By: Kate D.
Call the Midwife captures a unique moment in history: it is post World War II and the implementation of the National Health Service, but pre-birth control pill. Set in the 1950’s and based on the memoir of Jennifer Worth of the same name, the series follows Jenny and the young midwives that she works with as they serve in London’s East End, a community beset by crippling poverty.
This show is unique for several reasons, any one of which would make it worth watching. It focuses on the lived experiences of women in a way that I have never seen before. Not only are all of the main characters (and most of the secondary ones!) women, but they are nuanced, fully formed, and interesting characters with complex and realistic lives.
But even beyond that, the show takes an unflinching look at women’s health and the effects of poverty. The women of the East End have few options, and almost none of them are good. They have very little control over their lives, because they have little to no control over their fertility. In the first episode Jenny treats a woman who has been consistently pregnant for 20 years, to the point that she has not menstruated in decades (a story pulled directly from Worth’s real-life experience). These issues are addressed so rarely that doing so directly here feels transgressive and revolutionary.
This period of British history is fascinating, because before the National Health Service began in 1948 there was the looming threat of the workhouse. If you could not support yourself because you were either too old, too young, or too ill, you could be sent to one of these government run institutions meant to provide housing and employment, but ultimately the conditions in these workhouses were appalling, and the treatment of their inmates was all too often horrifying.
The midwives work with the nuns of Nonnatus House to provide general medical care to the community, and this provides many opportunities to talk about the ravages of poverty, and the lasting effects of the workhouses, and to address nuanced issues of class and privilege.
Which brings me to my final point: Jenny may be the protagonist, but Chummy is the heart and soul of the show. Jenny is the lens through which we experience the world of Call the Midwife, but Chummy is the one you fall in love with.
As portrayed by Miranda Hart, Chummy is EVERYTHING. She is unabashedly excited and enthusiastic, while being endearingly awkward and more than a little uncomfortable in her own skin. A character that could very easily become the butt of the joke is instead treated kindly, and allowed to be human. She is allowed to have life and romance and triumphs without being reduced to a punchline. It’s mindblowing. She speaks, sometimes literally, to the reality of feeling like you cannot fit. “Because I have hardly ever felt comfortable anywhere, and when I have it’s been with you.” She says in Season 1, episode 6. “It has been the most extraordinary thing, I felt small, and in my proper place, and not at risk of breaking anything precious.” For the first time I see, in Chummy, someone who looks like me, who understands what it is like to go through this world feeling like you don’t (and can’t) fit, and who is not dismissed or reduced to a caricature.
These are all great reasons to watch Call the Midwife. It’s insightful and revolutionary, and addresses important issues, but all of that would fall apart if it weren’t also a genuinely good show. It somehow manages to do all of these things and still be by turns gripping, hilarious, and massively entertaining. You MUST watch Call the Midwife, if only to support well made female-driven media. But really, I think you’ll like it, too.
It’s not that Kennedy or this current House subcommittee ever explicitly said “white hunger is more important than black hunger, white poverty is more important than black poverty.” But the seeming indifference toward black poverty, played out in their actions as elected officials, reflects the privileging of whiteness. It is indecent that any person go hungry, particularly in a country of such abundance. It is indecent to determine that some of those people are more worthy of our investment in their being fed than others. It is indecent to then pretend as if that’s not the case. All these indecencies add up to an injustice. We are a country that practices injustice as a way of life.
Yes, you can be poor and white and still benefit from white supremacy. That’s what privilege is.
For the millions of American women who live this way, the dream of “having it all” has morphed into “just hanging on.” Everywhere they look, every magazine cover and talk show and website tells them women are supposed to be feeling more “empowered” than ever, but they don’t feel empowered. They feel exhausted.
Many of these women feel they are just a single incident—one broken bone, one broken-down car, one missed paycheck—away from the brink. And they’re not crazy to feel that way:
-Women are nearly two-thirds of minimum-wage workers in the country.
-More than 70 percent of low-wage workers get no paid sick days at all.
-Forty percent of all households with children under the age of 18 include mothers who are either the sole or primary source of income.
-The median earnings of full-time female workers are still just 77 percent of the median earnings of their male counterparts.
When we Americans want to do something about poverty, we usually set about “improving” poor people. We may offer education or job training, establish programs to develop the parenting skills of young mothers, require addiction treatment as a condition for receiving housing, put a time limit on welfare benefits in order to motivate poor people to work, or refuse additional welfare payments to discourage future childbearing.
This practice of improving poor people has a long history. Early American reformers traced extreme poverty to intoxication, laziness, and other kinds of unacceptable behavior. They tried to use public policy and philanthropy to elevate poor people’s characters and change their behavior. As the years passed, different sets of behaviors were blamed for poverty and successive methods suggested to improve the poor. Later reformers looked to evangelical religion, temperance legislation, punitive poor houses, the forced breakup of families, and threats of institutionalization - all to improve poor people.
This approach has rested on the individual belief that the individual faults of the poor are the primary causes of poverty: ignorance, lack of training, addiction, laziness, defective character, sexual promiscuity, too many children; the list goes on and on. It is not surprising, of course, that a nation so strongly committed to individualism should so often search for the roots of poverty within the poor persons themselves.