Qualities of a Good Midwife: Part 1/4

I’m reposting Laurie Alice Eakes four part series on midwifery. Today, she’ll be focusing on the character of a good midwife.

Welcome, Laurie!

The following section is redacted from the presentation I made at the 1999 New Perspectives in History Conference.  For facility of reading, I have changed the arcaic spelling into modern spelling.

“As concerning their persons, they must be neither too young nor too old, but of an indifferent age, between both; well composed, not being subject to diseases, nor deformed in any part of their body; comely and neat in their apparel; their hands small and fingers long, not thick, but clean, their nails pared very close; they ought to be very cheerful, pleasant, and of a good discourse; strong, not idle, but accustomed to exercise, that they may be the more able if need require.

Touching their deportment, they must be mild, gentle, courteous, sober chaste, and patient; not quarrelsome nor chollerick; neither must they be covetous, nor report anything whatsoever they hear or see in secret, in the person or house of whom they deliver…

As concerning their minds, they must be wise and discreet; able to flatter and speak many fair words, to no other end but only to deceive the apprehensive women, which is a commendable deceipte, and allowed, when it is done, for the good of the person in distress.”

Thus did William Sermon, a seventeenth century physician and clergyman, describe the attributes of a good midwife.

Compared with the attributes of a good woman, described in the numerous pamphlets, obituaries, and epitaphs of the same time period, a midwife in Early Modern England and the North American colonies was expected to embody the traits of a good woman as well as the characteristics of a good professional.  Though one cannot expect that midwives met the standards Sermon, his peers, and other midwives set down for childbirth practitioners, through the nature of their work, and the standards set down through the ecclesiastical and municipal laws, and the expectations of other women, midwives achieved goals superior to the ideals of mere virtuous women.

In an age when women possessed little to no authority outside the home, the midwife achieved a position of power over other women and  within society itself.

Would you make the cut?

*Originally posted February, 2011.*

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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.

Laurie Alice Eakes: The Midwife Versus The Physician

Physicians Take over the Practice

lady-in-the-mistFor centuries, even millennia, midwives served as the primary practitioners called in to assist in childbirth. Then a family of ?French Huguenots, established as “man-midwives” invented the forceps, an instrument resembling two spoons with a handle holding them together. The Chamberlain family kept this invention a secret for over a hundred years. When it was sold to, or leaked to the public, other physicians began to use it and midwives began to lose their power over child birth, except in rural areas.

At first, midwives shunned the use of forceps. By law in some places and practice in others, they possessed small enough hands to pull out the baby in difficult births. After a while, though, laws changed and Midwives were not allowed to use forceps.  By the beginning of the nineteenth century, doctors were also using opiates to relieve the pain of childbirth.  Unfortunately, opium, as noted In Martha Ballard’s diary, A Midwife’s Tale, tended to prolong and even stop labor.  In the nineteenth century, ether and chloroform replaced opiates, especially after Queen Victoria allowed herself to be sedated during childbirth.

Lying –in hospitals came into practice, especially for poorer women. These were used as training fields for physicians wanting to deliver babies. Although germs were little more than a myth to medical practitioners until Joseph Lister and Louis Pasture proved their existence and harmfulness in the latter third of the nineteenth century, midwives and physicians made the observation that women who gave birth in hospitals suffered from childbed fever more often than did women who gave birth at home.  Women attended by midwives also had a lower mortality rates than did women attended by physicians.  After all, man midwives often went straight from an autopsy to the birthing chamber without washing their hands.

Why physicians strove to take over obstetrical practice is open to speculation.  Evidence, however, leads one to suspect that the motive was for financial gain.  Being men, thus having more power than women at that time, suppressing female childbirth practitioners was all too easy and financially lucrative.

Author’s Note: This article is adopted from a paper I delivered at the 1999 New Concepts in History conference under the title “Women of Power: Midwives in Early Modern Europe and North America”. My sources vary from newspapers, to diaries, to books difficult to obtain outside of a university library system, as many are hundreds of years old. If you wish to learn more, Google Books has some fine resources on childbirth practices in history.

*********************************************************************************************lauriealiceeakesMidwives historic role in society began to fascinate Laurie Alice Eakes in graduate school. Before she was serious about writing fiction, she knew she wanted to write novels with midwife heroines. Ten years, several published novels, four relocations, and a National Readers Choice Award for Best Regency later, the midwives idea returned, and Lady in the Mist was born. Now she writes full time from her home in Texas, where she lives with her husband and sundry dogs and cats.

You can read an excerpt from Lady in the Mist here and discover more about Laurie Alice Eakes at her website.

***This is a repost from December 1, 2010.***