The Subversive Wisdom of ‘Old Wives’ Tales’

Letter of Recommendation

The Subversive Wisdom of ‘Old Wives’ Tales’

Women’s care has always depended on women’s sharing stories with one another.

An illustration showing a silhouette of a face against the backdrop of a starry sky. A second silhouette of a face overlaps it, pointing the other direction, with its lips close to the first face’s ear.
Credit…Illustration by Vartika Sharma

By Hillary Brenhouse

March 14, 2023

As a kid, I believed every last old wives’ tale. I was sure that if I read in the dark I would go blind. That if I swam in the lake after a generous lunch I might sink to the bottom. That if I swallowed my bubble gum, the kind that came with a tiny comic strip, the hardened pebble of it would ferment in my stomach for the next seven years, which was a whole lifetime to me then.

In pregnancy I was a child again, vulnerable to received wisdom, desperate for anyone or anything that might show me the way. Through all of it, women considered my belly — how low it hung, how it led the rest of my body around — and declared that I was having a boy. I couldn’t help picturing my young son, until the day, eight months ago, when my baby slid into the tub water and I held her up to the lousy bathroom light.

The imagined divide between “legitimate” knowledge and the stories of women is archaic, older even than the King James Bible, in which Paul advises Timothy to “refuse profane and old wives’ fables, and exercise thyself rather unto godliness.” But the phrase “old wives’ tales” became popular in America in the 19th century, when a nascent medical establishment decided it would dismantle and replace female lay-healing traditions. Midwives, many of them older Black and immigrant women, were the final holdouts in this takeover. They were so thoroughly disparaged by male obstetricians that midwifery was essentially outlawed in the United States.

The physicians condemned the midwives in the name of science. These “old wives,” who educated one another in the evidence of their experience and rarely wrote anything down, were accused of trading scraps of hearsay, a damning indictment. For what could possibly be less credible than a story told by a woman?

As long as I’ve had a body and been confused by it, which is to say forever, I have been guided by women’s stories. Not the fictions that are called old wives’ tales no matter their source, simply by virtue of being nonsense. I’m talking about actual old wives’ tales: women offering counsel based on their encounters with sex and birth and bodily ailments.

It’s necessary to our survival that we tell each other stories.

The first who comes to mind is Gabriella, the Jewish Hungarian aesthetician who waxed my bikini line for the first time, each of my legs draped over one of her soft thighs as she recited remedies for ingrown hairs, bunions, bags under the eyes. Women, drawing on their own lives, told me how to lessen the agonizing endometriosis pain that has been routinely waved away by my doctors. (Coriander essential oil and masturbation, but not together, please.) An older unlicensed midwife advised me during my third trimester, sharing details about the hundreds of labors she’d attended and plants that help to prevent hemorrhage.

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It’s hard to say what’s most fatal about the label “old wives’ tale.” Are we to mistrust the tale because it originated with an old wife, or because stories are inherently unreliable? The idea that first-person storytelling can’t act as a vehicle for authoritative knowledge is well worn. As Melissa Febos writes, “Resistance to the lived stories of women” is “founded on the false binary between the emotional (female) and the intellectual (male), and intended to subordinate the former.”

And yet women’s care has always depended on women’s sharing stories with one another. I’m reminded of it every time I find myself scrolling message boards into the night, searching not just for answers but to feel less alone. There they are, other women who didn’t feel quite right after the loop electrosurgical excision procedure, or LEEP, which removes abnormal tissue from the cervix. Other women wondering if their copper IUDs might actually be responsible for their strange conditions. Others with postpartum hemorrhoids, low libido, long Covid. Women are severely underrepresented in clinical trials and far more likely to have their symptoms dismissed as illusory. It’s necessary to our survival that we tell each other stories, extract their insights and suggest paths toward relief, even when these may lead nowhere.

But frequently they lead somewhere. Long before the development of modern scientific technology, many American midwives, acting on anecdote and observation, engaged in preventive care. Formally trained doctors, meanwhile, embraced rituals, like bloodletting, that were often ineffective when not murderous. As Barbara Ehrenreich and Deirdre English write in their foundational text “Witches, Midwives and Nurses,” these women healers “developed an extensive understanding of bones and muscles, herbs and drugs, while physicians were still deriving their prognoses from astrology and alchemists were trying to turn lead into gold.”

Perhaps the authors of the ill-founded old wives’ tales we swap were operating according to a different kind of wisdom, the kind we aren’t used to recognizing. Swallowing too much gum will indeed block your digestive tract. Reading in low light causes eye strain. It’s worth looking beyond the distinction between science and superstition, toward what else might count as knowledge.

I think about the lessons of my embodied experience as the hair that fell out several months after I gave birth begins to grow back in. Tiny new hairs have sprouted across my scalp — I look as though I were scribbled in a kindergarten class — and every day I stop myself from pulling out the white ones. I know it can’t be true, the story that says if you pluck a white strand, two will take its place. But I remember it, more than any sterile prescription slip I was ever handed. I remember it because it was told — vivid and fantastic and utterly terrifying — to be remembered. And then I avoid the futile work of fighting against my own aging, scribbled self, which is maybe just the remedy the tale intended.

Hillary Brenhouse is a writer based in Montreal and an editor at large of Guernica magazine.

About Dr Colin Holloway

Gp interested in natural hormone treatment for men and women of all ages

Posted on March 19, 2023, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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