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Roseanna M. White IS A CHRISTY FINALIST!!!

Winners on the 5 Year Anniversary of the Colonial Quills blog are: Joan H. Hochstetler Perfect Pies goes to Rhonda and Noorthkill goes to Kim Hansen, Roseanna M. White Bev Duell-Moore, Carla Gade Audio of Pattern for Romance winner Rachel Dodson,Shannon McNear Pioneer Christmas won by Melissa Petterson, Carrie Fancett Pagels winner book of choice/earrings/bookmarks/postcards goes to Katie Edgar, Angela Couch's Mail Order Revenge goes to Andrea Byers, Denise Weimer's winner is Joan Arning! Congrats all!!!

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Call the Women Together

In 1998, I was thrilled to visit the shrine for historians: The Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. This museum is unlike any other. Nineteen buildings host various exhibits—so many, in fact, that it is impossible to see everything in one day.

While I have forgotten many of the historical displays, one definitely stands out in my memory. It was a poster depicting a “Man Midwife.”



Now the title alone was enough to intrigue me, especially since I was a registered nurse, then working in a mother/baby unit at a local hospital. The display at the Smithsonian highlighted the debate going on in the late 1700s concerning male physicians undertaking the business of delivering babies.

The picture shows a person of two parts—half physician with his tools of the trade, including forceps and medications; the other half, a female midwife with her arms outstretched in motherly care. The symbolism of interfering medical practitioner vs. comforting, female arms was loud and clear. But the image was also prompted by the disapproval of many who were offended by males becoming involved in such intimate medical care of women.

A letter addressed to “All men in general and to all married men in particular,” was written in 1764 by Philip Thicknesse. His words expressed his outrage at the growing practice:

 “Let it be remembered that my motive is thereby to put a stop to impure acts, immodest actions, and the indelicate, unchaste, and unnecessary transactions of Men Midwives, such as they avowedly and publicly profess and such that every man of sense, decency, sentiment, and spirit must and will disapprove, or be totally indifferent as to his wife’s conduct or his own honor.”

In 2012, it is difficult to relate to the emotion and concern of Mr. Thicknesse. But considering the history of childbirth, it is not surprising that only female midwives were considered the acceptable assistants in the birthing process.

Since earliest recorded childbirths in the Bible, midwives were called upon to assist in a birth. And ever since Bridget Lee Fuller delivered the first Colonial babies on board the Mayflower in 1620, midwives had established themselves as the ones to call upon when labor began in the New World. For the next 200 years, midwifery reigned.

Midwives did not go to school to learn the craft—the skill was taught by other midwives. There was no formal training in the early colonies until 1765 when an institute for training was offered in Philadelphia. But many could not afford such schooling and most still apprenticed under more experienced trainers. Many midwives were widows who delivered babies as a way to make a living.


When a pregnant woman knew that birth was imminent, she “called her women together” for the event. Friends, relatives, the midwife—whoever a woman wanted to attend her and speak words of comfort to her—became a part of the birthing scene. It was definitely a female affair, although occasionally, husbands were needed to assist.

Childbirth in Early America was difficult, to say the least. One in eight births resulted in the death of the mother, usually as a result of exhaustion, dehydration, infection, or excessive bleeding. Women often looked toward impending childbirth with dread, one referring to it as “the greatest of earthly miseries.”

A midwife with great skills was highly valued. A diary kept by a late 18th century midwife from Maine named Martha Ballard describes the difficult life that she faced—fording rivers in winter, spending hours and days tending to laboring patients, and occasionally, preparing a deceased patient for burial. But Martha’s record was a successful one for the times: Out of 996 deliveries, there were only four fatalities.

Highly devoted to her profession, Martha continued delivering infants in her community until just before her death in 1812 at the age of 77.

But long before Martha Ballard passed away, the tide was beginning to turn. By the late 1700s, doctors in England had begun to play a greater role in childbirths. They, in turn, influenced American doctors who trained across the ocean and then brought these ideas home.



The practice of physician-assisted childbirth became popular in the urban areas of Philadelphia, Boston, and New York. These man-midwives brought with them medications and forceps. While the forceps could be handy during difficult deliveries—perhaps saving many infants and mothers who would otherwise have died—the physicians tended to interfere more in a delivery rather than allowing the child to be born at a natural pace like the midwives.

 By 1790, midwifery was losing ground to the doctor-assisted delivery. But midwives continued to reign in many areas as the main caregivers of laboring women.

26 comments:

  1. Elaine, this is a fascinating article. I'm glad to have give birth in the 20th century with a female doctor not a male midwife.

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    1. Amen to that, Carla. I love the idea of midwives, but if there's a complication, I am so relieved we have medically trained physicians, whether male or female. The goal is ALWAYS a safe delivery, no matter the gender of the practitioner. Thanks for coming by!

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  2. OH, I am so with Carla on this one. So happy to have had my children now rather than then. Very neat blog post though.

