Childbirth and the Antebellum American South

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).

Childbirth Methods

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.

Works Cited

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



What is Midwifery and Why Study It?

Before OB-GYNs was a field of medicine, midwifery was the common practice for childbirth. Author Jan Brunvand defines the practice as, “a traditional art rather than a modern science” (Brunvand, 482). Midwives were, and still are, traditionally women who delivered the babies during childbirth. Not only did they deliver the child, but their duties extended to providing a soothing and comfortable environment for the mother-to-be and her family and tending to the house during what could be days of labor (Stearns, 489). This comfortable environment was in part created by having relatives and friends present during labor, thus childbirth was viewed as a sort of social event (Brunvand, 482). Midwifery was a common practice throughout the colonies, as the knowledge of medicine was very limited in America at this time. Even by 1750, there were neither hospitals nor medical schools like there were back home in Europe. Medicine as a proper field of study had yet to take root in America. Midwives were praised throughout society, as they were a vital element in increasing the population throughout the colonies. Because death rates were high and colonists wanted to stay in America, the population needed to continue to increase if they were to be successful at colonization. A few perks the midwives could enjoy that illustrate their importance in society were free ferry rides and free housing (Cassidy, 35). Though male midwives began appearing in American around the 1800s, the English colonies refused to permit the presence of men in what was called “the birthing chamber”. The presence of men was deemed inappropriate and therefore the English strived to maintain what they viewed as ethical behavior during the process of childbirth (Stearns, 489). In Figure 1.1, we can see that there are multiple women assisting in the birthing chamber and how childbirth was depicted as a social event. Along with the moral regulation of no men allowed, the English also forbade the midwives to perform abortions or practice witchcraft during childbirth (Stearns, 489). The latter is what makes the study of midwifery so compelling; the peoples’ view on midwifery fluctuates in that sometimes they are seen as helpful, successful aids in childbirth. However, throughout history one can see how this drastically changes to the view that their practices are similar to that of witchcraft. This is a theme that will be explored throughout several future posts. We will explore around what time this shift in public opinion took place and see what outside variables impacted this change.

Jane Hawkins

Many midwives like Ann Eliot and Elizabeth Phillips were praised throughout society in Early America. After Eliot’s death in 1687, the town of Roxbury, Massachusetts constructed a tomb just for her and included the inscription, “She was thus honored for the great service she hath done this town” (Cassidy, 35). However, there was a fine line between midwifery and witchcraft that was sometimes blurred. Jane Hawkins is an interesting case study to see how midwives were at times condemned for their practice.

Jane Hawkins settled in Boston and was a local midwife. In October of 1637, Hawkins assisted Mary Dyer in childbirth and to their surprise, the baby was deformed and deemed a “monster” by society. Witchcraft was a common theme in society at this time and was used as an answer to unexplained behavior or even uncommon occurrences, like a deformed baby.  The deformed baby was a sign of witchcraft to the community and Hawkins was under suspicion. Although she was never formally charged with witchcraft, she was given three months to move out of the community. She was forbidden to practice midwifery or question religion unless it was discussed with the ministers of the church. She was also forbidden to “meddle in…drinks, plasters or oils” (Hall, 20).

John Winthrop shed light on the meaning of the oils in his writings about Jane Hawkins. He wrote that it was known throughout the community that Hawkins used oils to cause pregnancy in women. Winthrop ensured in his writings that these are credible facts and therefore she must be guilty of some type of witchcraft. He detailed Hawkins alleged reputation in her hometown of St. Ives; there was “suspicion of witchcraft, for it was certainly known, that Hawkins’s wife…had much familiarity with the devil in England” (Hall, 20). These accusations along with the birth of the deformed fetus were convincing enough for the community to oust Hawkins due to the possibility of witchcraft.

The cases of witchcraft show just how sensitive these religious communities were in Early America; communities believed the unexplained were the doings of the Devil. The accusations against midwives tarnished their reputation across communities. What was once a respected profession was slowly turning into a suspect practice.

Rise of Medicine in America and its Impact on Midwifery

The education of medicine was not brought to America until around the 1750s. Prior to this, midwives were the ones implementing and leading the childbirth process. Steps they took during childbirth included having the women walk around to perhaps ease labor pains, examine the cervix, lubricating the perineal tissues in order to promote stretching and tying off the umbilical cord. There was little to no interference by the midwife during labor, as they believed in letting childbirth happen naturally. But we see a shift in practices of midwifery in 1762 when William Shippen returned from studying in London and Edinburgh and created the first lectures on midwifery (Leavitt, 39).

William Shippen’s first series of lectures included women and focused on anatomy. But he quickly changed his structure and only allowed men to attend his lectures. He continued to start his own private midwifery practice and was admired amongst Philadelphia’s elite.

Following William Shippen’s success, males began to expand their medical practices to include childbirth. The presence of men in birthing chambers became a more common occurrence and the upper-echelon of society in the northeast began to use male doctors as opposed to female midwives. Leavitt proposes that this indicates a change in thought when it came to medicine, “it can only be explained by understanding the women’s impression that physicians knew more than midwives about the birth process and what to do if things went wrong” (Leavitt, 39). Regardless that midwives had been delivering children for centuries prior to men, Leavitt goes on to suggest that the presence of men equaled a greater sense of security for them and their children if a complication were to arise.

Although the witch-hunting days had passed, midwives were still bearing the brunt of societal suspicion. Their reputation was now weakened due to the emergence of medicine as a study in America and that men were only privy to the education. The science gave validity to the childbirth process and the education of what could go wrong scared the community. Midwives had performed successful childbirths throughout history but now than men had the science to support them, they were beginning to take over the industry.

Works Cited

Brunvard, J. 1998. American Folklore : An Encyclopedia. New York: Garland.

Cassidy, Tina. 2007. Birth: The Surprising History of How We Are Born. New York: Grove Press.

Hall, David D. 2005. Witch-Hunting in the Seventeenth-Century New England: A Documentary History,         1638-1693, 2nd Edition. Duke University Press.

Leavitt, J. 1986. Brought to Bed: Childbearing in America, 1750 to 1950. New York: Oxford University            Press.

Stearns, P. N. (1994). Encyclopedia of Social History. New York: Garland.