Braude writes. And religion went a long way toward setting the tone in 19th century life.

Spiritualism began to take shape in 1848, the very year, and in the very same area, the Finger Lakes region of New York State -- the so-called "Burned Over District" -- that gave birth to the organized women's rights movement.

"Dissident Quakers" were at the center of both of these radical movements, and considerable overlap ensued. Quaker women already enjoyed more freedom and prestige than women in other religions, but women who were or would become Spiritualists were so aggressive in pushing for a central role for women that they put off even some of their fellow feminists, Braude writes.

None of the women who put together the Seneca Falls Convention believed a woman should preside over such an assembly, for example. So James Mott, Lucretia Mott's husband, was pressed into service as president of the meeting that established the women's rights movement.

However, when the group met again in Rochester two weeks later, a faction of the women, most of whom later became Spiritualists -- notably Amy Post, Rhoda DeGarmo and Sarah Fish -- insisted that a woman should preside. Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton "stoutly opposed" the motion as "a most hazardous experiment." They wanted James to head this gathering as well.

The meeting was a contentious one, but in the end, Abigail Bush, a Presbyterian who would become a lifelong Spiritualist, was elected president. The world did not come to an end, and the idea of women as leaders took one step forward.

Thanks to my friend, the historian Rima Lunin Schultz, for putting together a list of books for me about how Americans' ideas about women took shape in the 19th century.

As Women's History Month winds down, you might want to visit Birth Activist's  "Women's History Blog Carnival" about "women who have led the way in birth."

Can the VBAC make a comeback?

Let's interrupt our Women's History Month programming to consider the news. The National Institutes of Health today begins a three-day session on vaginal birth after Caesarean, a hot topic, given that this practice, which was commonplace 15 years ago, has become scarce in the United States, at the same time that the Caesarean section accounts for nearly one-third of American births.

The VBAC has some passionate champions. While it isn't for everyone, it can work for many mothers, enabling them to avoid major surgery, and perhaps also to enjoy birth as they have always imagined it. The VBAC's decline has attended a steady rise in reliance on the Caesarean section, in part because the VBAC does carry a risk of rupture to the uterus, which can be life-threatening.

So it will be exciting to see what comes out of this conference, which aims to bring the best research available to bear on determining the safety and efficacy of the practice.

The VBAC is also one subject of an article by Denise Grady in the New York Times on Sunday, about a hospital in Tuba City, Ariz., where 32 percent of women who previously had Caesarean sections delivered vaginally, compared with a national average of less than 10 percent.

The rate of Caesarean births at the Tuba City Regional Health Care Corp., where about 500 babies are born a year, is 13.5 percent, less than half the national rate of 31.8 percent. The hospital is run by the Navajo Nation and is partially funded by the Indian Health Service, and it largely serves a Native American population.

What I love about Grady's account is how well this small, poor hospital appears to be doing in addressing one of the major tensions in the modern birth story -- how to keep the blissful experience of childbirth from being swamped by the technology that has been developed to keep it safe.

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.