Women And Midwifery In Early America Research Papers Example
History I Section 263
The practices of childbirth and delivery have changed drastically throughout history. With the advances in science and technology and growing knowledge over the years, America has been delivering healthier babies than ever. But unlike now, in early America midwives played a large role in child delivery and child care, “When the English settled in America they brought the traditional English customs and practices of childbirth to the New World.” Midwives were more than just someone who delivered a baby; they also acted as the nurse and were a friend to the pregnant woman throughout her labor. Midwives felt a lot of responsibility for their patients, which can be seen though their stories. Their stories and evidence not only show their successes, troubles, but also the history of diseases prevalent in early America.
Midwives were a necessity in early American society, whether it was for emotional or physical help. “The women of this era shared a special bond when it came to dealing with problems specific to women. The midwife was all the more important as she assisted in childbirth which was considered a life-changing event.” This was true when slavery was in existence too and black women who were midwives were given special privileges. They were not made to work in the plantation but were given chores like cooking and cleaning in the houses of their masters. The pension files from early America have stories and first person narratives of midwives and the role they played in the American society. In addition to government archives and pension files, information about midwives during those time scan also is found in the form of journals or diaries that they had kept. One such instance is the diary of Martha Bullard, a midwife in the mid eighteenth century who kept a careful account of her life and her practice as a midwife. Her diary was unearthed and later transcribed in the form of a book by Ulrich.
When describing the role of a midwife in the life of a woman and during the pregnancy and birth of her kid, Bullard says that “A woman liked having a midwife around in such times as she would not only ease her pains during childbirth but will also comfort her in cases of still birth.” Through her accounts the reader gets to know about the multitude of tasks a midwife did in those days. Most tasks are medically related such as delivering babies, checking to see if a woman had gone into labor or if it was a false alarm, preparing the burial for still born babies or the woman who died in childbirth, making other medical calls, giving pills to the sick as well as looking for herbs that could cure some sicknesses. The tale of the midwife also is a rich source of information on the medical practices in the 18th century America such as the interest in homeopathic remedies and how the trained doctors and local healers interacted with one another. The importance of household work in the life of a midwife, the division of work according to gender and the female sub-economic system are other facts that we know about from her accounts. Martha’s account also lets us know that during those times a midwife should be summoned by the parents of the unborn child to be present at the birth. She herself says that she would not be present in the birth of a stranger’s kid. Also the midwives reputation spread by word of mouth and the good ones were recommended to others.
Although midwives were in great demand in the early days of America, their presence and necessity soon came under threat with the advance in modern medicine and science. Richard and Dorothy Wertz give an account of the history of midwives in America in their book, ‘Lying-in: A history of Childbirth in America’. In the book the readers are shown the importance that is given to the midwife as childbirth was more of a social event than anything else. Midwives were revered and their practices were not questioned. After their gradual demise over the centuries, they have now since come back to prominence with people trying out alternate practices of childbirth. “Very soon Americans will face the problems of excessive medical intervention during childbirth. Someday they might have to understand the problems of too much scientific advancement in childbirth.” The authors here talk about the resurgence of the midwives and how it is essential to bring back the age old traditions. The very fact that they successfully delivered thousand if not more number of babies without any formal training itself is a testament to their skills. The role of the midwife also started declining with the invention of the obstetric forceps. With this invention and a few more advances men believed that women could no longer learn these new techniques and slowly midwives disappeared for a while until their resurgence in this century.
Midwifery in the colonial times actually started with three births in the Mayflower in 1620. Bridget lee Fuller was the woman who acted as the midwife during these births ad she continued doing this even after setting foot in the New World. She went to deliver more babies and was a midwife for 44 years. The midwife not only had a respected position in American during these times but she also was a de facto physician. She not only offered her services during childbirth but also helped women with other gynecological problems. “During this period, the midwives were trained as apprentices by other midwives, were middle aged or slightly older. They also had kids of their own on top of running their houses. The midwife could also mix the medicines herself and take care of the sick.” Since the men of the household or any other man was not allowed inside the birth chambers during childbirth, the midwives had monopoly in matters of women’s health and childbirth. The matter of issuing a license to a midwife started in New York in the eighteenth century. Getting a license meant that the midwife was the servant of the state and had duties such as the keeper of civil and social order. This was equivalent to a registered nurse or a civil official. They had not only more duties but also more power. It also meant that their jobs were guaranteed by the state ad safe. The protestant church was also supportive to the midwives as they were alarmed at high level of infant mortality in some places. In such cases the midwives came under the control of the bishop.
