Women Take Over Healing… Again


caduceus on glossy concrete floor


I recently had a medical procedure at a gastroenterology clinic. Yes, that one. I survived, thank you. But what was heartening to me was that each of the medical personnel I saw was a woman: the nurse, the nurse anesthesiologist, and the doctor. A recent study done by the Association of American Medical Colleges shows that applicants to medical schools are now fairly evenly split between men and women.[1]

What is interesting about this trend is that in the distant past women were the healers. They served as midwives throughout the world and often were the bearers of knowledge of herbal remedies for various illnesses. Because they were barred in many areas from learning through restrictions on education, they passed on their knowledge to each other and the next generation orally.[2]

In Witches, Midwives, and Nurses: A History of Women Healers, Barbara Ehrenreich and Deidre English unpack the takeover of the medical profession by men, noting that this was done long before scientific theory and methods were introduced. Not surprisingly, when men became involved in the profession, they had the support of the ruling classes. What is interesting to this discussion, however, is the role the Church played.

In 1487, two inquisitors of Pope Innocent VIII, both professors of sacred theology in Cologne, Germany, Heinrich Kramer and James Sprenger, published the Malleus Malleficarum, the Hammer of the Witches. The terror that was unleashed, predominantly but not exclusively, against women lasted centuries. According to Ehrenreich, “witches represented a political, religious and sexual threat to the Protestant and Catholic churches alike, as well as to the state.”[3] Many have estimated the number of women put to death at several million. Sometimes there were hundreds of victims put to death in a day. In the Bishopric of Trier, in Germany, “two villages were left with only a single female inhabitant apiece after the trials of 1585.”[4]

While the witch hunt involved a number of factors, a common accusation against them was “possessing medical and obstetrical skills.”[5] The authors of the Malleus Maleficarum singled out “witch midwives” for their strongest condemnation.

“We must add that in all these matters witch midwives cause yet greater injuries, as penitent witches have often told to us and to others, saying: No one does more harm to the Catholic Faith than midwives. For when they do not kill children, then, as if for some other purpose, they take them out of the room and raising them up in the air, offer them to devils.” [6]

The penitent witches referred to were those who, under torture, agreed to testify against other accused witches. The purported harm to the Catholic Church involved using means to care for the sick and to heal with trusted remedies, rather than belief in the healing power of faith. The persecution of lay healers became a conspiracy of the Church, the State, and the growing male medical profession who were educated in medical schools that were closed to women and which taught methods of practice not based on any empirical evidence.

“And if it is asked how it is possible to distinguish whether an illness is caused by witchcraft or by some natural physical defect, we answer that there are various methods. And the first is by means of the judgement of doctors.”[7]

The centuries old disdain on midwives caused needless deaths of mother and child as late as the 20th century. In the early 1900’s, many states banned midwives from delivering children to help promote the growing obstetrical profession. Unfortunately, doctors spread infection by delivering a child in one room in a hospital and then proceeding to the next without washing their hands. A 1912 study by Johns Hopkins University showed that “most U. S. physicians are not as competent as midwives, yet by 1930 doctors have replaced most midwives and dominate childbirth.” [8] In 2012, a few short years ago, only 27 states allow certified professional midwives to practice legally.[9]

Another irony is the symbol today of the medical profession, the caduceus. This is the staff entwined by two snakes as seen in the image above. Snakes in ancient times were associated with female deities or goddesses. The Egyptian hieroglyph for the word goddess is the snake. In addition, our word for hygiene is derived from Hygieia, the Greek and Roman goddess of health. As more women enter the medical profession, these ancient symbols will have come full circle.

Karen Garst

The Faithless Feminist

July 31, 2015

P. S. I am always looking for contributions to my blog. If you are interested in writing, you can contact me here.


[1] https://www.aamc.org/newsroom/newsreleases/358410/20131024.html

[2] https://www.marxists.org/subject/women/authors/ehrenreich-barbara/witches.htm

[3] Ibid, p. 5.

[4] Starhawk. (1979) The Spiral Dance. San Francisco, CA: Harper and Row, p. 6.

[5] https://www.marxists.org/subject/women/authors/ehrenreich-barbara/witches.htm, p. 5.

[6] Malleus Maleficarum, Part I, Question 11.

[7] Malleus Malificarum, Part 1, Question 18.

[8] Heinemann, Sue. Timelines of American Women’s History. (1996)New York: New York. The Berkley Publishing Group, p. 226

[9] http://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2012/02/14/146859861/states-vary-on-what-they-allow-midwives-to-do

About the Author Karen Garst