In 1914, Feminists Fought For the Right to Forget Childbirth

The concept of "twilight sleep" during childbirth arose around a hundred years ago. Doctors in Freiberg, Germany, would give a woman in labor a combination of drugs, including scopolamine, which gave them the experience of going to sleep and waking up with a new baby. In reality, the drugs did not alleviate pain, but merely caused women to not remember their experience. Patients were often restrained, and even made to wear straightjackets for childbirth. But for the women who experienced it, particularly after several natural births, twilight sleep was a miraculous experience.

“I was so happy,” one women declared. “The night of my confinement will always be a night dropped out of my life,” says another. The association celebrated when a “tenement house mother” gave a twilight sleep speech on the corner of her street.

The twilight sleep movement was immediately controversial, though. While feminist women pushed for access to the technique, doctors fought back. They “refused to be ‘stampeded by these misguided ladies,’” historian Judith Walzer Leavitt wrote, in her account of the movement. Doctors wrote in the popular and academic press about the dangers of twilight sleep and argued that one popular article shouldn’t guide medical practice. But the practice also had advocates in the medical community, and soon American doctors were also traveling to Freiburg to train in twilight sleep techniques.

The campaign was so successful that twilight sleep became the thing to do, and for decades, women weren't given the choice to remain alert during childbirth. With the rise of better painkillers and exposes about twilight sleep, the practice finally faded out in the 1960s. Read about the controversial technique and the campaign to bring it the the U.S. at Atlas Obscura.


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