Although accurate records of births and deaths were not kept, on historian made a note that the birth rate was successful for 95% of the time. Men did not attend childbirth during colonial times as it was considered indecent and also a woman’s affair. The less number of doctors present also ensured that midwives were popular. Not all midwives were famous or highly looked upon by members of the colonial society. Midwives who were present during the delivery of deformed or still born children were normally accused of witchcraft. The women who often went to midwives or the people who went to midwives were usually people from the lower classes or people who could not afford doctors. This was after the profession was taken over by men. When these people started going to midwives and healers instead of going to established physicians, the male doctors went against them. It was not only the men who were against these women but the church was not also favorable towards the midwives.
The importance given to women and their knowledge did not sit well with the established patriarchy and they were soon labeled as witches. “No one does more harm to the Catholic Church than midwives,” wrote witch-hunters Kramer and Sprenger. The reason why doctors were against midwives was because for every patient who saw a midwife there was a loss of a potential research subject for them. The loss of the privileges for the midwives and the eventual disappearance of women from this field meant that this trend continued on for a long time. The earlier privileged position they enjoyed were no longer available as they were seen as being ignorant. The midwives lost their position as favored medical practitioners thanks to a sustained effort by male doctors as well as the church. Religious beliefs along with the growth in medicine were responsible for the decline in midwifery. Where earlier there were no books, advancement in the field of medicine saw more books and the increase in number of qualified doctors.
Women have long been associated with medicine and childbirth. Although they had no degrees they went from home to home and town to town dispensing their medicinal knowledge and childbirth skills. Until this profession was taken over by men, midwives played an important role in the health of the women in early American society. Midwives were different from doctors in the sense that their job did not end with the birth of the child. They stayed with the mothers as long as they were needed and as the mother could raise her kids on her own. An example of how the medical profession was taken over by men can be seen in the book, ‘Outlines of the Theory and Practice of Midwifery’ by Alexander Hamilton. This book written by a man and details the intimate nature of a woman’s body and her reproductive organs. Although it is a medical book, the fact that it was written by a man and not a woman shows the decline of women in the field of childbirth. There are also instances where the doctor speaks disparagingly of the midwife and throughout the book the midwife is seen as a help and not as the chief player she once was. Hamilton describes a pregnancy, a rather difficult one in his book and says the following. “The midwife mistook the presenting part for the breech, and the pains after a few hours became strong and painful.” Although this is a description of just one pregnancy it is symptomatic of the position that midwives now enjoyed. It was that of an aide and not of a person who could conduct delivery of her own.
“The midwife was an accoucher and a general healer than a nurse. Sent for a woman who entered labor, she stayed trough the delivery and perhaps another day.” She was often seen as an herbalist and and all round healer. The quotes from the book, ‘Ordered to Care: The Dilemma of American Nursing, 1850-1945 by Susan Reverby again shows the nature of the midwife in the mid 19th century. She no longer stays with the new mother for as long as she is needed but she is slowly being used less. She is asked to come just for the delivery and asked to leave after that. A nurse or a wet nurse takes over the process after that. Any study about the midwives in early American history would be incomplete without the role played by the Native American midwives before the European arrival. “Early Native American women sought the assistance of midwives for prenatal and postnatal care before European contact in the fifteenth century. Midwives knew much about herb lore and attended to everyday healing. They were also skilled at delivering babies and performed a bloodletting technique called “lancing” among other forms of surgery.” As healers and teachers, midwives are often called the special people, women who are considered intermediaries between Mother Earth and the harmony and rhythm of the seasons, the bringers of life and continuity of the Native community and its culture.”
