Examining the Rhetoric of Pregnancy

While researching for my dissertation proposal, I came across an academic study called The Rhetoric of Pregnancy (2014) by Marika Seigel. I read it eagerly, for information about women’s experiences with pregnancy and work and as a representative sample of a dissertation turned book.  From what I gathered, this project was Seigel’s dissertation in my field, technical and professional communication, and it gave me a good idea of what is expected of me as I begin researching and writing my own dissertation. I enjoyed this one on Mission Beach in San Diego, as we recently visited California for warmth, Disneyland, and relaxation.


Seigel’s study interrogates the rhetoric used in popular pregnancy manuals, looking at women as users of the technological system of healthcare for pregnant women.  She understands women’s experiences as influenced by the medicalization of childbirth and notes the difficult contradictions and prescriptions in popular pregnancy manuals.  My favorite thing about this study was the inclusion of historical manuals.  The analysis serves as a history of thought on pregnancy and the way the female body should be treated and constrained during this “medical” event.

She identified three major assumptions “around which the modern technological system of prenatal care is structured” (p. 13). First, that “pregnant bodies can become the sites through which social, political, and environmental risks are managed” (p. 13). Second, that prenatal care is meant to discipline the pregnant women (see Foucault). And third, that the goal “of the work of pregnancy . . . is assumed to be not only a healthy fetus (or a health mother) but also a normal fetus” (p. 13). The role of doctors then becomes identifying abnormality through testing technologies.

We learn that the manuals are often written from a “troubleshooting” stance, focusing “on problems that the user might have with medical technologies or procedures (doctors might also be forgetful or clumsy, after all), for example, or with domestic or social situations that might also threaten a pregnancy, such as abuse and poverty. System errors, in this case, originate with the maternal body, itself represented as an apparatus that threatens malfunction” (p. 10).  These manuals tend to treat women as possibly defective objects that need expert care and advice.  One example of this is the Pregnancy for Dummies manual.

Such manuals also tend to assume that the medical establishment is the ultimate authority, leaving women with little ethos about their own bodies and experiences.  Seigel suggested that women need critical access to the technological system of pregnancy and childbirth so they know “how to engage strategically with, disengage from, and negotiate a technological system” (p. 20).  The ultimate goal of her rhetorical analysis is to empower women.  Seigel recommended that instead of asking what is wrong with the user, we should ask what is wrong with the system.  “Documentation that works toward system disruption might help a user to manipulate parts of the system, negotiate the system, or change the system even in a small, local way” (p. 74).

Much of Seigel’s critique is grounded in Burke’s notion of pieties, or “orientations that determine what people can or cannot say and do” (p. 25). We see these expectations reiterated in the manuals, encouraging women to enact them, whether or not they feel comfortable doing so. Seigel evaluated these pieties throughout all of the manuals she explored, noting the metaphor of gambling and risk.  Women might feel threatened and uncomfortable in their pregnancies because of the many warnings, rather than receiving empowering messages about the normal and natural. We learn that “Information may be medically accurate, but if it alienates, confuses, or disempowers its users, that information is useless” (p. 126).

I remember becoming terrified during my first pregnancy.  My husband and I attended a birthing class at our hospital, and the information there scared me to death.  I suppose most of it was harmless and meant to empower, but after watching some videos and realizing exactly what my body had to do to expel the little “alien” that had taken residence within it, I wondered what I had gotten myself into.  How on earth could I actually do it?  Giving birth seemed horrifically hard, painful, and strange, not natural, normal, or beautiful (as it turned out it was). (And painful.  Yes, very very painful.)

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURESThere’s me, ten years ago, looking tired, exhausted, spent, and newly un-pregnant just a few minutes after midnight.  It really was empowering and beautiful though, after it was all done.

A few hours after this photo was taken, my husband turned to me and said, “Phew. I’m really tired.” We had just been moved to a recovery room where we were trying to get some sleep after my 16-hour ordeal. I just stared at him, and he quickly backed up. “But not as tired as you are!”

I loved reading The Rhetoric of Pregnancy for its theoretical underpinnings, feminist perspective, and exploration of women’s experiences.  But mostly I enjoyed reading about the different types of pregnancy manuals, and where some of the rhetoric surrounding pregnancy (such as risk and the good mother narrative) originated.  Understanding the history of a social and rhetorical phenomenon is a way of understanding context and the greater forces that converged to where we are today. Even if you aren’t a technical and professional communication scholar, this book is interesting, informative, and empowering.

36 thoughts on “Examining the Rhetoric of Pregnancy

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  1. This book sounds interesting and it reminds me of another book I read quite a while ago: Barbara Ehrenreich and Deirdre English’s “For Her Own Good: Two Centuries of Experts’ Advice to Women.” The basic idea of the book is that women’s relationship to their own bodies, their families, and the domestic sphere was systematically usurped by “experts” (usually) men who tried to “help” them by taking away their authority. If you haven’t already read it, I would highly recommend it.

