Motherwork in a Community of Care: the Midwife as a Public Figure in Early America

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2023
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Haverford College. Department of History
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Abstract
Female humans manage their reproductive bodies. They find their best practices for managing periods, fertility, and childbirth. Often, they share that knowledge, formally or informally, but ultimately through the framework of care – the provision of help or aid to ensure the health, welfare, and safety of an individual who cannot or should not provide it for themselves. Childbirth is necessarily a moment of care – it is painful, long, vulnerable, and dangerous. It is done best with someone there to catch the baby, cut the cord, and hold the laboring woman. As women have always been giving birth, they have always been developing and sharing their methods to ease the pains of fertilizing, incubating, and delivering new life. Midwifery in its most basic, non-professionalized sense is the shared expert knowledge and practice between women surrounding human reproduction. Midwives birth children, deliver women, and treat maladies. In colonial and antebellum America, those medicinal interventions were the keystone to an expansive and integral social authority. Midwives oriented and enforced societal values while acting as envoys and advocates between the women they treated and the patriarchal power structures they lived in and against. In the 1960s and 1970s, feminist scholars began reevaluating the historical role of the midwife and her demotion from birthing room authority in the Western world. This project follows the footsteps of that feminist, feminine, and female-oriented historical scholarship by analyzing colonial and antebellum American midwifery with visceral empathy. The touches, soothings, grasps, screams, writhings, encouragements, and indictments are the body of this body-centered work. When this intimate choreographic attention is enriched with social, political, and cultural analysis, the full contours and impacts of the relationships between midwife, mother and community are revealed. Ultimately, this project finds that when physicians appropriated midwifery, they expropriated midwifery’s pharmacopeia, carework, and distinct social authority to professionally authenticate their own place in America’s birthing rooms.
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