On becoming a birth activist

IBO logo2

By: Mandi Hardy Hillman

How did I become a birth activist?  It’s hard to explain.  I think the best way to sum up my evolution to activism is with a quote from Albert Einstein, “The world will not be destroyed by those who do evil, but by those who watch them without doing anything.”

Let me translate.

I did a little research – okay, I did a lot of research.  I wrote a dissertation on the feminist history of birth in America – and I discovered that we have drifted a bit off course.  I came to understand that the way we do in birth in America is not normal.  We are not treating pregnancy and birth as though they are normal biological functions of a woman’s body.  As a consequence bad things are happening to our moms and babies (and the rest of their families) in this country.  And when I say bad things, yes, I am talking about morbidity and mortality.  We’re not looking good here folks – not at all.  Here’s the bottom line for me: I cannot know what I know – about the oppression and silence of our collective birth story – and do nothing.  That’s how I became an activist.

So, that’s simple enough, huh!

Well, here’s the second part of the problem.  I’ve  spent a lot of time trying figure out how to tell people this truth. How do I sum up all that reading and research in a way that clearly communicates how we got here and what it means for women and babies?  And then, last week, there it was.  I was reading a book that shared this story describing the state of our educational system.  I couldn’t help but recognize how it perfectly reflects the current state of the maternity care culture in our country.

There once was a cage that held four gorillas.  In the middle of the cage was a box.  Every morning, the zookeeper hung beautifully fresh bananas above the box, and the gorillas climbed the box to get the bananas.  One morning, the first gorilla climbed the box, and as soon as he was atop, fire hoses shot out of the walls and painfully pummeled all four of the creatures.  A few minutes later, another gorilla climbed the box, and the same thing happened.  A few tries more, and the gorillas decided to bananas weren’t worth the pain that day.  After a few days of the same, they quit even trying to climb the box.  If one of the gorillas forgot and started even looking at those beautiful bananas, the other gorillas would gang up and beat him.  Eventually, the poor beasts never approached the box or looked at the bananas.  Then the zookeeper replaced one of the gorillas.  The new gorilla was so excited when he saw the box and the bananas.  As he swung his long arm toward the box the other three gorillas pummeled him while screaming.  He hung his head and ran to a corner.  Every morning, as he got excited over the fresh bananas, the other gorillas began the torture.  Once that gorilla was trained to stay away from the box, the zookeeper substituted another new gorilla.  He repeated substitutions until all four of the original gorillas that had been painfully hosed were gone and there were four new gorillas.  The new gorillas had never been hosed, but they continued to beat each other if anyone we for the box and the bananas.  They had no idea why they did what they did, but it was all they knew so they continued. 


Yes my friends, this is where we are.  Most of us have no idea why we are doing what we are doing, and yet we do it anyway.  We assume it’s for our good, but we’ve truly never known any other way.  We’ve been told any other way is “bad” or “dangerous” so we [generally] comply without asking “why?”  We’re in a mess.

Keeping this story about the gorillas in mind here’s another quote I’ll share with you that might help you [re]think the current climate of the maternity culture in America.

Hedegmony: The way in which dominant classes control and exploit subordinate groups by consent, thereby masking exploitation by convincing the exploited that their condition was natural to them, even good for them (Madison, 2005, p. 53).

How’s that sit with you?

If it doesn’t sit well, maybe you’re an activist too.  But, fear not, you’re not alone.  There are many of us, and we’d love to have you!

This blog was originally posted by the Birth Activist Collective on July 17, 2013.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *