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.