Left in Andover: A step back to go forward in women’s health care

By Susan Leader
©2020 Telegraph Publishing LLC

Brattleboro Hospital was the place to deliver when I had my two babies in the mid-1980s. It had been early to adopt woman-centric policies, offering my women friends and me wide latitude in our birth plans.

But Springfield was a shorter drive from my home in Andover. I know my mother was comforted to give birth there in 1951, following her home birth of a stillborn son two years earlier atop Mt. Carmel in Israel.

Mom recalled with gratitude the luxury of lying in at Springfield for almost a week after my birth, being taken care of by the sympathetic female staff. It was the only reprieve farm wives got in those days.

Susan Leader’s birth announcement.

But in 1984, Springfield’s obstetrics department had not yet bought into the new fangled ‘birthing room’ concept. So, John and I set sail down I-91 to Brattleboro in our station wagon with the seats folded down and me stretched out on a foam mattress.

Hours later, under the ministrations of Dr. Artie, shod in his memorable red Converse sneaks, our first daughter was born at Brattleboro Memorial Hospital.

Although never simple, this birth went fine. Since I was not part of the home-birthing movement and there was no Covid-19, I felt completely safe entering the hospital.

Just 100 years ago, most Americans were born at home. By 1940, that number was down to roughly half. By 1970, 99 percent of babies were born in a hospital. The ‘60s counter culture, along with the Amish and other religious groups, accounted for most of the holdouts.

Ina May Gaskin published her guidebook Spiritual Midwifery in 1975, igniting the modern natural childbirth movement and reestablishing home-birth as a viable choice. Minus the far-out psychedelic scenes, the book remains to this day the bible for low-risk expectant moms seeking a natural birth without fear.

Ina May was a partner of Steve Gaskin, authoritarian leader of a fluctuating 300-1500 member hippie cult in Summertown, Tenn., called The Farm. Since the members employed only the rhythm method for contraception, Ina May received extensive practice right at home delivering The Farm’s flood of babies.

Ina May Gaskin’s ‘Guide to Childbirth.’

In 1975 when I visited The Farm, I was supremely unaware of Ina May. Having embarked on a nationwide hitchhiking tour of communes, I was intrigued with Steve Gaskin’s vegan ideology.

The Farm’s scores of able-bodied members applied themselves to growing soybeans, from which they pioneered the production of tofu, tempeh and soy milk, now household staples that were virtually unknown to non-Asian Americans at that time.

After traveling through the surrounding rural area, arriving at The Farm’s front gatehouse felt like entering Narnia. A cadre of rainbow-attired long-haired hippies welcomed me “home.” Many of them had first arrived in exactly the same way.

The core group had originally coalesced around “psychedelic guru” Gaskin at his 1970 Monday Night Class at San Francisco State. As the group spontaneously evolved its mission to help the world and save itself, it set out in a caravan of old school buses and VW vans. Zigzagging across the country, the caravan swelled in numbers. Eventually, drawn by affordable farmland, Haight-Ashbury landed in Tennessee to grow roots.

The welcoming committee assigned 24-year-old me a bunk in a gigantic Army surplus tent that housed about 30 singles, dormitory style, with communally available clothes piled in the corners. To keep us busy, there were mass meetings with Gaskin and farm work. After a week, feeling no compulsion to stay, I stuck out my thumb and left. I thought it could be interesting to go check out Twin Oaks Community in Virginia, where the members all wove hammocks.

I can appreciate the seminal contributions Ina May Gaskin made to the women’s self-care movement. However, I must say how grateful I am that my youthful flirtation with communes ended before I decided to have kids.

‘Witches, Midwives and Nurses.’

Witches, Midwives and Nurses, A History of Women Healers, by Barbara Ehrenreich and Deirdre English, explores the history of health care through an early ‘70s feminist lens, when under 10 percent of medical doctors were female.

The booklet, a guide for ‘70s activists as well as a history, traces the systematic persecution and eradication of female healers (witches) and midwives from medieval to modern times by religious, state and professional forces. Throughout most of history, these female folk healers were the sole providers of health care for the peasant class.

Common folk in early America could access professional (male) doctors if they had the cash, but the medical protocols and pharmaceuticals of the day were questionable at best. As a reaction, the Popular Health Movement arose in the early 1800s with a slogan of “Every man (and woman) their own doctor.”

The feminist authors explain:

“Women were the backbone of the Popular Health Movement. Ladies Physiological Societies, the equivalent of our know-your- body courses, sprang up everywhere, bringing rapt audiences simple instruction in anatomy and personal hygiene. The emphasis was on preventative care, as opposed to the murderous ‘cures’ practiced by the ‘regular’ doctors …The Movement was a radical assault on medical elitism, and an affirmation of the traditional people’s medicine.”

Abby Maria Hemenway recorded only one birth narrative in her “Local History of Andover, Vt” (1886). The birth was in the dead of winter and presided over by a male physician, Dr. Charles Chandler, with unspecified assistance from a neighborhood woman.

From 1800 to 1850, Andover was blessed with this dedicated country doctor who endured extreme weather reaching the homes of his patients: “He often suffered severely from cold and exposure, so scant was his wardrobe. In times of deep snow and impassable roads, he often made long journeys of from 10 to 20 miles to visit his patients.”

The Andover historian describes Dr. Chandler as literally picking up a local woman to assist him at a birth:

Grave site of Dr. Charles Chandler.

“At one of these times, Dr. Chandler was sent for to attend the wife of Jonathan Dudley. He set out at once upon his snow-shoes, and calling upon the house of Dan’l Towns … requested Mrs. Towns to accompany him. She consented, but how could she go? Part of the distance, she went by clinging with her hands to a pole, carried on the shoulders of two stout men. This soon became fatiguing to the lady, and Dr. Chandler directed her to step on to his snow-shoes and walk behind him. She did so, moving her feet forward as he did, and the rest of the journey was performed that way. It is needless for me to add, at that time a new member was added to the family of Mr. Dudley.”

A Chester native, Dr. Chandler lived less than a mile up the road from my house. His homestead was across Weston-Andover Road from Middletown Cemetery, where he is buried.

Now is the time to resurrect the model of care that Dr. Chandler exemplified. Mobile birthing vans manned — or more statistically likely wo-manned — by hospital-affiliated midwives and obstetricians may be just what the doctor ordered in this age of Covid-19.

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Filed Under: Community and Arts LifeLeft in Andover

About the Author: Vermont native and noted potter Susan Leader grew up on Popplewood Farm in Andover. At age 17, she was inspired to take up the potter's wheel by "a charismatic potter" from the Society of Vermont Craftsman. She spent 18 months apprenticing at pottery villages throughout Japan. She returned to Popplewood Farm, where she and her husband, fiddle player John Specker, raised their two daughters.

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