    1. Yes, that sounds a lot like this one! I would love to read this book. I’ve read some of Ehrenreich and English’s work on different topics, and I had no idea they covered this as well. I’m fascinated by advice manuals and domestic science books. Thanks for this!

  2. Sometimes, I think, it’s better to be left in the dark. I was never big on reading about pregnancy when I was pregnant. I just trusted everything to be fine unless I felt like it wasn’t. I was much more nervous when the time came to have numbers 2 and 3, just because, after having the first, I now knew what I was getting into. After they were born, I felt the same sense of pride and empowerment as you describe. It’s amazing to know what our bodies are capable of (not to mention the pain we are able to work through)!
    Great photos, especially the one of the proud new parents!

    1. Ha! Scary photo, you mean. 🙂 Yes, reading about it before you experience does tend to bring up fear. I was more at ease with the second to be sure, and things went more quickly. I do think there should be a way for women to gain information without becoming fearful. I guess that’s what Seigel is getting at.

  3. The line “But, not as tired as you are,” may have saved him from a future doghouse. Not totally off the subject, but my wife and I enjoy watching “Call the Midwife” which shows this issue in a very pragmatic manner in impoverished areas of England during the 1950s. This has been an enlightening show for the both of us, especially when they show the tribulations of a breech birth, e.g.

    1. I LOVE that show! My husband used to watch it with me, but he gets a little squeamish with the birthing scenes. In fact, during the birth of our second child, he backed away when it came time for her to make her debut, and I looked at him and said, “Where are you going?” He said, “I’ve seen this once. I don’t want to see it again!” It is funny how sensitive some of us can be, while others of us find it fascinating.

      1. Your husband sounds like me, Emily! My mum watches Call the Midwife but I get squeamish. That reminds me: my older sister has had three children and recently shared a graphic birth image from an online article, which I think was about sharing birth photos to empower women) on Facebook, which made me feel squeamish as well! Facebook removed the photo because of the nudity.

        My sister and I disagree on things like that: she’s all for ‘no holds barred’ sharing of birth photos and info. And that’s great, if that’s what some women want, but I’d prefer it not to pop up on my Facebook feed! I don’t know, maybe I’d feel differently about it if I was a mother.

        1. The picture issue is the mother’s call. My wife would have killed me if I had done (and had Facebook been around then). I was there for all three which were different. My oldest was born with my in-laws in the room as well. I asked my wife if that was OK and she said fine. My middle child’s birth was a little scarier and the in-laws were whisked out of the room, which scared the you know what out of me (but his birth was fine). My daughter came out purple with the umbilical chord tied around her neck, which is not uncommon. The doctor handled it as no big deal.

        2. I don’t know either! I had a hard time posting this photo of me after giving birth just because my face looks so puffy and I have no makeup on! I don’t think I’d like a picture of other parts on social media. I guess I feel that if the person posting it finds it empowering, then that’s good for them. How funny that you and your sister are so different.

          1. I think you look good, having just delivered a baby!

            Yep, we are quite different! My sister has rather alternative views on pregnancy and birth, for instance, she paid for her placentas to be dried and put into capsules, and drank raw placenta and raspberry smoothie after her births. Apparently it helps the mother’s strength, but I think it’s extremely gross! I can’t imagine ever wanting to do that when I have children of my own! But each to her own, I suppose….

  4. I always felt that the medical establishments attitude toward pregnancy was more a ‘knowledge is power’ type of approach. But its like reading about how to build a car versus actually doing it. Nothing can really prepare you for the mood swings, sleep deprivation, being stretched beyond limitations, and the horrible pain. Or the realization that it was all worth it in the end.
    One can talk or teach or write about it all they like. But going through it is different.
    My husband was there for all our babies births. The first time, he was a nervous wreck, getting yelled at by the nurses because he kept reminding me I didn’t want any pain medication (like I told him to). By the second kid, he was watching Seinfeld, holding my hand. By last one, he was literally balancing the checkbook while I pushed.
    “Dont forget to carry the 1, jerk off!” was my reaction to that.

    1. Ha ha ha! It does become more mundane as you “know” what you’re doing. Nothing really can prepare you. I guess Seigel’s argument was the way the manuals position women, and her examples are spot on. But I do think that medicine has gotten better and more away from treating women as objects. My experiences (with female OBGYNS) have been largely positive. And I’ve heard great stories about midwives and doulas. That seems to be one reaction to the rhetoric Seigel outlined.

  5. This sounds like a very interesting take on pregnancy and the expectations that are set on a woman’s shoulders the second that little pink plus sign shows up on the pregnancy test. I didn’t really read any of the manuals about pregnancy, because I figured if I had any questions, I could just ask my mom or look it up on the internet. Is that weird?

