‘Holistic Mothers’ or ‘Bad Mothers’? Challenging Biomedical Models of the Body in Portugal


Anna Fedele 

Instituto Universitário de Lisboa (ISCTE-IUL), CRIA, Lisboa, Portugal, PT


About Anna

Anna Fedele is an anthropologist whose research focuses on the intersections of gender and religion with a particular emphasis on corporeality, sexuality and ritual creativity. Anna holds a Ph.D in Social and Cultural Anthropology from the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales (Paris) and the Universidad Autónoma de Barcelona. She is a Research Fellow of the CRIA -Lisbon University Institute and has been a chercheure associée of the Groupe de Sociologie Politique et Morale, École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales, Paris until the dissolution of this laboratoire in 2013. Her Master thesis has been published as a Spanish book entiled El camino de María Magdalene (RBA, 2008). This text explores the long exegetical path that the figure of saint Mary Magdalene has performed from the beginnings of Christianity until the publication of The Da Vinci Code (2003). Particular attention is paid to contemporary interpretations of Mary Magdalene and its relationship with the feminist spirituality movement. Anna’s dissertation has recently been published as part of the Oxford Series in Ritual Studies under the title: Looking for Mary Magdalene. Alternative Pilgrimage and Ritual Creativity at Catholic Shrines in France (Oxford University Press, November 2012). This book has received the Award for Excellence in the Study of Religion of the American Academy of Religion. In 2010 she has been a Visiting Scholar at the anthropology department of Stanford University. She has recently co-edited with Ruy Llera Blanes Encounters of Body and Soul in Contemporary Religious Practices; Anthropological Reflections (Berghahn Books, EASA series) Gender and Power in Contemporary Spirituality: Ethnographic Approaches, the volume Anna co-edited with Kim Knibbe has recently been published as part of the Routledge Studies in Religion Series. Before “converting” to anthropology Anna obtained a MA in German and English literature from the Universitá Cattolica of Milan with a thesis entiled “La figura di Medea quale guaritrice e maga nel romanzo Medea-Stimmen di Christa Wolf” (The figure of Medea as a healer and witch in the novel Medea-Voices by Christa Wolf) (1998) The thesis analyses the feminist reinterpretation of the mythological figure of Medea by the German author Christa Wolf, one of the best-known writers to have emerged from the former East Germany, in her novel Medea- Voices (1996). A chapter that resumes Anna’s MA thesis has been published in Spanish as part of the book: RIUS GATELL, Rosa (ed.), Sobre la guerra y la violencia en el discurso femenino (1914-1989), Barcelona: Publicacions i Edicions de la Universitat de Barcelona, 2006.


This paper is based on early fieldwork findings on ‘holistic mothering’ in contemporary Portugal. I use holistic mothering as an umbrella term to cover different mothering choices, which are rooted in the assumption that pregnancy, childbirth and early childhood are important spiritual occasions for both mother and child. Considering that little social scientific literature exists about the religious dimension of alternative mothering choices, I present here a first description of this phenomenon and offer some initial anthropological reflections, paying special attention to the influence of Goddess spirituality on holistic mothers. Drawing on Pamela Klassen’s ethnography about religion and home birth in America (2001), I argue that in Portugal holistic mothers are challenging biomedical models of the body, asking for a more woman-centred care, and contributing to the process, already widespread in certain other European countries, of ‘humanising’ pregnancy and childbirth.

DOI: http://doi.org/10.18352/rg.10128

How to Cite: Fedele, A., (2016). ‘Holistic Mothers’ or ‘Bad Mothers’? Challenging Biomedical Models of the Body in Portugal. Religion and Gender. 6(1), pp.95–111. DOI: http://doi.org/10.18352/rg.10128