There is a special place in my heart reserved for British television and period costume dramas–anything from Pride and Prejudice to Bleak House to Downton Abbey. So, when I heard that BBC’s newest period drama combined fierce independent career women with 1950s hoop skirts, I knew I had to check it out.
Call the Midwife is a television dramatization of the memoirs of Jennifer (Lee) Worth¹, a young nurse and newly qualified midwife who takes a job in the impoverished East End of London in the 1950s. In the show, nurse Jenny Lee is shocked when she finds out her new job is not at a small hospital, but at Nonnatus House, a nursing convent that houses nuns (who are also nurse midwives) along with young secular nurses. The show is realistic and gritty, detailing poverty in its worst forms–pregnant women infected with syphilis, patients traumatized by workhouses, and bugs crawling over tea-plates. Alongside their grittiness, Call the Midwife episodes all end with a silver-lining: some sort of lesson that is learned and narrated over each episode’s closing by an older, wiser, Jenny.
Bitch Magazine has already tackled some of the important connections between Call The Midwife and reproductive justice². Although in the 1950s birth control had been developed and used by wealthier married women in the United States, most forms of birth control were non-existent for the women in Call the Midwife. Married women gave birth to baby after baby whether they wanted to or not, and women who had sex outside of marriage took the enormous risk of pregnancy “out-of-wedlock”. Though the nuns and nurses of Nonnatus House are all midwives, their reproductive health practice goes beyond simply attending births. The show addresses STDs, incest, miscarriage, and infectious disease prevention. We see the nuns and nurses care for premature infants, veterans, mother’s who’ve lost babies, and people at the end of their lives. Perhaps most importantly, and most interestingly to me, Jenny Lee and company provide emotional as well as medical care to their patients.
In the second episode of series one, a young Irish girl stops nurse Jenny Lee on the street and begs her to change a bank note for her, revealing that she hasn’t eaten in two days, but is afraid someone will think she stole the money if she uses it to purchase a meal. Jenny immediately notices that the girl looks pregnant, and takes her into the restaurant for some food. The girl, Mary, reveals that she ran away from a rough family situation in Ireland and was taken in by a man named Zakir and forced to work as a prostitute. After they share a meal, Mary, who is only fifteen years old, tells Jenny that she can’t go back to the brothel because she is afraid that they will hurt her and force her to have an illegal abortion. Mary tells Jenny that she sometimes slept with three or four men in a night and tells a shocked Jenny: “God love your innocence, Nurse Jenny Lee. Which of us is the oldest now?”
Sister Julienne, the nun in charge of Nonnatus House, finds Mary a place to stay at Father Joe’s home for unwed mothers. After discovering that Zakir has been following and watching Mary, Jenny and Father Joe quickly transfer her to another home far outside of the city, where she gives birth to a baby girl called Kathleen. Jenny visits Mary, who tells Jenny about her experience giving birth. “The midwife had a mustache… I yelled a little bit. She kept on saying ‘Nearly over’… All I kept thinking was, it’s nearly starting. I’m nearly a mam.” Jenny returns to Nonnatus House, pleased that she was able to help Mary and her child.
A short time later, Jenny receives a letter in the mail, with a messily written note stating, “baby gone please come”. Jenny immediately knows it is from Mary and rushes to the home to check on her. Jenny finds Mary sobbing and screaming for her baby, who has been placed for adoption by Father Joe. Jenny is furious as Father Joe tells her “Babies are always placed for adoption in these cases. It’s thought to be in the child’s best interest.” Jenny asks, “What about Mary’s best interest? She is that child’s mother and she did not consent!” Father Joe responds: “She can’t consent. She’s only fifteen. She’s legally a child herself… it was a case of which child should we choose.”
This exchange between Father Joe and Nurse Jenny Lee is fascinating. While Father Joe displays a paternalistic concern for what he thinks is right for Mary, his concerns should not be written off. He later brings up issues of economic justice, mentioning that Mary has no home, no education, or skills other than prostitution. He stresses that without a baby, Mary will be employable. He says: “She could find love. She could have another child.” Jenny asks “Do you think that will console her?” and Father Joe replies, “It consoles me.” Jenny then cares for Mary, physically and emotionally, though there is nothing she can do to reconnect Mary with her wanted child.
In many ways, these strict traditions about unwed mothers and babies born out of marriage are a thing of the past. But shaming teen mothers who choose to parent is not a relic of the 1950s. New York City’s recent ad campaign³ against teen pregnancy has been heavily criticized by feminists for shaming teens who choose to parent, whether their pregnancy was planned or not. NYC’s campaign echoes Father Joe’s concerns that a teen parent will not have the economic ability to care for a child and therefore should not be given a chance to parent.
This episode of Call The Midwife does not leave viewers feeling like either Father Joe or Nurse Jenny were correct. As the episode closes we see Mary leaving the home without her child and into an uncertain future as adult Jenny tells us: “Mary was never reunited with her child. She might look for her, but her name would not be Kathleen anymore.” Mary’s blank face in this final scene reminds us that Mary was not allowed to control her reproductive future. While the nuns at Nonnatus House were able to save Mary from a forced abortion, they were not able to assist her in keeping and parenting the child that she very much wanted. In the reproductive justice movement, there is often a focus on making sure all people can access safe and legal abortion, but Call the Midwife is an important representation of the range of issues that reproductive justice must address in order to truly allow every person to determine their own lives.
¹ Call the Midwife by Jennifer Worth (please buy from local/independent bookstores when you can!)
² Call the Midwife: What Nuns Know about Reproductive Justice by Jill Moffett. Bitch Magazine (29 Oct, 2012)