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This chapter considers the ailments and popular remedies given for women’s common health concerns, affecting their status as such and, in any event, their status as a mother.

Menstruation, hilekoa

Menstruation is a natural phenomenon of women (and females of other mammals) consisting in blood coming from the womb on several days of each month. Despite it being a regular and ordinary occurrence, the accounts point towards it being considered a women’s matter, which was even surrounded by certain mystery and which was rarely discussed. There were places where the mother would tell her daughter that she would soon start her periods (Durango-B). Some people surveyed said that mothers sometimes did not tell their daughters about their periods and the girls had to make do with what they heard older people talking about and what their friends told them. Discussing this matter with fathers was expectational. Some women said they knew nothing about menstruation until they had their first period and had a great shock when it happened (Pipaón-A).

Some women consider menstruation with resignation as an alteration of the body inherent to its condition and recognise that it is bothersome and burdensome (Allo-N). Women had a rough time with their periods and even used to believe that it was Eve’s sin for being expelled from paradise (Apodaca-A); some women considered it to be a disorder, a nuisance and a pain (Moreda-A).

In the past, terrycloth and cotton cloths were used to soak up the menstruation blood and which were washed with bleach and kept to be used the following month. In the 1950s, disposable sanitary pads were introduced and nowadays they have been significantly improved with greater absorption and are smaller in size. Tampons began to be used in the 1960s, a practice that is very widespread today (Moreda-A).

Pregnancy and labour, haurduntza eta erditzea

Pregnancy has been considered a natural situation; not exempt from some disorders that they try to avoid. The most common include the morning sickness that usually occurs during the first three months. Their breasts getting larger and harder, swelling of the legs and heartburn are also usual. Even so, women did not take to their beds during pregnancy and usually worked until the last day, even doing hard work in the fields (Sangüesa-N, Artziniega, Moreda-A).

Nowadays, pregnant women try to avoid sudden exertions, look after their diet and avoid alcohol and tobacco. It is usually for women to be medically monitored during their pregnancies. As it comes near the time to give birth, they attend courses when they practice breathing and other exercises to make the labour easier[1].

As regards the labour and the delivery itself, it should be noted that until the 1960s nearly all women gave birth at home, attended by the midwife, the practitioner or doctor. Further back in time, female neighbours skilled in this work would be in charge of helping the mother during the labour. From the 1960s onwards, the women began to be taken to health centres and nowadays that is the case for all of them[2]. The number of twins and even triplets have now increased and there are even pregnancies leading to even larger multiple births.

They are usually the result of ovarian stimulation and other methods used at assisted reproduction clinics when couples resort to them to have children.

Breast-feeding ailments

Breast-feeding women most frequently suffered from two conditions: hardening of the breasts that could lead to an uncomfortable condition known as pelo which led to the retention of part of the milk and cracks in the nipples. Both ailments were sometimes associated.

Pregnancy terminations

A termination is an interruption of the pregnancy which can be voluntary (abortion) or involuntary (miscarriage). Some women, given their state of health, are on bed rest for long periods of their pregnancy to try and prevent it. In the past, the families were large and there were a high number of miscarriages and high infant mortality rates. It was frequently said that both the number of children born and those miscarried were “God’s Plan”

Menopause, erretiroa

Menopause is the end of a woman menstruating or having a period, which occurs when she is around 50 years old. Some people surveyed believe that it is better that it happens later, between fifty-two and fifty-six years old (Durango-B). It does not happen suddenly as the symptoms gradually appear and they affect some people significantly. In Apodaca and Amézaga de Zuya (A), they explained that a hormonal change occurs and the loss of fertility affects not only the woman’s character, but also her physical state. In Nabarniz (B), they used to say that women who had an easy menopause should be grateful because they avoided many complications that usually happened.

Hot flushes were the most common discomfort during the pre- and post-menopause stage. Women there suddenly feel very hot which causes sweating and their checks to be flushed. The sweats are often at night. To relieve it, in Orozko (B), women used to cool themselves down by fanning themselves with their skirts. Some women in the menopause carry fans in their bags in urban areas.

In the Basque Country within France, according to the records from the 1950s, menopausal women who suffered heavy bleeding would take nettle tea for four or five days, which they had to be careful not to abuse as it could harm the already weakened body.

  1. ETNIKER EUSKALERRIA. Ritos del nacimiento al matrimonio en Vasconia. Atlas Etnográfico de Vasconia = Euskalerriko Atlas etnografikoa = Atlas etnographique du Pays Basque = Ethnographic Atlas of the Basque Country. Volume IX. Bilbao: Etniker Euskalerria; [Vitoria-Gasteiz]: Eusko Jaurlaritza; [Pamplona]: Government of Navarra, 1998.
  2. This subject has been extensively discussed in Ritos del nacimiento al matrimonio en Vasconia / Birth and Marriage Rites in the Basque Country.