Reasons Women Dominated the Colonial American Field of Midwifery By Abigail Raposo
If one was to place countries on a list based on the amount of deaths that occur at the birth of every child, with one being the lowest amount of deaths, the United States would be ranked fifty-five. This can be determined by looking at such a list compiled by the Central Intelligence Agency. At a glance, this seems strangely low. However, at only .617 percent of births resulting in a child’s death, it is not nearly as frightening.1 Perhaps six deaths for every thousand still seems a high number to some, it pales in comparison to the averages that have been gleaned from the 1700’s. At 20 percent, this high of a mortality rate seems horrific to our modern society, and makes the measly .617 show the true improvement we have made in the last three hundred odd years.2 This fact begs the question, what kind of woman would have the nerves and strength to dedicate their life to the practice of delivering these children with odds of one out of every five children, on average, dying before they were old enough to speak? It seems a strange phenomenon that a society that, at the time, believed women to be the weaker and more fragile sex would be burdened with this horror. To examine these reasons is to examine the very mentality of the early America toward women, and specifically those who birthed, raised, and took care of their children. Such a natural and even honorable job would have usually been given to men, but this was not at all the case. Midwives were such a vital part of people’s lives, as their modern day equivalents are now, though not as respected for their work in that time. This belief that the occupation was base and uncivilized, fit more for the uneducated, combined as the fear _____________________________________ 1. "Country Comparison :: Infant Mortality Rate." Central Intelligence Agency. January 1, 2014. Accessed November 24, 2014. http://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/rankorder/2091rank.html.
2. "The Historical Horror of Childbirth." Mental Floss. May 9, 2013. Accessed November 2, 2014. http://mentalfloss.com/article/50513/historical-horror-childbirth.
and supposed mystery of the woman’s body and its functions and the belief that any action relating to children or infants was the job of a woman all contributed to midwifery becoming a solely female occupation, with practically no recorded male participation.
Though groups such as the suffragists of the era fought to eradicate it, the prevailing belief of the colonial United States was that women were, in most aspects, simply not capable of the same things as men. Intellectually, physically, and emotionally, women were not stable or considered up to the same standards as men. It was believed, as science advanced with the Enlightenment style of thinking (that at their biological core the sexes were intrinsically different)3 could be used as an excuse to bar women from most every form of educated societal interaction and participation. The closest a woman could hope to get to the political process would be to marry a political man and be expected to observe and be informed on the processes without being directly involved.4 Things that were considered menial and below men like housework and child rearing were delegated to the women. There were almost no women dominated occupations in the country other than a midwife or a house servant.5 _____________________________________
3. Brown, Kathleen. "Early American History: Its Past and Future." The William and Mary Quarterly 50, no. 2 (1993): 314. Accessed November 24, 2014. http://www.jstor.org/discover/10.2307/2947077?uid=2134&uid=385077001&uid=3739256&uid=2&uid=70&uid=3&uid=385076991&uid=60&purchase-type=article&accessType=none&sid=211046460
4. McClintock, Anne. Imperial Leather: Race, Gender, and Sexuality in the Colonial Contest....
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