Barbara Ehrenreich and Deirdre English

Witches, Midwives, and Nurses: A History of Women Healers by Barbara Ehrenreich and Deirdre English traces the systematic and systemic persecution of women as healers beginning with the witch-hunt craze of the 14th through 17th centuries up to the early 20th Century. As Ehrenreich and English demonstrate, women have always been healers, primarily healers of women and the poor. But their journey has been fraught with peril. For over five centuries they faced a systematic, two-pronged attack on their vocation: first from the church and then from the male-dominated medical profession. 

The number of women in Europe who were tortured, burned at the stake, or executed by the Protestant and Catholic churches over a period of three centuries is staggering. By some estimates it is in the millions. These women were accused of any number of crimes: consorting with the devil; committing sexual crimes against men (including causing male impotency and making their penises “disappear”); committing murder; distributing poison. They were even persecuted for using their knowledge of human anatomy and medicinal herbs and remedies to heal and help the sick! As Ehrenreich and English point out, there has not been a consistent justification for shunting women from healing roles.

As we moved toward the 20th Century, the establishment of medicine as a profession requiring university training further diminished the role of women as healers since women were denied access to university. Forced out of the role of healers, women adopted the supporting role of nurses. As such, they manifested the “wifely virtue of absolute obedience” to the doctor, and the “selfless devotion of a mother” to the patient.  

Even though the situation for women in the medical profession has improved since its publication (the 1970s), Witches, Midwives, and Nurses: A History of Women Healers is still well worth reading because it illuminates how two powerful forces systematically and consistently colluded for many centuries in ejecting women from their role as healers and replacing them with male physicians.  

Highly recommended.