Women of Authority: Midwife Series Part 2/4

Today, we’re continuing with Laurie Alice Eakes four part series on the historical aspects of midwifery. You can find Part 1 here.

Childbirth was more than a duty to God and husband.  Childbirth was a time when the woman was guaranteed attention in an atmosphere of “supreme drama”. Because, except in extreme cases, men were excluded from the birthing chamber, the laboring woman held the leading role with her friends, relatives, and neighbors as supporting actresses and, directing them all, was the midwife.

Well into the early modern era in Europe and throughout the American colonial period, women in religious orders and mistresses of the local manor performed the office of midwife as charitable work, but in the towns and villages, other women made a living presiding over childbirth.  More than likely, many of these women were unskilled practitioners, relying mainly on personal experience with childbirth or observation of other women’s labor. However, from the beginning of the sixteenth century to the end of the eighteenth century, when “man midwives”— physicians in obstetrical practice— became the reigning practitioners in the birthing chamber or hospital, midwives could and did consider themselves professionals.

 Unlike other members of their gender, midwives received wages and, through necessity, more often than not, worked outside the home.  Yet, unlike actresses, prostitutes, and domestic servants, midwives were respected, revered, and sometimes even feared members of society, giving them a power few of their peers realized.

In comparison with obituaries of good women at the same period, the death notices of midwives laud them as not merely exemplary human beings, but extol the virtues of their work and their benefit to their communities.  Mary Bradway of Pennsylvania and Lydia Robinson of Virginia were, according to their obituaries, exceptional women and midwives:

“Yesterday was interred here the Body of Mary Bradway, formerly a noted Midwife.  She was born on New-Years Day, 1629-30, and died on the second of January 1729-30; aged just One Hundred years and a day.  Her Constitution wore well to the last, and she could see to read without Spectacles a few Months since.”

“Last Sunday died here Mrs. Lydia Robinson, aged 70 years, who during her practice as midwife for 35 years past, delivered a number of women, in this and the neighboring towns, of Twelve Hundred children; and it is very remarkable that in the whole of her practice she never left one woman in the operation.  The death of a person so eminently useful is a very great loss to the public in general, and to this town in particular.”

Martha Ballard, made famous through Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s work with her diary, received only a one-line obituary.  Ulrich, however, quotes the eulogy of Jared Eliot, a Connecticut minister, delivered in 1739 on behalf of another midwife, Mrs. Elizabeth Smithson:

“The deceased was a true light upon a hill. She was a person of Humility, Affability, Compassion, and on whose Tongue was the Law of Kindness; Her Ear was open to the Complaints of the Afflicted, and her Hand was open for the Supply of the Needy.

As a Midwife, she was a person of Superior Skill and Capacity; as was found by Experience in the most difficult Cases ….

She regarded the Poor as well as the Rich ….

She denied herself both Sleep and rest, and spared neither Skill nor Pains for the Belief of those that were Afflicted and Distressed.”

*Originally posted February, 2011.*

Since Laurie Alice Eakes lay in bed as a child telling herself stories, she has fulfilled her dream of becoming a published author, with more than two dozen books in print and several award wins and nominations to her credit, including winning the National Readers Choice Award for Best Regency and being chosen as a 2016 RITA®

She has recently relocated to a cold climate because she is weird enough to like snow and icy lake water. When she isn’t basking in the glory of being cold, she likes to read, visit museums, and take long walks, preferably with her husband, though the cats make her feel guilty every time she leaves the house.

You can read more about Eakes and her books, as well as contact her, through her website.


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