Nanna Conti was a leading German midwife during the Nazi era. She was born on 4 April 1881 in Uelzen near Hanover. Her father, Dr. Carl Eugen Pauli (1839-1901), worked as headmaster of the local boys’ secondary school. Little is known about her mother, Anna Pauli née Isecke (1850-?), but she was a single parent for a time during a separation from her husband. Nanna assisted her father in his research into ancient Roman history, learning to speak Italian fluently. She developed a love for Italy and Switzerland which would last throughout her life. In addition to her native German and Italian, Nanna Conti also spoke English and French which enabled her not only to follow the International Midwives’ Congresses in London 1934 and Paris 1938, but also to translate for German delegates and to read foreign professional magazines, which she summarised for German midwives.
In Lugano in 1898, she married Silvio Conti (1872-1964). During the following four years Nanna Conti gave birth to three children- two boys and a girl. In 1902, the marriage failed and, leaving her husband, she moved to Germany where she enrolled at Madgeburg midwifery school in 1904 and started working as a freelance midwife in Berlin in 1905. As midwifery and nursing are strictly separated professions in Germany, Conti did not need to attend a nursing school before training as a midwife. Most midwives in Germany and Austria worked as independent practitioners as confinements tended to take place in the home. Maternity clinics and hospitals were used, in the main, in cases of risk or emergency. A fierce rivalry existed amongst midwives, the result of an increasing number of practitioners and a decreasing birth rate. Wages were so low that many lived in poverty and the absence of an old age pension meant many had to work until their death, or until they were too sick to work any longer. Under the lead of Olga Gebauer, the midwives’ association fought for better training, adequate wages and especially for a law which would secure their priority over physicians in obstetrics.
Little is known about Conti’s early career as a midwife, but in the 1930s, she became actively involved with the NSDAP (Nazi Party) as did her sons. After they came to power, she was appointed chairman to the central German midwifery organisation by the Home Secretary, helping establish the guidelines that monitored professional practice and publishing the organisation’s magazine. Her writings demonstrate the influence of her Nazi ideology, reflecting her anti-Semitic and racist views. Under her guidance, midwives were to inform the Public Health Authority of any children born with disabilities or genetic diseases, which led to forced sterilisations of women and even the ‘euthanasia’ of people with disabilities. While Conti was not responsible for carrying out these acts, the evidence suggests she was aware of Nazi policy and understood what was done with the information collected by her midwives.
Yet, Conti was also well-respected internationally for her work in improving maternal mortality rates and in keeping midwifery and midwives high on the political agenda in Germany- getting unusual legal backing for their profession. She spoke at a number of international events, including a visit to London where she met numerous dignitaries, and was appointed the first president of the International Confederation of Midwives. In 1945, at the end of WW2, Conti fled from Berlin and went to live in North Germany. She was never prosecuted for her role in the Nazi leadership, but her sons both committed suicide- one before the war ended, and another as a prisoner in Nuremburg. She started to rebuild her life after the war, finding money to send her grandson to university, but died shortly afterwards in December 1951.
For more information on Nanni Conti, see the article by Anja Peters in the Spring issue of Women’s History Magazine (2011).
The pioneering natural childbirth activist Sheila Kitzinger was born March 29, 1929 in Taunton, Somerset. It’s an appropriate setting. In Somerset was ‘a nest of suffragettes’[i], at a time when there was silence about ways of birthing and much ignorance about women’s bodies and reproductive rights.
Certainly suffragettes’ successors – new mothers in the 1970s and 1980s Women’s Liberation Movement – valued her books on childbirth and pregnancy. I remember very clearly that two books were seminal at that time, as women began to think about their rights to knowledge and choices: Our Bodies, Our Selves (1978) and Sheila’s The Good Birth Guide (1983). Although not a midwife herself, Sheila was part of a climate that produced the Association of Radical Midwives [ii]. It began in the 1976, as a means to support women in choosing to find better ways to give birth than having their labour induced by artificial rupture of membranes.
Sheila Kitzinger was the guru and indispensible guide for hundreds of my friends as they sought a self-respectful and new way to have babies. Her book was on every shelf, and it was one of the most popular works in the bookshop where I worked.
The social anthropologist still teaches – at Thames Valley University, the Wolfson School of Health Sciences and at various workshops. Aged 81 today, she said recently that far from yearning for more grandchildren, “I just want my daughters to be creative and to put a lot into life. We argue and discuss the major issues, especially feminism, supposedly outmoded, but we still consider ourselves feminists. Uwe [her husband] is the amused onlooker.”
As a creative person myself, who tries to do art as well as activism, I also particularly appreciate her batiks of conception and birth. You can see some on her website.
Jo Stanley is a feminist historian whose attitudes to health, information and dignity were totally changed by being part of the Women’s Liberation Movement. An expert on gender and the sea, she is working on a new book, Risk! Women on the Wartime Seas, Yale University Press. See her website and her blog.
[i] B. M. Willmott Dobbie, A Nest of Suffragettes in Somerset. Eagle House, Batheaston, (Batheaston, 1979).