During the early 1800s, women in the South were beginning to see medicine come into play when it came to giving birth. What used to be strictly a female affair between the pregnant woman and slaves, childbirth began to include the male physician behind their closed door. This shift in power was due to the introduction of gynecology and obstetrics as a field of study and since women were not encouraged to pursue higher education, men became dominant in the fields. Regardless of the increasing number of male doctors, the slave-midwife remained an important figure in the South, forging an important bond between slave woman and plantation mistress. (Tunc, 2010).
Birth Control and Abortion in the Antebellum South
Birth rates were high in the South due to the lack of effective birth control for both the free and enslaved classes of women. The most common practices for women when it came to decreasing their chance of pregnancy were the rhythm method, or periodic abstinence, and coitus interruptus, what we call today “pulling out”. Herbs and devices for methods of contraception were looked down upon by the southern society because men relied on numerous offspring to further the patriarchal society. But it appears that slave women were more prone to acquiring these methods, using condoms, sponges and even roots to help subside pregnancy (Tunc, 2010).
Abortion, as one can imagine, was greatly frowned upon in the antebellum south. This disrupted the patriarchal society in that offspring, specifically male offspring, were required in order to pass down property rights. Although the practice was taboo, slave-midwives assisted in providing the procedure to plantation mistresses. Mortality was prevalent among pregnant women and therefore many were hesitant to go along with their pregnancy. Using herbal remedies like cedar berries, tansy and cotton seeds, midwives gave women agency in their reproductive rights. This required the slave-midwives to keep secrets of these plantation mistresses, again forging a special bond that surpassed the societal barriers between slaves and white women.
The Relationship Between Enslaved Women and Plantation Mistresses During Pregnancy
A plantation mistress’s daily life was greatly affected when she became pregnant and their female slaves were present to take over duties they could no longer perform. While their slaves couldn’t take their place at societal events, they could perform more managerial duties like overseeing chores and making baby clothes (Tunc, 2010).
Black women, both freed and enslaved, played a significant role in childbirth acting as the midwife. Being a slave-midwife “could bring status, independent income, (mobility) and even some personal latitude within the constraints of slavery” (Tunc, 2010). A bond was forged between the plantation mistress and the slave-midwife and this relationship brought confidence and a sense of agency to the midwife during a time when slaves didn’t normally have those opportunities. An enslaved midwife, Mae D. Moore, made an income for herself from her midwife practices and was eventually able to buy her and her family’s freedom. Midwifery allowed for upward mobility amongst the enslaved (Tunc, 2010).
Sharla Fett writes about how slave midwives wore many hats, so to speak, and “displayed remarkable cultural and social versatility” (Fett, 2006). These midwives were not only working in the typical slave quarters, but they were also working amongst their white owners when it came to taking on added duties during a pregnancy. However, these additional duties introduced the concept of the “second shift”; even if their chores were completed, midwives had more duties to perform that were related to the pregnancy, most often lasting through the night. Slave midwives were also in charge of the spiritual aspect of pregnancies, for example they were to organize burials if the mother or child died during childbirth. (Fett, 2006).
Prenatal practices are what set slave-midwives apart from others. They encouraged daily light exercise for their patients, like walking or horseback riding. It was believed that exercise would loosen the uterus and cervix, making childbirth easier when it came time to push. Another recommendation by these midwives was to avoid sexual intercourse during the course of the pregnancy, as it was believed that by doing so could result in damage or even death of the baby. However, some midwives did allow intercourse to occur between the second and seven months and still avoiding it during the first and last two months. Baths were also avoided because there was concern that bacteria could harm or kill the baby. Dietary restrictions were put in to place like decreasing the number of apples eaten for the sake of the health of their kidneys. Women were also advised to watch their meat intake, as the meat was believed to strengthen both the umbilical cord and bones of the child making childbirth more difficult (Tunc, 2010).
Slave-midwives avoided methods and drugs that were common for the male physicians during this time. While doctors were using cupping, leeching, urination and even vomiting to assist in childbirth, midwives used more traditional methods to maintain control during the birthing process. Doctors also relied on episiotomies to assist in childbirth, but since these often resulted in infection and sometimes even death, midwives avoided resorting to this procedure. They instead would apply oil to the vulva, strengthening the muscles for the delivery process. To induce labor, midwives would create tonics and even burn roots, directing the smoke into the vulva. A slave-midwife from Kentucky, Easter Sudie Campbell, describes a tonic she would mix to cure the swelling of the glands, “I cans cure scrofula wid burdock root and one half spoon of citrate of potash. Jes make a tea of burdock root en add the citrate of potash to hit” (Tunc, 2010).
Heat was also an important factor in childbirth in the south. Birth fires were a common tradition brought to the states from Africa. It was believed that the heat from the fires assisted in healing from childbirth and the ashes weren’t cleaned up until one month after the baby was born. Another tradition was burning of corncobs either under the bed during childbirth or on the doorstep. Warm blankets were also used around the bed to recreate the environment of the womb for the baby (Tunc, 2010).
Slave-midwives who had been in the profession for a long period of time earned the title “root doctor” or even “doctor woman”. Their knowledge of medicine transcended childbirth and many of these well-respected women would assist in other areas of health. Easter Sudie Campbell used her herbal remedies to cure the plantation owner’s sons of their sores. This proved her essential to the plantation family and no doubt a special relationship was forged between slave woman and plantation mistress.
Fett, Sharla M. (2006). Consciousness and Calling: African American Midwives at Work in the Antebellum South. In Edward E. Baptist (Ed.), New Studies in the History of American Slavery (p. 65-68). University of Georgia Press, 2006.
Tunc, T. (2010). The Mistress, the Midwife, and the Medical Doctor: pregnancy and childbirth on the plantations of the antebellum American South, 1800-1860. Women’s History Review, 19(3), 395-419. doi: 10.1080/09612025.2010.489348