Old Wife’s Tales

Authoritative knowledge.

I know I have mentioned it before, but it is a very big concept in medical anthropology and thus bears repeating. Basically, cultures imbue some people/groups with the “authority” to decided what “knowledge” is real. These systems of knowledge may even be in competition with one another. An example of this is the debate over evolution. For some people the authoritative knowledge lies within the purview of religious leaders who maintain the Biblical book of Genesis is not a parable but is in fact a literal retelling of creation. For other people the authority given to scientists and scientific evidence outweighs the authority of religious leaders, and thus they believe Genesis is either a parable or a myth, depending on their perspective. The subliminal battle behind the scenes is the fight between competing systems of knowledge to determine which group/system will be imbued with the most authority to determine what will define “truth”, and thus hold the most cultural power.

For a long time many systems of authoritative knowledge were de facto men’s systems, simply because almost all woman were not allowed to be a part of those kind of groups. Female doctors, scientists, and clergy were scarce and the few who broached the citadels of these public professions were often met with stringent resistance. Even some jobs that we think of today as as a “normal” occupation for a woman, such as teaching elementary school, was once considered as only suitable as men’s work. In order to obtain and keep the primary position of authoritative knowledge, male systems of knowledge had to be publically constructed as inherently and unquestioningly superior to any information promoted by female systems.

This phenomenon explains why the information once held by female midwives was steadily dismissed as folly or superstition when male doctors began to assume the responsibility of delivering babies, even though in hindsight we can see that the opinions of the medical establishment of yesteryear were often no more factual (and in some cases were LESS helpful to the mother and baby) than the beliefs held by midwives all the way into the early twentieth century. Obviously in was silly and ritualistic to think that putting a knife under a delivery bed would cut the laboring mother’s pain, but it was just as silly and ritualistic to think that shaving her privates would help childbirth or maternal health in any way at all.

Another way in which female systems of knowledge were denigrated was the cultural mockery and derision of “old wife’s tales”. What was once considered practical information passed down from older female relatives to younger women became, over time, synonymous with superstition and ignorance.  An old wife’s tale is now characterized as folklore, just a bunch of unverified claims with exaggerated and/or untrue details.

Obviously some old wives’ tales are patently bunkum, such as the idea that if you shave hair from any part of your body it will grow back thicker and darker, but information spread by the gender neutral medium of urban legends is often just as incorrect.  That’s fine, of course, because if urban legends weren’t mostly ridiculous and untrue then Mythbusters wouldn’t be anywhere near as fun to watch, but urban legends are not accorded the same sneering disregard as the gender specific old wife’s tale.

The distain for old wife’s tales is particularly vexing when it turns out many of them have been found to be at least based on factual data. An article on Cracked.com (warning: do not read it unless you are like me and have a juvenile since of humor and a real affection for blue language) recently pointed out that scientific research, which is usually given the primary position of authoritarian knowledge in Western culture, has found that old wife’s tales – like about how drinking chicken soup will help when you have a cold or flu, honey helping a cough, a spoonful of sugar curing your hiccups, the crust being the most nutritious part of the bread,and becoming chilled in winter will make you catch a cold — all have a strong basis in reality. Science has also shown that drinking warm milk really will help you get to sleep, that if a pregnant woman experiences heartburn the baby is much more likely to be born with hair instead of bald, that fish really is a “brain food”, that if a pregnant woman has severe or prolonged morning sickness the baby is more likely to be a girl, that the delivery of a male baby typically takes longer, and that drinking cranberry juice is helpful during a bladder or urinary tract infection.

However, other information – such as the beliefs regarding frogs giving you warts, chewing gum staying in your stomach for seven years, throwing salt over your shoulder to ward off bad luck, and that your hair and fingernails will continue to grow for a little while after you are dead  — is malarkey. Clearly you shouldn’t go around whole-heartedly embracing everything your grandmother tells you. Just don’t dismiss it out of hand.

After all, yesterday’s myths can quickly become today’s facts, just as today’s facts can become tomorrow’s myths.

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