All my life I have been told about the sacrifices of soldiers. I have learned that warriors have been held in high esteem, regaled as heroes, honored by medals and parades, and compensated by state-paid salaries, pensions, medical care, and burials. The fact that men, and only men, have been subject to a draft has led some to suggest that the inequality of rights between the sexes was historically justified. After all, women have never been required to risk life and limb for the sake of tribe and country.
All of this would not be perplexing if historically most women lived long and easy lives without any threat to health or life beyond those threats faced by men and women alike. Unfortunately, this has not been the case. Behind the much-trumpeted sacrifice of soldiers, has been the unheralded, uncelebrated, unrewarded, and unspoken sacrifice of women in the frequently long, grueling, maiming, and murderous labor called childbirth. In fact, the greatest human killing field has not been the battlefield at all, but the place in between the pelvic bones of a woman, in the shape of a large-headed fetus, whose passage into light often plunged its mother into darkness.
How many women have taken this plunge in the pride and hope of their youth, in great pain and torment, without a stitch of recognition or honor?
On April 10, 2005, Maurice R. Hilleman, a scientist and developer of vaccines, including those for measles, mumps, chickenpox, rubella, hepatitis A and B, and meningitis, died. He is greatly and rightly honored for his accomplishments. Yet despite saving many lives, his birth in 1919 cost his mother her life. And her death in childbirth could be multiplied millions of times over throughout the course of human history.
How could it have been otherwise?
Millennia ago, individual survival came to those with streamlined bodies, women with narrow pelvises who were fleet of foot and could outrun predators. But reproductive success came to those with wide pelvic bones who could easily and repeatedly push out the large-headed offspring that made the dawn and domination of our species possible.
The solution to the competing goals of survival and reproduction?
Most women had pelvic bones just barely wide enough to give birth successfully but not so wide that running fast became impossible. Most of us are the product of such women, those who survived with great difficulty to breed and breed again—or died in the process.
To my foremothers, those warriors of life who suffered and died giving birth to my ancestors, I say this: Your supreme and invisible sacrifice made it possible for me not just to live, but thanks to my big brain, to think as well. You paid the price of my existence, and for this I am eternally grateful.
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