Women's empowerment is alive and well in 1960 Poplar, but for some, it comes at a painful expense.
Credit: Laurence Cendrowicz

“I sometimes wonder what the last two wars were for in that respect. Every time the world goes up in flames, they draft women in to pick up the slack, and then once it’s over, it’s back in your box and don’t say boo!” —Nurse Phyllis Crane

Preach, Nurse Crane, preach.

No one ever said women’s empowerment was going to come easy, even in the female-centric universe of Call the Midwife. In this week’s episode, the casualties to our noble cause included a crushing breakup (paired with further descent into alcoholism), a syphilis outbreak—and the enlisting of a male voice of reason to get through to a particularly stubborn husband.

But these Sisters (and midwives) are doing it for themselves, pioneering healthier lives, independence and liberation for the generations of women who will follow them. The prim and proper Sister Winifred took on the challenge of eradicating venereal disease among Poplar’s prostitute population by educating the working girls about the importance of using “sheaths.” Barbar— with the help of Dr. Turner—taught one local rope maker that perhaps his newborn daughter might take over the family business someday. Even sweet Sister Monica Joan, determined to still serve the people of her community at her advanced age, made a difference in the lives of two women this week: While Trixie was passed out drunk and no other midwives were around, she dragged a frightened, in-labor woman through the pouring rain to Dr. Turner’s surgery and into the tender hands of a slightly out-of-practice Shelagh Turner, who delivered the baby herself. MJ’s actions helped not only the mother in need (who named her baby Monica, in gratitude), but Shelagh as well, who discovered that in addition to being a wife, mother, and her husband’s medical secretary, she really misses practicing midwifery.

And while she may not know it yet, Trixie, despite having both suffered and screwed up the most this episode, is championing the novel concept of women having a say in their own relationships. The bad news is—and there’s a lot of it where Trixie is concerned this week—her engagement to Tom Hereward is off. Plus, she has an encroaching drinking problem which is only going to get worse given the relentless pain anyone endures after a breakup. However, putting her alcoholism aside for now—it will be addressed in later episodes, I assure you—Trixie must be applauded for achieving enough clarity to end things as early as she did. We learned this episode that as benevolent as Tom might be as a religious servant to the community, apparently that compassion does not extend to his future wife.

The first red flag that popped up was Tom was about to receive a visit from a bishop—and the notion of having this church elder meet his fiancée never even crossed the curate’s mind. Although Trixie was the model image of a young wife-to-be, decked out in a glamorous purple and black sleeveless dress and plying the bishop with tea and sandwiches, it was quite evident that she wasn’t welcome at this meeting. Especially not after she voiced concern over the bishop’s wish to relocate Tom to a parish in a Newcastle slum (she had envisioned raising their family in the country). The bishop’s annoyance at Trixie’s outspokenness is one thing, but the fact that Tom behaves as if she is little more than a nuisance is pretty much the equivalent of a klaxon horn sounding off.

NEXT: Have a drink, Trixie. Or two. Or three. Or four.

During their inevitable post-tea argument, in which Trixie points out her abominable treatment by both her fiancé and the bishop (“It was made very clear that I shouldn’t talk while the men were discussing important matters that clearly I have no say in”) Tom digs himself even deeper by throwing all of the blame on this fundamental relationship rift on her. “When you marry me,” he tells Trixie, “you’ll be marrying the church. Be honest, have you ever wondered if that’s really going to suit you?”

In Tom’s (very, very weak) defense, he’s got a point. Relationships are two-way streets, and in this age of not living with someone before marriage, it’s something Trixie should have taken into consideration. However, for Tom to have never initiated any sort of discussion about what being a curate’s wife entails (he’s going wherever the church sends him, and his wife just has to deal) is totally on him. We can see now that if Trixie married Tom, her life as she knew it would be stripped away—she would have no say in where she lived, and she would have to come second, or, more realistically, third in Tom’s list of priorities. He will always put the church and the community he ministers to above her and their family.

Trixie’s sorrow over her realization that there is no happily-ever-after with her handsome fiancé manifests itself in a drunken binge that night—and poor Barbara is forced to cover for her passed-out friend by delivering three babies in a 24-hour period without a moment to rest. But while it’s impossible to ignore Trixie’s drinking—Barbara: “At the end of a day, Patsy and I always like to guess how soon Trixie’s bar will open!”—Trixie’s strength (through what must’ve been a massive hangover) the next morning in removing herself from a situation that would only make her miserable in the end is to be commended. As I’ve discussed before in these recaps, this is an era where the only endgame for single women was to get married. For Trixie to willingly turn down a life of security and companionship for the sake of her own happiness was still far from commonplace—but, like her many fabulous ensembles, it makes her a trend-setter just the same.

NEXT: Girl power

While ladies like Trixie and Sister Winifred—with her one-woman crusade to get the johns of Poplar to wrap it up—may have gotten their women’s-lib messages across on their own this episode, Barbara needed to call in some male reinforcements. In keeping with the reality of the time, sometimes a man is only going to listen to another man, and if Dr. Turner can get a new father to stop punishing his baby daughter for the crime of being born female, then everyone wins in the end.

Poplar resident Frank Robbins runs a rope-making factory (note the rope wreath he places on the local war memorial), and his father and two brothers all died during the Second World War. “I ended up with three sets of medals and the family business,” he woefully tells Barbara. Now that his wife, Susan, is pregnant, Frank has put an unreasonable amount of pressure on Susan to bear him a son to carry on the Frank Robbins and Sons tradition. It doesn’t matter how many times midwife Babs (Patsy’s nickname for Barbara, and I really hope it sticks) tries to explain his wife has no control over their baby’s gender—Frank is obstinate. When Susan delivers a beautiful girl, and then has to be moved to the hospital due to a retained placenta, Frank is so distraught over having a daughter that he literally turns his back on his baby and his distressed wife. He rightfully gets an earful from an exhausted and cranky Barbara, but it’s Dr. Turner’s calm and clichéd (hey, whatever works, right?) words that finally bring the new dad around a couple of days later.

“Times are changing!” says Dr. Turner. “There are women in Parliament already!”

The next morning, Frank holds his daughter for the first time and takes her on a private tour of the family factory while telling her stories about her grandfather and the business she stands to inherit one day, with Susan following behind them. We’ll claim this as a small victory for the Poplar women’s movement for now, and worry later about whether or not little baby Robbins will even want to go into rope-making when she’s an adult. Which will be right around the time Britain gets its first female prime minister.

Quick thoughts:

  • This episode stands out for having the best collection of period music in Call the Midwife‘s entire three and a half seasons. There was Peggy Lee’s sultry “Fever” playing on the brothel jukebox when Sister Winifred first enters to treat pregnant, syphilitic patient Bridget Cole. Ritchie Valens’ “La Bamba” soundtracked Trixie’s round of pre-going-out drinks (maybe the klaxon horn should’ve sounded off then, too). And Rosemary Clooney’s novelty tune “Come on-a My House” turned Sister Winnie’s otherwise mundane tour of Poplar’s red-light district (to hand out literature on prophylactic usage) into the most amusing scene of the episode.
  • I’m all for Shelagh to return to nursing, but overly gleeful greetings like the one she gave Bridget when the young prostitute was quarantined (“Welcome to the Poplar Ritz. Full room service and tea in constant supply!”) really shouldn’t make the viewer go, “Hey, that sounds like fun! Can I get syphilis, too?”

Episode Recaps

Call the Midwife

Set in the 1950s, this BBC period drama (which airs on PBS stateside) follows nurse midwives working on the East End of London.

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