    Anyway, I love the idea of empowering women, especially while they are pregnant. It’s a great time in a woman’s life, and she should always feel like the rock star that she is. I mean, she’s growing a person inside of her! Hello!

    1. I don’t think it is weird at all to turn to female relatives. Actually, a study by Joan Brumberg Jacobs found that women often do this, but when family communication styles or cultural taboos in talking about menstruation or pregnancy create barriers, women and girls instead turn to books on the subject. And yes, it definitely should be an empowering time!

  6. I love your beach photo and have taken lots of pix like that. My sister always asks me why I send her photos of my toes. To me, it’s the ultimate relaxation: sitting on the beach with a book under the sun. When I look up from the pages, I see my toes and the horizon.

  7. Such an interesting post and perspective- having never been pregnant, it’s not something i’ve given much thought to. I also loved the book on the beach picture, for some reason it seemed like such a contrast1

    1. That’s true! It is a contrast in many ways. One of my colleagues pointed out that I had a problem if I was reading dissertations on the beach! I’m a nerd. I admit it. 🙂

  8. My first pregnancy I read all the usual advice manuals. My second, I picked up that “What to Expect When You’re Expecting” book and immediately felt the stress I had felt, but didn’t recognize as such, during my first pregnancy. I put away the books and just enjoyed my pregnancy as a natural, non-intellectual experience.

    I think a problem English Ph.D.s may have (among whose number I am one) is that we too readily turn to books when we should just be present in the real world. Heresy, I know. But one of the funniest things I ever saw was a bus full of academics on a tour of Chicago, and instead of looking out the windows, they were all reading their city guides!

    1. Ha! That is heresy but what a funny story. Yes, I read a dissertation on the beach, so I would be right at home with that bus of PhDs. 🙂 As to your pregnancy manual experience, the author does analyze the What to Expect book. It seemed to be one of the “worst” in terms of risk and danger rhetoric. I can see why you put it aside.

  9. When my first child was born 28 years ago, our family practice physician delivered her. In my second pregnancy, my physician was a high-risk specialist. in both pregnancies, I managed to keep my focus on appropriate diet and exercise for myself while not having any testing without a good reason. I never had an ultrasound because there was no clear reason to do so. I also gave birth both times without epidurals or pain meds. I think it is almost impossible to arrange to have as little testing now.

    1. Yes, testing has become part of that “job” of doctors to make sure you deliver a “normal” baby, as Seigel wrote about. I’m impressed with your experiences and the fact that you didn’t do an epidural! I wish I had done that with my second baby, but I just had no idea that things would move so quickly and that I could have done it if I had just breathed through the pain for a few more hours. Thanks for sharing your experiences with me!

  10. I don’t have any experience with pregnancy, but I guess I wasn’t surprised at your statement that prenatal care was designed to discipline pregnant women. On the other hand, that seems like it could have multiple meanings.

      1. Hmmm, maybe everyone won’t think this is related, but I think it is. I just read an article by a reporter who interviewed protesters in front of an abortion clinic about their reasons for wanting to talk to the people going into the clinic. Although they answered that they saw themselves as “counselors,” when questioned further, it appeared that there were statements like “What are they doing having sex if they don’t want children?” “A woman is different from a man because she can have children,” and so on. In other words, the desire is to take away the power to make decisions about their own bodies from women. Of course, this is what I thought all along.

  11. I would love to read this book; my dissertation research (on semi-permanent hiatus) was on pregnancy and parturition in Renaissance literature, including the first midwifery handbooks printed in English (the first was published in 1540) up to the late seventeenth century. They’re fascinating in myriad ways, and it’s astonishing to see the kinds of things those textbooks advise pop up again in our own century.

    Then I got pregnant as I was writing my prospectus, and suddenly it all seemed too real . . .

    1. Oh my goodness! That is so cool. I would LOVE to see your dissertation. I’ve been drawn to the historical articles in my field on women and professional communication, and one scholar focuses almost exclusively on the English Renaissance and the technical books meant for women. It sounds like you did the same thing! Are you familiar with the work of Elizabeth Tebeaux or Mary Lay?

  12. This sounds like an excellent book. We briefly discussed pregnancy during the medical anthropology course I took in college, and it’s really terrifying to think about the implications of all of the “instructions” that women are supposed to follow while pregnant! It turns out that ultrasounds are expensive and usually not necessary (at least according to the sources we read). Isn’t that crazy? They are considered such a normal, natural part of pre-natal care. Makes you start questioning the whole process.

    1. It is a lot more complicated that one thinks before experiencing it, that’s for sure! I think ultrasounds are really more for “fun” in most pregnancies. I remember looking for a doctor with my second baby that would do more than the 1 20-week ultrasound because I wanted to see her sooner.

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