Editor's Blog

Sheila Kitzinger – We owe her

I was shocked recently when talking to a group of midwifery students to find that many of them had never heard of Sheila Kitzinger.

I was also shocked to hear of Sheila’s death last Sunday.

I think she was an amazing woman – an inspiration to thousands of women across the world who, from the 1960s onwards, have tried to reclaim childbirth for themselves in the teeth of an authoritarian, powerful medical establishment that has sought to elevate medical knowledge above women’s. Not that Sheila ever thought that there was no place for medical expertise. However, she did think that there was a place for listening to women.  And she did think that women’s experience of having a baby mattered. When qualitative research was in its infancy, Sheila was writing leaflets with titles such as ‘Women’s experience of episiotomy’. She put women back into the experience of birth in hospital, of home birth, water birth and birth in prison.

Did she think women were strong? Yes, she believed women knew about birth. She believed that there was, what we would now describe as an epigenetic effect, in terms of the transmission of female knowledge about ‘the birthing business’. She also believed in ‘the women’s network’, the potential for achieving change by bringing women together – hence her involvement in the early  NCT. She loved to talk to women, and she was just as good at listening, as testified to by the telephone counselling service that she provided for women who had experienced traumatic childbirth.

I recall going to her house in Oxfordshire on several occasions and being struck by the generosity of her welcome, and by the paintings on the walls – all of which Sheila had done herself. She was enormously talented; yet ultimately, she sat down with you as one woman talking to another. She was perfectly grounded in herself, and in the work she was doing. She was passionate because she firmly believed that what she was doing was right. She knew it was right to ensure that women prisoners did not give birth chained to a bed and so she made sure that there was an end to this barbaric practice. She knew it was right for women to emerge from childbirth feeling emotionally and spiritually whole and so she campaigned for maternity services that would provide a ‘homelike’ environment and one-to-one midwifery care. She knew it was right for mothers and midwives to work together, sharing their ideas and their knowledge and so she campaigned for birthplans.

Sheila was a huge influence on me – I admired her passion and her commitment and her energy and her knowledge. I don’t expect to meet anyone quite like her again.



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