A New Women's Movement for Personal and Cultural Healing
Following in the health and healing spirit of the new discussion group, Listen to Your Own Pulse, this is my latest Think Girl column from www.thinkgirl.net. As always, I love to hear comments or to start a discussion!
By Julie Fiandt
This column begins a new series on women's health and healing. It considers the history of traditional women of color healers, and recent work by women's health advocates to promote holistic health amid mind/body splits and Western biomedicine. Also, it illuminates storytelling and activism as essential to health and healing. A movement grows among women, one which promotes personal and cultural healing amid racism, sexism, post/colonialism, mind/body splits, and other global/cultural ruptures.
COLUMN 1: THE OFT-HIDDEN HISTORY OF LATINA AND AMERICAN INDIAN WOMEN HEALERS
In her memoir The Woman Who Watches Over the World, Chicksaw and Anglo writer Linda Hogan shapes a potent metaphor for herself and for other women. In Mexico she purchased a clay figurine of a woman perched atop the world labeled “The Bruja Who Watches Over the Earth." As Hogan explains, “Bruja is the Spanish word for a woman healer, soothsayer, or sometimes a witch” (she misinterprets bruja: it only means witch). Hogan had this clay woman shipped home. The figurine’s legs broke off during the journey. Soon, her nose and hands broke. Hogan tried to glue her back together, to no avail, and wrote about the experience: “The woman who watches over the world was broken. Despite my efforts she remained that way, fragmented and unhealed." Initially disappointed, Hogan soon realized that the clay woman proved an apt metaphor for her own journey through physical and psychological pain, and the earth’s journey through such painful events as colonialism and environmental degradation. Similarly, sociologist Arthur W. Frank emphasizes the role of metaphor in such junctures. In his writing he gives a similar example of how, in The Cancer Journals, Audre Lorde, while facing the loss of her breast, compares herself to the one-breasted Amazon women. She “fashions a potent metaphor for her new identity."
Hogan’s metaphor suggests that healing is never complete; it remains a lifelong search for wholeness. Here, a wounded healer emerges. In her essay collection Dwellings, Hogan had similarly written, “We are the embodiment of paradox; we are the wounders and we are the healer." In her "curative history" Remedios, Puerto-Rican born and Jewish-American writer Aurora Levins Morales also labels herself a wounded healer. This figurine becomes a metaphor for many women of these wounded Americas, from Mexico, the home of the clay figure, to the reservations.
Another common belief connects these two writers: Hogan believes that history is a cause of illness; Levins Morales’s promotion of medicinal history suggests that she would agree. Levins Morales believes in telling “undertold” stories, such as those of the women healers persecuted in the European witch hunts, as will soon be explored. The histories of Latina and American Indian women healers, as well as Anglo healers, remain undertold stories. In step with this claim, Hogan labels the lost histories of indigenous healers “phantom medicine."
In a survey of Western women healers across time, Woman as Healer, Psychology Professor Jeanne Achterberg conveys the lack of historical documents on— and artifacts relating to—women healers. This is a difficulty across cultures, though she does not specifically claim this. She does recognize the need to examine women healers in an interdisciplinary manner, both for the widest possible range of resources and for the fullest representation of their lives and work. She writes:
The information presented here had to be carefully teased out of a few surviving works written by women healers, from relics and artifacts, from myth and song, and from what was written about women. The experience of women healers…is a shadow throughout the record of the world that must be sought at the interface of many disciplines: history, anthropology, botany, archaeology, and the behavioral sciences (2).
Achterberg finds a few women healers who made literary contributions, including the early feminist Christine de Pisan and the autobiographer and holy woman Margery Kempe. For the most part, however, women healers’ stories remain untold—in written and oral form—and their experiences and accomplishments unacknowledged. Nonetheless, enough information exists to know that women have played extensive healing roles across time. In their pioneering pamphlet, Witches, Midwives, and Nurses: A History of Women Healers, social critics Barbara Ehrenreich and Deirdre English explain:
Women have always been healers. They were the unlicensed doctors and anatomists of western history. They were the abortionists, nurses and counsellors. They were pharmacists, cultivating healing herbs and exchanging the secrets of their uses. They were midwives, travelling from home to home and village to village…They were called ‘wise women’ by the people, witches or charlatans by the authorities. Medicine is part of our heritage as women, our history, our birthright (1).
This heritage, while broken in ways that will soon be explained, continues despite difficulties in researching it. While seeking current Latina and American Indian women healers to interview for the book that would become Medicine Women, Curanderas, and Women Doctors, author Bobette Perrone, poet H. Henrietta Stockel, and psychologist Victoria Krueger struggled to find subjects. They wrote:
The search was arduous and limited because of the declining number of traditional Native American women healers and the cultural disapproval they frequently face when discussing the sacred aspects of Native American healing with ‘outsiders’ (xii-xiii).
They noted that many traditional healers are aging and do not have replacements in line. As a result, whether studying past or current women healers, audiences must know that the historical information they receive is partial and limited. Current women healers may limit the information they share with cultural outsiders. Also, even when research directly addresses the lived experience of current healers, cultural outsiders most likely will not understand the full context. The stories of women healers are as varied, complex, and inestimable as the healing methods and processes themselves.
To be continued in future www.thinkgirl.net columns...
Achterberg, Jeanne. Woman as Healer. Boston: Shambhala, 1991.
Ehrenreich, Barbara, and Deirdre English. Witches, Midwives and Nurses: A History of Women Healers. 2nd ed. Old Westbury: Feminist, 1973.
Frank, Arthur W. The Wounded Storyteller: Body, Illness, and Ethics. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1995.
Hogan, Linda. Dwellings: A Spiritual History of the Living World. New York: Norton, 1995. New York: Touchstone-Simon, 1996.
Hogan, Linda. The Woman Who Watches Over the World: A Native Memoir. New York: Norton, 2001.
Levins Morales, Aurora. Remedios: Stories of Earth and Iron from the History of Puertorriqueñas. New York: Beacon, 1998. Cambridge: South End, 2001.
Lorde, Audre. The Cancer Journals. Argyle: Spinsters Ink, 1980. San Francisco, Aunt Lute, 1995.
Perrone, Bobette, H. Henrietta Stockel, and Victoria Krueger. Medicine Women, Curanderas, and Women Doctors. Norman: U of Oklahoma P, 1989.