KEYWORDS: Cesina Bermudes, childbirth labour, Portuguese obstetrics, political repression, fascism
SHE THOUGHT IT
Medical doctor, gynecologist, fighter against fascism, and a member of the Portuguese Theosophical Society, Cesina Borges Adães Bermudes graduated from Medical School in 1932 and was the first woman in Portugal to be awarded a Ph.D. in Medicine (1947). The title of her thesis was, Os Músculos Radiais Externos Estudados nos Portugueses de Condição Humilde (The External Radial Musculature Observed in the Portuguese Population of Low Income). She was a precursor in the techniques of the psychoprophylactic birth (“birth without pain”).
In 1933, she began working as a medical intern and Assistant Professor of Anatomy and in 1937, she became a teacher in Specialized Obstetrics at the Civil Hospitals in Lisbon. Prevented from teaching in the College of Medicine in Lisbon due to her membership in the Central Committee of the National Women’s Democratic Movement,she left for Paris in 1954. There, she met the physicians Joaquim Seabra-Dinis, Pedro Monjardino and João dos Santos, who she began to work with to develop new techniques that would have a great impact in the way child labour could be approached. Some of her scientific texts, including Scientific Bases for the Childbirth Without Pain(1955) and A Few Comments on Childbirth Without Pain(1957) were published in medical journals. She would later assist women who belonged to the Portuguese Communist party and were living in clandestinity, in particular those who were about to give birth.
Her Father was a Theosophist, whose convictions she followed, as well as a writer and playwright, and a founding member of the currently named Portuguese Authors’ Society. Since 1927, Cesina Bermudes was a member of the Theosophical Society of Portugal and its first general-secretary. A believer in reincarnation, and a vegetarian, she developed an intense sports practice, winning swimming championships and participating in bicycle and car races.
In the 1940s she was politically very active and in 1945, she signed the lists of MUD (Democratic Union Movement), and subscribed its constitution as a member of the Women’s Committee. In 1948-1949, she became involved in the presidential campaign of General Norton de Matos, and was one of the leaders of the Women’s Electoral Committee in Lisbon. In 1950, she contributed towards the establishment of the National Committee for the Defense of Peace, alongside Maria Isabel Aboim Inglês, Maria Lamas and Virgínia Moura. With the latter, she signed the document commemorating the 10thanniversary of MUD (1955) and in 1957, together with writers Maria Lígia Valente da Fonseca Severino and Natália Correia, she integrated the Lisbon Civil Electoral Committee, a body of the Political Opposition aiming to have a legal intervention in the approaching presidential elections.
Cesina Borges Adães Bermudes was born on May 20th 1908, in Lisbon, and died on December 9th 2001, at 93 years old. Her father was the playwright and essayist Félix Bermudes, a well-known man of great prestige; her Mother was Cândida Bermudes, a well-educated and culturally sophisticated woman. Cesina Bermudes attended the Camões High School, in Lisbon, the only girl in a class of 15 boys. She graduated from the Lisbon College of Medicine in 1933. She was a general medical intern in 1933-1934 and completed the surgery internship in 1937-1938.
She was only 11 years old when she decided she would be a doctor, after her maternal uncle, Lacerda e Melo, told her about his life as a village doctor and how he visited poor people without charging them a cent. That uncle would be the source of the character João Semana in the famous Portuguese novel by Júlio Dinis, As Pupilas do Senhor Reitor.
In her youth, she was a practiced sportswoman, cyclist and gymnast at a time when few women had access to sports. With her father’s support, she competed in the 1923 Lisbon Cycling Tour and won.
After having been an Assistant Professor of Anatomy and General Medical Practice at the Civil Hospital of Lisbon, from 1933 Cesina Bermudes praticed Obstetrics at the Alfredo da Costa Maternity. In 1947, she defended her Ph.D. in Obstetrics at the Lisbon College of Medicine, with the high classification of 19 out of 20. She was the first woman in Portugal with a Ph.D. in Medicine.
The fascist regime did not allow her to pursue an academic career as a professor of Medicine. She ended up having to teach at the Technical Nursing School, while practicing as a doctor at the Centre of Assistance to Maternity and Infancy, an innovating Health Centre in Lisbon that was only open between 1939 and 1949.
In 1954, she left the country for Paris with the intention of learning the most advanced techniques in Obstetrics. After having worked alongside Dr. Lamaze, a follower of the psychoprophylactic method that had been created in the USSR in the 1920s, initially known as childbirth without pain, Cesina Bermudes returned to Portugal and introduced it in her Obstetrics practice. Graça Mexia, who worked with her for more than 30 years, mentioned her enormous contribution to the demystification of birth pain and her efforts to reduce the culturally-grounded anxiety and fear surrounding childbirth.
In spite of the serious offense and discrimination she suffered when she was not permitted to teach at the College of Medicine, her courageous attitude against the dictatorship and friendly relations with democratic-leaning sectors of society were supported by her father, whom she deeply admired. She saw him as a feminist, a defender of women’s rights, who fought against women’s invisibility and discrimination. However, the determination to be present even in difficult situations, to make her voice heard in areas long closed to women, and to maintain a coherent political position were all her own, a consequence of her firm character and sense of social justice, which the topic of her Ph.D. thesis gives a glimpse of.
Her political awareness was formed in the 1940s. She took part in the campaign to support General Norton de Matos as a candidate to the nation’s presidency. From that resistance movement, a new civic movement of democratic women arose, among whom were Cesina Bermudes, Maria Lamas, Isabel Aboim Inglês and Maria Palmira Tito de Morais. This, however, would lead to her imprisonment by PIDE, the political police, in December 1949. She was detained in the Caxias prison for three months, according to the prison records (Proc.19.4.48).
