- By Krysti Shallenberger
GUEST OPINION. Raised deep within the evangelical, far-right movement, I knew overturning Roe v. Wade was a top priority.
Being a woman means inheriting a violent, complicated and oppressive history where men have sought to suppress our knowledge and our bodies. Living in America, that legacy is even more complicated by white women such as I, who participated in even more violent suppression of knowledge and bodies that were not white and that have lived here for millennia.
It’s a tragic result stemming from centuries ago, in Europe, where violent nations, usually through the tool of Christianity, tried to erase Europe’s own Indigenous cultures that once shared similar lifestyles and beliefs as the Indigenous people in America. Some of that knowledge survived, passed down by women to other women through the knowledge of plants, of healing and of birthing. For millennia, women turned to the healers who gave them herbs or other medicine for birth control, and for abortions to protect their own health and to escape severe social punishment.
For that knowledge, many paid with their lives. The Church - and Western governments - murdered thousands of women for daring to use this knowledge to take care of their bodiesl. Midwifery especially was a lucrative business and men decided they wanted part of that bounty. Through laws, death, and fear, men succeeded. The 1970s pamphlet, Witches, Midwives & Nurses, lays out how European governments deprived women of practicing midwifery through licensing laws, and dispossessed them of their own knowledge of how their bodies worked. Through ignorance, they maintained power.
My own ancestry bears witness to this atrocity. My maternal family is Scottish, coming from the Highland and Lowland clans. Great Britain outlawed the Scottish Gaelic language, and Scotland can grimly boast of the most people killed under the Witchcraft Act of 1563 in the British Isles. My great-grandmother could still speak Gaelic - but she never passed that language down to her daughter, my grandmother.
If these tactics seem familiar, they are. These tactics created the United States government, and the fervent Christian tradition that banned sacred healing practices, language, and spiritual beliefs of the Indigenous people. Punishing women who dared to use their knowledge to heal others - branding them as witches which, frankly, is one of the smartest PR efforts in history - kept power firmly within the realm of colonizers.
These practices still endure, however, just underground. In the deep South, where I was raised, Appalachian folk magic and healing practices - from women often known as Granny women - braided together knowledge from the Indigenous communities that they displaced and the enslaved Africans who still carried their knowledge and culture with them to America, with their own secret knowledge from the Old Country.
But, like many white women, I don’t have access to that knowledge because of how successful the suppression became. Men, through medical schools and licensing, have been held up as the ultimate experts of a woman’s body.
After I left the fervently evangelical home in which I was raised, I began befriending people who were not white and were willing to educate me with their own stories. I lived in the Yup’ik community of rural Alaska as a journalist. There, the Yup’ik women gently taught me about their own healing knowledge of plants, of their own ancestry and stories that they kept alive despite the efforts of the U.S. government to kill them, legally, through education, disease, hunting regulations, and displacement.
In fact, I remember vividly one such conversation as I dry-coughed through a painful phone call with a tribal administrator.
“Do you have tundra tea?,” she finally asked me.
“I think so,” I told her. She told me she was surprised that I knew about tundra tea. I told her that my roommate and I had horrible fall colds a few months earlier, and my roommate’s Yup’ik coworkers sent her home with dry sprigs of labrador plants and a couple gallon bags of salmonberries. We boiled the sprigs in hot water, and made smoothies from the salmonberries, packed with vitamin C. Within days, our colds dried up and our chests cleared from congestion. I don’t think I used Western medicine, which is what I normally reach for when I come down with a cold.
This conversation, and the experience from the colds, convinced me that I needed to learn about this kind of knowledge, especially from my own ancestry.
The first step, of course, is to interrogate my own family history. This is the theme of the wonderful Canadian podcast Missing Witches, hosted by two white women, who stress acknowledgement of a person's socio-economic and cultural background, and include cultural context in their conversations.
That’s key to resisting efforts that lead to the draft Roe v. Wade decision. Acknowledging the history of the land; learning about the land itself and how to care for it. And to learn about my own family history, the tragedies that led them to America, the complicity in policies to remove Indigenous peoples from land, the loss of our own plant knowledge and language, and also the strength and resilience to survive and tell these stories to future generations. It also means learning about other spiritual cultures so I do not take from them, so that I tap into my own family customs instead.
It’s ironic that Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito would point to “U.S. traditions” as key to overturning Roe V. Wade. What traditions is he referencing? Not the sacred traditions that Indigenous peoples practice here since time immemorial; not the healing and birthing knowledge women have owned despite efforts to strip them of it; not the fact that abortion has been a “traditional” form of healthcare for millennia. It’s clear the only “tradition” that Alito respects is the tradition of stripping rights of women to take control of their bodies. That is a tradition that dates back centuries.
So in another tactic of resistance, I push against male participation in women’s healthcare. Even in my most conservative days, I intuitively knew men would not understand the pains, the quirks, and the emotional psychology of being “woman.” I choose women for most of my medical needs because I simply do not trust a man to take care of my health.
There are small pockets of resistance to the longstanding medical tradition of birthing in my conservative Alabama town. A few women meet once a month to learn and talk about midwifery. Another woman in my mother’s church is purchasing land so she, and her fiance, can farm it and sustain themselves in a healthy manner.
Even now, when I know the women in my hometown and I disagree sharply over abortion and American history, we can still connect through sharing our stories, our own histories and our pain of being overlooked. Indeed, one day I was helping my mother and the older ladies sort snacks in the food bank of her church and I told them stories of women in history that are hidden.
“Women’s contributions have always been overlooked,” one woman said, shaking her head. “Even in the Bible.”
Slowly, as we connect with these stories, I share more stories that my friends have told me - the pain of hearing racist slurs thrown at them as youth, of grandparents being abused in boarding schools, of our government stripping others of language and culture.
Slowly, in their faces, I can see empathy and outrage blossom. It gives me hope that by sharing this knowledge, we undermine efforts to take away our control and our right to healthcare.
After all, I realize, they haven’t won. Men and powerful governments have been doing this for centuries and still this knowledge of how to heal our bodies, how to use plants and the land to take care of ourselves and our families, persists.
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