Associate Professor Natalie Jolly's research into Amish birth practices challenges traditional notions of gender.
Natalie Jolly walks into a bar. This sounds like the beginning of a joke, but it’s not. In fact, the encounter Jolly had with a farrier (a person who shoes horses) at this rural Pennsylvania tavern would change the course of her academic career.
Jolly had moved from Southern California to pursue her Ph.D. in women’s studies and rural sociology at Pennsylvania State University. She spent time canvassing the Pennsylvania countryside while working on a grant about decision making among farm women. “I became fascinated by Amish society but I couldn’t get in,” she said. Jolly tried for a couple of years to make inroads with the Amish but found little success.
“Then I met this horseshoer at a bar and he was like ‘oh, I know a midwife whose looking for some help,’” said Jolly.
The midwife served as a de facto doctor to the local Amish community. “If a kid fell and split his head open she’d come and do the stiches while the kid sat on the kitchen counter,” said Jolly. The midwife agreed to take Jolly on as her assistant. “At the time I knew nothing about child birth or medicine in general,” she said.
Jolly describes walking across a cow pasture late at night on her way to a farmhouse. The inside of the building is lit by a lantern that is connected to a propane tank. “I remember someone telling me ‘they hardly ever explode, it’s not a big deal,’” said Jolly. Those first childbirths were terrifying—for Jolly. The mothers and babies were fine but the budding academic was a wreck. “I was the only one having a panic attack,” she said. “Over and over she [the mother] would just have the baby and the midwife would be knitting and I would be hyperventilating.”
Jolly attended hundreds of prenatal and postnatal visits and witnessed nearly three dozen births during her time in Pennsylvania. “At some point I started asking why I was freaked out and everyone else was calm?” she said. “That was a backdoor into thinking about birth norms and how they are so culturally specific.”
The Western approach to childbirth favors hospitalization, medication and intervention when deemed necessary. “Right now, childbirth is increasingly medicalized and we have many women feeling like they have very few options when they enter the delivery room,” said Jolly. “By looking at different approaches to childbirth, like those of the Amish, we can better address some of those concerns.”
Naturally curious, Jolly holds degrees in geography, environmental studies, and philosophy as well as the aforementioned Ph.D. in women’s studies and rural sociology. “I’m definitely someone who has gone in every direction,” she said. “I’m very much ‘oh, that’s interesting, tell me more.’ ”
Jolly’s inquisitive nature and her experience with the Amish lead her to research pregnancy, childbirth and motherhood. “The gender norms around what constitutes femininity in Amish culture revolve around capacity,” she said. “From a very young age Amish girls and women think of themselves as being very good at hard, physical work. That social norm helps to create an environment where Amish women can be quite good at the specific hard, physical work of childbirth.”
Jolly is currently researching how women experience pregnancy and childbirth in different social contexts. “We did some interviews with young women of color right here in Pierce County,” she said. “That was an interesting study because we looked at the way individual choices get constrained by social pressures and how race and racism impact health here locally.”
Digging into these issues often opens up new avenues of exploration. Jolly interviewed women in the military about their experience with pregnancy and childbirth. “They answered those questions but they really wanted to talk about was being a new mother in the military,” said Jolly. “They spoke about feeling like they’d lose some of their authority if they mentioned their kids or about how the special uniform they had to wear while pregnant made them extra visible.”
Jolly sees the military as a microcosm of society. She points to the wage gap that exists, not just between men and women, but among women. “We actually have near parity when it comes to men and women who don’t have children,” said Jolly. “Once you become a mother your wages start going down and research shows the remnants of wage inequality 10 years out, that is, a woman is still feeling the effects financially 10 years after she had a baby.”
In seems obvious, but popular culture plays a role in how pregnancy and motherhood are presented. Jolly is in the middle of a paper about Beyoncé and the sexualization of pregnant women’s bodies. “I’m curious if gender norms that focus on how woman’s body looks might overshadow what her body can do,” said Jolly. “This growing pressure on women to be “hot” or “sexy” when they’re pregnant might seem body-positive, but is it as empowering as we think it is?”
Pregnancy and motherhood are Jolly’s research areas but it’s also her life. Jolly has five kids. Raising five children while building a career provided perspective. “It’s made me more aware of what’s going on for our students in terms of having to manage multiple obligations,” she said.
Jolly came to UW Tacoma in 2008 and is now an associate professor. She teaches classes in sociology, gender and pop culture. “I try to create an environment where my students and I can collectively puzzle through some of the big juicy questions that are facing society today,” she said.
Jolly enjoys her role as educator but welcomes the chance to learn from students. She mentions one project by a student about sexism in the trucking industry. “She [the student] did an amazing presentation where she discussed the wage gap and all these issues facing truckers who are women,” said Jolly. “It’s a world I knew nothing about and I was blown away.”
Pretty much everyone at some point in their life wonders how things will turn out. We worry about the future and whether we’ll reach our goals. Then something happens, say you meet a horseshoer at a bar, and your trajectory changes.
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