Joan Donley OBE, RM, MHSc (Honorary) 1916-2005
Joan Donley was a fearless champion of women’s rights, an internationally renowned midwife and author, and a much loved and respected Auckland Women’s Health Council member. She was a tireless and tenacious advocate and an inspiration to all who worked alongside her. She was unstintingly generous in sharing her knowledge and insights and was an example to us all. Her sense of humour and irreverence always kept us going when the going got rough. Her legacy lives on in the babies she helped bring into the world, in the organisations she helped found and those she supported, and in her books advocating for normal pregnancy and birth.
Joan was an early member of the Auckland Women’s Health Council. She was actively involved on the Executive Committee until she was no longer able to attend our meetings. Joan was much loved for her sharp wit: she would create wickedly funny nicknames for various MPs. Indeed, these names stuck.
Joan was best known for her passion for birthing issues; she ensured that our submissions on all things maternity were based on quality research. One example of this was in AWHC’s oral submission to the Health Select Committee on maternity issues in which she gave a cost breakdown of a caesarean birth compared to that of a vaginal birth. The Health Select committee members were very taken by this canny economic pitch and there was a good degree of engagement, which is not always the case.
Joan was a staunch feminist, committed to women not being exploited in the interests of others. She viewed having a baby at home as a ‘feminist and a political act’ in which ‘women rebelled against the technological takeover of their bodies’ by male doctors and hospital nurses. She believed in equity and justice, and recognised the impact of poverty and the need for this to be addressed. Related to this was Joan’s holistic view of health and the importance of good nutrition. Related to this was Joan’s holistic of health and the importance of good nutrition. Joan’s “Weed salad” was well known by AWHC members.
Joan aimed for women to become empowered and enabled to choose for themselves. She provided them with broad information. It is these values and beliefs that are some of the legacy that Joan has left AWHC and which still drive our work.
However, Joan leaves a legacy far beyond AWHC. In 1978 she formed the Auckland Home Birth Association, a lobby group for domiciliary midwives, and she was a founding member of the New Zealand Domiciliary Midwives Society, established in 1981. She was integral in bringing about midwifery autonomy and it was because of her ability to bring together women and midwives that midwifery autonomy in 1990 came about with the Nurses Amendment Act. Her oft quoted slogan for this unique partnership was “Women need midwives need women”. Another oft quoted slogan was “Pizzas are delivered. Women give birth”.
Joan was also a founding member of the College of Midwives. In 2001, NZCOM established the Joan Donley Midwifery Research Collaboration (JDMRC) – the evidence arm of the College that provides the framework and secretarial support for the College’s research programme. Set up in honour of Joan and her commitment to an evidence-based midwifery profession, its core purpose is to promote the development of midwifery research, and thereby the provision of evidence for practice, in Aotearoa New Zealand’s unique maternity service context. NZCOM also holds the biennial Joan Donley Midwifery Research Forum.
Her book Save the Midwives is still read, and her Compendium for Healthy Pregnancy and a Normal Birth is not only still available, but highly sought after and prized by women wanting to take a holistic approach to their pregnancies and the births of their babies.
Joan Donley was made an OBE in 1990 for services to midwifery, and was awarded both the New Zealand 1990 Commemoration Medal and the New Zealand Suffrage Centennial Medal 1993. In 1997 she was awarded an honorary Master’s degree in midwifery from the Auckland Institute of Technology.