Feminism is a concept that is sometimes a little hard to define. You could go to the dictionary and it talks about advocating the equality of women with men across all domains, but that rather self-evident truth doesn’t feel sufficient somehow. I’ve always felt that feminism has an obligation to advocate for the value of validity of all women, and their work and experiences. And if that’s the definition you go with, then you’d be hard pressed to find a more feminist show than Call the Midwife.
Call the Midwife is a BBC series based on the memoirs of the same name, written by Jennifer Worth. It centres on the lives of the nurse-midwives of Nonnatus House, in the poor working class area of Poplar in London in the 1950s and 60s. Just to add a bit of a fun twist, half the team of nurses are young women (well, at least until the middle-aged Nurse Crane shows up in the fifth series) and the other half are Anglican nuns. I mean, nuns who also blow you away with their medical competence? Yes, please.
When we start our series it’s 1957, the dark days before the pill. But not the super dark days before the pill and the NHS. Most of the women in Poplar are poor, they often live in very bad housing, and they have child after child. These aren’t women who are on the forefront of progressive social activism. Many of them have wholeheartedly internalized the patriarchal norms of their society, but they’re also the women who are most harmed by it.
While individual episodes focus on the nurses, they also tell the story of one of their patients. Many different themes are covered, giving you a very good snapshot of life in a period of significant social change.
The most memorable episodes to me have always been those about women who become pregnant in… less than ideal circumstances. In the first season, Jenny encounters a young sex worker full of dreams for the new life she’ll make for herself and her baby. But she’s destroyed when the states decides that she’s an unfit mother, and take her daughter away. In the second season, one episode features an impoverished mother of eight who turns to desperate means to terminate her latest pregnancy. The latest season dealt with a young teacher who lost both her job and her housing after she was exposed as being pregnant out of wedlock.
As a woman who became pregnant under less than ideal circumstances myself, these stories make me absurdly grateful for the last fifty years of social progress, but they also really highlight just how much the system ground women down and took away any chance they had to make anything out of their circumstance. When you broke the rules, that was kind of it, and it was often other women who were complicit in the ruthless enforcement of patriarchal norms.
The midwives of Nonnatus House, even the ones who are literally nuns, fight—in an almost unknowing way—against the damage that the patriarchy does in the lives of women. They strive to live up to the best ideal of Christianity, and treat all their patients with compassion. There’s actually more than one episode that deals with one of the sister struggling with this aspect of their practise, and with their commitment to not pass judgement on people who have, in their view at least, made terrible life choices.
In fact, there are moments when the pragmatism of the sisters, especially Sister Julienne, who runs the joint, is more than a little awesome. Like, maybe your husband doesn’t have to know he’s not the father. He would hardly be the first. But this isn’t because she’s an awesome feminist (maybe she kind of is…), but it’s more born out of what had to be done just to survive. And when you cared about people, you had no choice but to be transgressive to actually effect real change.
The intersectional nature of the oppression the women of Poplar faced, and the desire of the show to be a means for the audience to examine its own privilege, was hammered home in the very first episode. Jenny finds herself judging a mother who’s the very stereotype of a “common” working-class woman. When she’s also diagnosed with syphilis, Jenna had a bit of a meltdown and tells Sister Julienne that “[she] had no idea people lived like this.” The sister basically tells her that these women have no idea how to care for themselves, because no one has ever taken care of them. This show tells stories that can make the audience uncomfortable, stories that they may not want to hear sometimes, but it always goes back to the essential humanity and goodness of individual people.
As the series progresses, other massive social changes and seminal issues are also dealt with. We see Poplar becoming more diverse as waves of immigrants from the Commonwealth join the community, and have babies. (The nurses decide to check out that strange new Indian food!) The introduction of the contraceptive pill makes waves, just as the thalidomide scandal sends the nurses into a panic.
The series does examine the men of the community as well, and deconstructs the concept of toxic masculinity and the harm it does. (If you want to talk about how the world has changed, think about how few fathers in 1960 would ever be caught dead pushing a pram.) But in general, this is a show about women, and the uncelebrated lives they often lead. The focus among the protagonists is always about the platonic relationships between women (though, yes, there is a same-sex relationship in there too. DeliaxPatsy 4evr!), and the characters exercising their agency, whether it’s Sister Bernadette deciding to leave the order to marry Doctor Turner, or Trixie asserting her right to wear an immodest leotard while teaching a fitness class.
I recommend this show. Heartily; you should watch it. But I would feel remiss in my duty if I didn’t warn you that… it can get a little cheesy. Like, a cube of cheddar dipped in fondue then rolled in parmesan crumble kind of cheesy. People like to talk about “The Power of Love” a lot. And there’s a voiceover that tells you the theme of the episode.
But I’m not going to lie either—every single damn episode of this thing makes me cry like a baby. And there was also that time when someone told their mother she wasn’t going to wear white to her wedding because she was “no longer entitled.”
Yeah, this is the show we all need.