A Midwife's Tale

Each year in my American history course, we spend a class day with discussing the history of midwifery in the United States. Historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich wrote the brilliant book A Midwife's Tale after deciphering the handwriting in Martha Ballard's 27 years of journals. This website allows students to analyse portions of the journal, advertisements, newspaper articles, probate records and other documents that give insight into 18th century American life through the lens of birth.

"The 1793 Man-Mid-Wife cartoon that you see above depicts one view of the controversy in the form of a 'Monster,' a half-male, half-female midwife."

The sphere of birth was attended almost exclusively by women until the mid-1700s. (This timeline offers a good overview of the change over time.) "Man-midwives", male doctors, in the colonies (and Britain) began to compete with midwives. They offered more medical training, used drugs and they cost more so there was a status to it.

It's interesting to hear the perspective of high school students regarding this history. Most of them have never really thought about birth or questioned how it's done now, so it's a good opportunity to discuss it.

Of course I don't see male doctors as monsters, nor do I see medicalized birth as a complete tragedy. But I do think it's important to understand the historical context of modern birth. Personally, I'm quite happy I questioned today's practices and sought alternative routes. I believe my own experience was richer for it.

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