As a doctor and citizen, she continued to fight for women’s quality of life. That was the focus of her political fight. She became known for her generous and humane approach to women in pain and women in labor. Many communist women living clandestine lives, hiding from the political police, remember her as someone always willing to assist them, risking her own safety to help them have healthy pregnancies and healthy deliveries.
After the revolution of the 25th of April 1974, Portugal recognized her merit and her tenacity in favor of freedom and in support of the less privileged. One street in Lisbon is named after her, and on the 19th May 1989, President Mário Soares presented her with the Medalha de Comendador da Ordem da Liberdade (Medal of the Order of Freedom). She was the recipient of many other honours and awards.
In 1984, the National Parliament declared the equality of rights between the genders and the end of discrimination on the basis of sex or ideology, finally recognizing the social function of maternity and both women’s and men’s rights to have a healthy and happy maternity/paternity.
Widely respected among her medical peers, Cesina Bermudes left several texts published in several medical journals, including “Scientific Bases for the Labor and Birth Without Pain” (1955) and “A Few Comments on Labor and Birth Without Pain” (1957).
SHE SAID IT
One life is not enough.
Cited in “Cesina Bermudes, 91 anos a ouvir os primeiros vagidos”, Interview with António Melo, Público, 6 june 1999.
They saw me as someone who led them, and I led them without imposing my own ways, let’s say; it was just that I was someone who made things happen a bit more, and I had more prestige because of my profession.
Cesina Bermudes, about the women’s committee she led, cited in Vanda Gorjão, Mulheres em tempos sombrios: Oposição feminina ao Estado Novo. Lisboa: Imprensa de Ciências Sociais, 2002, p. 209-210.
THEY SAID IT
Her long and extraordinary life was dedicated to erasing the nightmare of the traditional, Judeo-Christian childbirth of the suffering and passive woman; she considered preparation and the new method of giving birth a victory of women over themselves, over tradition, and over their cultural milieu; the victory of knowledge over ignorance, education over obscurantism.
Mexia, Graça (2009), 45 anos e 38 000 grávidas depois, Página a Página, Lisboa.
When a birth was difficult and long, she wouldn’t leave the woman’s side; sometimes, she slept on the floor next to her or in a makeshift bed. When she medicated us, she would ‘lend’ us a few pills so we could start immediately. Anything left over was then given back to her so she could pass it on the poorest among us.
Cesina Bermudes – Uma Vida Só Não Basta (2015). Dir. Cristina Ferreira Gomes. Aut. Margarida Almeida Bastos. Mares do Sul (Ellen Igersheimer). 52 min. RTP. Documentary.
Illustration by João Carlos Santos, in Anabela Natário, “Cesina Bermudes, pioneira no parto sem dor”, Expresso. 14 May 2018.
And Yet, They Move! Women and Science [E contudo, elas movem-se! Mulheres e Ciência], Exhibition at the Rectorate of the University of Porto, Portugal, 10-29 september, 2019. [an illustration of Cesina Bermudes by Miguel Praça is displayed at the exhibition].
Mendes, Luís Filipe Castro (2019), “Cesina Bermudes, Natal Numa Casa Clandestina”, E contudo, elas movem-se! Mulheres e Ciência (com poemas), Org. Ana Luísa Amaral e Marinela Freitas, Porto: U. Porto Edições, p. 51 [Poem dedicated to Cesina Bermudes; the book also contains an illustration of Bermudes by Miguel Praça].
WORKS BY CESINA BERMUDES
(1939), “Um caso de toxémia gravídica coincidindo com uma aplacenta prévia” Lisboa: Sep. Imprensa Médica.
(1941), “Tratamento da placenta prévia”. Lisboa: Sep. Imprensa Médica.
(1948), “Os músculos radiais externos estudados nos Portugueses de Condição Humilde”. Diss. Doutoramento. Faculdade de Medicina da
Universidade de Lisboa.
(1955), “Bases Científicas do Parto sem Dor”, Sep. Jornal do Médico, 28, Porto, 23- 17.
(1956), “O parto sem dor”, Jornal República, 25 de Abril.
(1957), Notas Soltas sobre o Parto sem Dor. Lisboa: ed. da autora.
(1964), “Algumas Considerações sobre o tratamento das leucorreias”, Sep. de Jornal do Médico, 49, Porto.
Abreu, Ilda Soares de/ Maria Teresa Santos, Interview, 7 de Fevereiro de 2000, publicada na revista Faces de Eva N.º 5, 2001, pp. 191-194.
“Cesina Bermudes: Mulheres de Abril”, Movimento Democrático das Mulheres. https://www.mdm.org.pt/cesina-bermudes/
“Cesina Bermudes, 91 anos a ouvir os primeiros vagidos”, Entrevista a António Melo, Público, 6 junho 1999. (www.publico.pt).
Entrevista realizada a Cesina Bermudes por Ilda Soares de Abreu / Maria Teresa Santos (07 de Fevereiro de 2000).
Esteves, João; Zília Osório de Castro (2013). Feminae: Dicionário Contemporâneo. Lisboa: CIG.
Vanda Gorjão (2002), Mulheres em tempos sombrios: Oposição feminina ao Estado Novo. Lisboa: Imprensa de Ciências Sociais.
Mexia, Graça (2009), 45 anos e 38 000 grávidas depois, Página a Página, Lisboa.
Tavares, Manuela (2010), Feminismos: Percursos e Desafios (1947 – 2007). Alfragide: Texto Editores.