Season Six of Call the Midwife was lauded by more than one critic as the series’ most feminist yet, but those of us still drying our eyes after the season finale may be trying to sort out what exactly to take from the episode. At first glance, Wilma Godden’s (Olivia Darnley) death as a consequence of the Pill—the oral contraceptive that has been celebrated for its liberating effect for women—looks like a moral judgment by the writers about Wilma’s decision to take the Pill without her husband’s knowledge. In point of fact, though, Call the Midwife’s season-ender is of a piece with the series’ intersectional feminism—or, to be precise, feminisms—which is more working-class and anti-capitalist than the middle-class feminism Americans most often see on TV.
In this, Call the Midwife’s unique accomplishment is to demonstrate why those who insist on referring to feminism in the singular misunderstand a philosophy that split into multiple forms almost from its Second Wave inception. Feminism is a philosophy that has been more successfully defined by its enemies, who had managed to convince most of the young women I taught in college that feminists were women who hated men, didn’t wear make-up, didn’t shave their underarms or legs, and were better known as FemiNazis. And while the past few years have seen a resurgence in the number of young women embracing “feminist” as a self-descriptor, what feminism means still seems to be up for grabs.
Those of us who’ve taken oral contraceptives recognized the disaster in the making when Wilma, a mother of three, took the pills on an irregular schedule, even taking two pills at a time after she had sex with her husband. She was also a smoker. When she complained to Vi (Annabelle Apsion) that her calf hurt, I thought to myself that she had developed a blood clot. Sure enough, by the end of the episode, the clot had come loose and moved up to her lungs, where the resulting pulmonary embolism killed her.
In showing viewers the dangers of early versions of the Pill, the writers seem to be making the point that pharmaceutical companies, eager to make the huge profits they knew awaited the makers of this female wonder drug, rushed it onto the market without warning doctors of the potential complications. The Pill, even now, is associated with blood clots, heart attacks and stroke, and the danger is increased for women who smoke; women are screened carefully before being prescribed the Pill. But that information was not available in 1962: Though viewers may be aware of what is happening with Wilma’s body, she isn’t. It shook me up to think that we now know about the dangers of the Pill because its early forms killed women.
And, in fact, it did. The early clinical trials for birth control pills were conducted on poor women, many of them in Puerto Rico and Haiti. One of the most disturbing pieces of information about those early trials is that one medical researcher found 17 percent of the women had reported “bothersome” side effects, but the major researcher, Dr. Gregory Pincus, dismissed the women’s concerns as “hypochondria.” This despite the fact that one of the women in these trials died of congestive heart failure and another developed pulmonary tuberculosis.
Even more distressing, in 1961—one year before the events of Call the Midewife’s Season Six finale—G.D. Searle, one of the manufacturers of the Pill, reported to the FDA 132 incidents of thrombosis and embolisms caused by blood clots. The FDA ruled, however, that since the rate of these disasters—1.3 out of a 100,000—was considerably lower than the number of women who died from pregnancy complications—36.9 women out of 100,000—it would go ahead and approve the Pill. The question is: Were doctors informed, and if so, did they inform their female patients of the symptoms to watch out for?
Susan Brownmiller, a prominent American feminist, argues that the Pill benefitted middle-class women more than working-class or poor women. Because the Pill has to be taken on a regimen, at the same time every day, it is designed for women in stable circumstances. In the 1960s, middle-class women weren’t working and had more control of their schedules. But as the writers of Call the Midwife show in such a powerful and poignant way, a woman juggling children and a job—not to mention a husband who wants her to have more children, requiring her to hide the Pill from him—is far more likely to run into a medical disaster. Even had the consequence not proven fatal, it’s clear that that on the irregular schedule she was taking the Pill, Wilma might have become pregnant anyway.
This isn’t the first time the series has shown the awful results of a drug ostensibly designed to help women. Thalidomide was initially prescribed as a sedative to help with severe morning sickness, but in 1961, a doctor reported to the Lancet, the British medical journal, that a number of patients who had taken the drug had given birth to babies with severe deformities, including the absence of limbs and eyes; in some cases, the deformities were serious enough to be incompatible with life. The fifth season of Call the Midwife dealt with the realization that one of Dr. Turner’s (Stephen McGann) patients had given birth to one of these affected children; Season Six sees a continuation of the story, as her parents advocate for her to receive the extra medical services that she needs.
Here, Call the Midwife contrasts the mother’s new, modern view of how one treats disabled children—for her, the child is not an object of pity or shame, and deserves the same access to education, recreation and love that her older children are entitled to— with the father’s notion that disabled children should be hidden. As the series demonstrates, his desire to hide his child is borne of his wanting to protect her—he wants to keep her in his house, where he can protect her from prying eyes and make sure that no one ever hurts her again—but Call the Midwife is clear-eyed that those attitudes kept disabled children hidden from view for generations.
While one critic at the The Guardian got his pants in a twist at the idea that the midwives of Nonnatus House were too feminist for their age, the series’ writers have done a marvelous job of showing that feminism is a philosophy that’s adapted and changed according to the class and other conditions of the women in need of it. White, middle-class feminism may represent itself as the feminism, but it doesn’t work for all women, not least the poor women prescribed drugs with dangerous side effects. Call the Midwife’s feminism, to its credit, is multivalent, complex and lived-in—not a slogan on a T-shirt, but a fight waged at the grassroots, and one in which women like Wilma risked, and sometimes lost, their lives.
Full episodes of Call the Midwife Season Six are available to stream on all station-branded PBS platforms, including PBS.org and PBS apps for iOS, Android, Roku, Apple TV, Amazon Fire TV and Chromecast.
Lorraine Berry left academia and now lives near the beach in Florida. Her work has appeared in The Guardian, LitHub, Vox, and other outlets. Follow her on Twitter @BerryFLW.