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.
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.
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.