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    1. So happy you liked the post. We are truly blessed to be giving birth in a modern age! Thanks so much for commenting!

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  3. Interesting article!

    ecriggs1990(at)aol(dot)com

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    1. So glad you enjoyed this post and thanks for coming by!

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  4. Yikes! I'd have died years ago if I was born in colonial times! Thanks for sharing, Elaine.

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    1. I'm sure that many of us would not be here if we had been born in Colonial times! It is a sobering thought, and makes me grateful for modern medicine. Thanks so much for commenting, Carrie!

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  5. So fascinating! It is the things like this that helped to shape early American culture. I think it is also interesting that women were allowed to be midwives and nurses but not doctors. And before a real doctor could come to a small town, the people often relied on the experienced women to help whn someone was sick. But they couldn't become a doctor.

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    1. There were so many restrictions on women in early America. Can you imagine that, after surviving the birth of the child, a woman's offspring legally belonged to her husband? It makes us in the 21st century shake our heads! Thanks so much for stopping by!

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    2. I'm exploring a scenario like that in my WIP, a young girl growing up wanting to be a healer/apothecary like her father. She will have to funnel those energies and dreams into being a midwife.

      Did you know among the Oneida, and all the Iroquois nations, that the children (not to mention the house, village, and fields) traditionally belonged to the woman, not her husband? Is it any wonder some white women, adopted into those tribes, chose not to go back to the restrictive life in the colonies?

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    3. Lori, the book you're working on sounds awesome! I would read that :)

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    4. Lori, I cannot wait to read your current WIP! It sounds wonderful!

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    5. Thanks, Sarah & Elaine. It's the most challenging story I've ever attempted to tell. The midwife character is only one of a large cast. This is definitely historical fiction, not historical romance. In fact I think it's two books. I don't have a contract for it but God willing, one day....

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  6. VERY interesting stuff. Having grown up in Los Angeles ("the big city LOL"), I never even thought about the midwife option. Both my kids were delivered by doctors (one female, one male). Just wow.

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  7. I know, Joanne. I never thought about the option when my children were born, either! And it never phased me to have a male doctor. That seemed "the norm." Thanks so much for stopping by!

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  8. What a great post, Elaine! I love learning new things about this time period! Hearing again where many women have opted to have a mid-wife--either at home or in the hospital. In fact, we have a hospital devoted just to childbirth (Highland)and they use mid-wives there.

    I'm just as happy that the Lord blessed me with a strong son--and a great male Dr. that delivered him. (What bothers me a little though is this sudden frequency in cesarean births.)

    Thanks for this information!

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    1. Yes, the increase in C-sections is disturbing. I think doctors now are SO afraid of a lawsuit in case ANYTHING goes wrong, that they will opt for a "safer" choice. It is a sad society that is so anxious to sue whenever something goes wrong, whether the mistake of the practitioner or not. Thanks for stopping by, Pat. And I am grateful for the wonderful docs that delivered my three safely as well. But I am also happy that midwifery has made a comeback!

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  9. I, for one, am in agreement with those women of the earlier centuries. I only ever go to women doctors. I don't like the idea of a male doctor anywhere near me! Lol.
    I have to say, though, that that second picture freaks me out! Why isn't she in a bed at least? I'm shuddering at the thought of giving birth that way!
    Thanks for this fascinating post!

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    1. Hi Sarah! I know if looks awful, yet often gravity was used to help the baby descend. They also used birthing chairs that had an edge for the woman to be supported on, but an opening for the baby to emerge. I've seen another drawing with a woman supported by her husband on the edge of a bed. Laying horizontally does not usually make for an easier delivery. That's why women are encouraged to walk during labor.

      Thanks so much for stopping by. Glad you found it fascinating!

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  10. Very fascinating, Elaine! Love this article. And you're very right about lying down for delivery. It's actually the worst way to deliver a baby. Historically women always remained upright, whether supported by a birthing chair or simply squatting. Delivery is much easier and faster that way, and walking as long as possible before delivery hastens things along too. The reason why women started lying down for delivery was for the convenience of the male doctors, not because it was a better method.

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    1. Absolutely, Joan. The midwives knew better! ;-) Thanks for coming by!

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  11. Stopping in not just to say hello again--but just to comment about the second picture; I'd just noticed it had to be absolutely uncomfortable situation not just the baby being born) but all that tugging & hauling that the husband and women are doing! I can feel my shoulders etc. giving way now! :) Those poor women who had a difficult/long birth--(I'm thinking blood pressure problems & other complications, here). Wow.
    Very interesting, Elaine!

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    1. I hadn't concentrated on the helpers before either, Pat! You are so right. It was "labor" for all involved. And I bet the helpers were bruised from the mother's grip on their arms, too. :-(

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  12. So interesting, Elaine. Good job. I'm on chapter 3 of your book and I'm enjoying it so much. Love the characters.

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    1. So glad you liked the post, Susan. And especially excited that you are enjoying Book 3! Thanks so much!

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