Thus from early native American society where midwives were treated as special women to early colonial history where they still had an important place to finally losing their position of importance after the advent of modern medicine and male doctors the history of midwives in Early American history has been chequered. Their stories and history has also served to inform readers about the history of modern medicine and medical practices. Except in Native American society midwives are no longer considered important in America. They still make an appearance but people would prefer to have their babied delivered by a doctor than by a midwife. However, all hope is not lost for the midwife as home births and water births are making a comeback. In the case of home birth, the woman can give birth with a licensed midwife attending to her. Midwives thus have had an eventful role to play in early American lives.
1. Richard Wertz and Dorothy Wertz, Lying-in: A History of Childbirth in America (Yale university press, 1989), 1.
2. Noralee, Frankel. “From Slave Women to Free Women:The National Archives and Black Women’s History in the Civil War Era,” Federal Records and African American History, 29, no.4 (1997).
3. Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, A Midwife’s Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary, 1785-1812, (New York: Knopf, 1990).
4. Richard Wertz and Dorothy Wertz, Lying-in: A History of Childbirth in America (Yale university press, 1989), 9.
5. Heather, Whaley. “Colonial Midwifery”. wondersandmarvels.com. http://www.wondersandmarvels.com/2011/06/colonial-midwifery.html. (Accessed November 31, 2014).
6. Barbara, Ehrenreich, and Deirdre English. Witches, Midwives, and Nurses: A History of Women Healers. 2nd ed. Old Westbury, N.Y.: Feminist Press, 1973.
7. Richard Wertz and Dorothy Wertz, Lying-in: A History of Childbirth in America (Yale university press, 1989), 9.
8. Barbara, Ehrenreich, and Deirdre English. Witches, Midwives, and Nurses: A History of Women Healers. 2nd ed. Old Westbury, N.Y.: Feminist Press, 1973.
9. Hamilton, Alexander. Outlines of the Theory and Practice of Midwifery. A ed.Philadelphia: Printed by Thomas Dobson, Bookseller and Stationer, at the Stone House in Second Street., 1790.
10. Bryant.edu. Colonial midwifery. web.bryant.edu. http://web.bryant.edu/~ehu/h364proj/sprg_98/maraglia/mid17.htm. (Accessed November 31, 2014).
11. Hamilton, Alexander. Outlines of the Theory and Practice of Midwifery. A ed.Philadelphia: Printed by Thomas Dobson, Bookseller and Stationer, at the Stone House in Second Street., 1790.
13. Susan, Reverby. Ordered to Care: The Dilemma of American Nursing, 1850-1945. Cambridge [Cambridgeshire: Cambridge University Press, 1987. 13-14,101-283.
15. Elizabeth Gifford. The Importance of Midwives and Healers, From Martha Ballard to Mary Peterson: An Examination of the History and Cultural Significance of Midwifery and Healing in Native, European and American Societies.(Western Oregon University, 2003)
Ehrenreich, Barbara, and Deirdre English. Witches, Midwives, and Nurses: A History of Women
Healers. 2nd ed. Old Westbury, N.Y.: Feminist Press, 1973.
Hamilton, Alexander. Outlines of the Theory and Practice of Midwifery. A New ed.Philadelphia:
Printed by Thomas Dobson, Bookseller and Stationer, at the Stone House in Second
Ulrich, Laurel Thatcher. A Midwife’s Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary,
1785-1812. New York: Knopf :, 1990.
Frankel, Noralee. “From Slave Women to Free Women:The National Archives and Black Women’s History in the Civil War Era,” Federal Records and African American History, 29, no.4 (1997).
Mays, Dorothy A. Women in Early America Struggle, Survival, and Freedom in a New World.
Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC-CLIO, 2004.
Reverby, Susan. Ordered to Care: The Dilemma of American Nursing, 1850-1945. Cambridge
[Cambridgeshire: Cambridge University Press, 1987. 13-14,101-283.
Wertz, Richard W., and Dorothy C. Wertz. Lying-in: A History of Childbirth in America.
Expanded ed. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989.
Colonial Midwifery. Retrieved from http://web.bryant.edu/~ehu/h364proj/sprg_98/maraglia/mid17.htm
Whaley, Heather. Colonial Midwifery. Retrieved from http://www.wondersandmarvels.com/2011/06/colonial-midwifery.html