Sheila Kitzinger was a British natural childbirth advocate who campaigned for women to have more say in their birth choices. She was an anthropologist and author who was referred to as ‘the Birth Mother of the nation’ and the ‘high priestess of natural childbirth.’
Sheila was born in Taunton on 29th March 1929. Her father, Alec, was a tailor, while her mother, Clare, was Sheila’s inspiration – working for a family planning clinic, campaigning for access to birth control and counselling women from the family living room. It was observing her mother fulfil these roles that sowed the seeds of Sheila’s own passion to support expectant and new mothers. She said about her mother, “Mother was passionately concerned about different aspects of women’s lives, but she left school when she was 14 and never had the education to do the things she needed to do, I felt that I had the education and therefore it was my duty to take her work forward.”
Sheila initially trained as a drama teacher, but then went on to study Social Anthropology at Oxford. In 1951 she continued her research at Edinburgh University. Through her anthropological studies she began to learn about childbirth in different cultures.
She was married in 1952 to a German refugee, Uwe Kitzinger. 4 years later in 1956 Sheila gave birth to her first child. The couple were living in France at the time and Sheila’s insistence on giving birth at home was met with shock. Equally shocking for the time was the fact that Uwe was present at the birth.
Over the coming years Sheila extended her research into birthing traditions and styles around the world, visiting places far and wide, from China to the Caribbean, to Inuit Canada, South America and parts of Africa. She spoke to mothers and observed women giving birth, learning what she could.
In 1958 she was appointed to the advisory board of the recently formed Natural Childbirth Trust which she had helped found (this later became the National Childbirth Trust or NCT and is still going today.) She trained antenatal teachers for the NCT and began lecturing around the world.
But she really made her name in 1962 when she published her first book, serialised in a Sunday paper, The Experience of Childbirth (written, she said, during night feeds with her 4th daughter!) In it she argued that women should be at the centre of childbirth – which may seem like an obvious thing to suggest today, but came during a time where women’s voices and choices were largely kept to the peripherals of their birthing experiences, and the medicalisation of childbirth was at it’s peak. Unpleasant, and often unnecessary procedures were routine for women in labour, and many women’s experiences of giving birth left them feeling powerless. Sheila wrote openly about her own experiences of birth, (in itself a radical thing for a woman to do at the time,) and suggested a move to a more woman-centred approach to childbirth.
The book had a massive impact, stirring up debate and inviting responses from hundreds of women who identified with the lack of choice Sheila wrote about. She later wrote, “It was as if I had pulled out a cork. Women poured out their joy and anguish, their anger and their love, describing their births and telling me how hospitals, doctors and midwives needed to change.”
Slowly the ideas in The Experience of Childbirth began to spread and over the coming decades there was a gradual but certain shift in the way pregnant and labouring women were treated.
Sheila continued to research, write and campaign. She was an advocate for relaxation techniques which would support birthing women without the use of drugs and showed how these helped to prevent many of the complications women faced during labour. She developed the idea of a ‘birth plan’, something pregnant women in the UK today will be very familiar with, and which is now recommended by the NHS. The idea that women should consider, and choose their own birth preferences was a huge move forward in putting them at the centre of their birthing experiences.
She became a global leader in work promoting natural childbirth and supporting women to feel empowered in how they chose to give birth. She conducted often pioneering research, published papers in journals and articles in the press, appeared on radio and television, and toured the world lecturing and speaking to healthcare professionals.
Those who met her said that she was a warm, passionate and funny woman. She used her personality, and perhaps her earlier drama training, to capture her audience and draw attention to her cause. One example of this comes from a time when she was in Ontario campaigning for midwifes to be legalised; she wore a rubber vagina through which she birthed a doll!
She took up a post at The University of West London, teaching on their Midwifery MA, although she never became a midwife herself and in 1982 was given an MBE for her services to education for childbirth. It was even reported that Princess Diana had given birth standing up on Sheila’s advice!
For Sheila, choice in childbirth was a feminist and a political issue, closely intertwined with the hierarchies of power that existed in society at large. She said: “Birth is a major life transition. It is – must be – also a political issue, in terms of the power of the medical system, how it exercises control over women and whether it enables them to make decisions about their own bodies and their babies.”
Less known about, but equally as important to her, was her work with pregnant women and new mothers in prison. She advocated for them, campaigning for women-to-women support during birth and for newborns and their mothers to be allowed to remain together. Another important strand of her work was counselling women whose experiences of giving birth had been traumatic – she set up the Birth Crisis Network which offered a helpline to women who had been affected in this way.
Sheila wasn’t without her critics; some felt that she alienated women who wanted to opt for pain killing drugs during childbirth, or needed a cesarean, leaving them perhaps feeling like a failure. But Sheila herself was adamant that all she really wanted was for women to know what choices they had and to have the autonomy to choose what was best for them, whatever that might be. “The main point is that if women want to, they can share in the decision-making. If they don’t want to, that’s fine, too” she said. She supported women who chose elective cesareans and realised that not all women would have the straightforward births which she had experienced.
Sheila’s work dramatically changed the face of childbirth in the UK, from one where women were often treated as accessories to their childbirth experiences, to one where women have been granted increasing amounts of choice and determinism when it comes to deciding how and where they give birth. Her work changed the norm from being one where fathers were relegated to the hospital corridors, to one where it’s very usual now for them to be active birth companions, in the room supporting their partners. She was also instrumental in establishing the importance of breastfeeding for the health of the baby, and creating channels to support women to do so if they could.
Her work and her endless passion to support women had a profound impact on maternity care in the UK and around the world, and created a lasting legacy for this great shero.
Find out more…
Sheila’s autobiography A Passion for Birth: My Life – Anthropology, Family & Feminism was published one month after death in 2015.
You can also read more about all of Sheila’s work on her official website here.
Many of Sheila’s books are still available today, you can see some of them here.
The British Library recorded an interview with Sheila which you can watch here. There are also many videos on YouTube where you can watch Sheila and hear about her theories, including a series of short clips which begin with this one:
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