by Allison Nelson (Vanderbilt University)
In the early modern period, midwifery began to change from a female art into a male occupation. The shift was not a smooth one. Indeed, it began in 1522, when Dr. Wertt of Hamburg dressed up as a woman in order to observe midwives and learn about childbirth. When he was discovered as a man, Wertt was burned alive. Later in the mid-sixteenth century, however, the renowned surgeon Pare laid a more solid foundation for men’s work in the birthing room; he did this by aiding in delivery by pulling babies out of the womb by their feet during difficult births.
A contributing factor in this shift of gender roles was Louis XIV’s use of male midwives to deliver his illegitimate children. As men delivered his mistresses babies, male midwives gained popularity. A rapid population boom in Europe further encouraged these social changes; as the population grew and universities increased their study of reproduction and anatomy, childbirth became a medicalized and, thus, masculinized domain. Case studies, rather than oral tradition, became the preferred method for educating individuals about childbirth (1).
There existed three recognized distinctions between male and female midwives. First, the men held a monopoly over medical tools, which women were disallowed from owning. Second, the male midwives were more formally educated in universities; there they dissected bodies, read case-studies, and learned about classical theories. Women, on the other hand, were taught through experience; they apprenticed and learned through women’s household manuals. Third, male and female midwives viewed patients differently. While women’s manuals emphasize individual relationships and take a maternal tone, men’s manuals stressed quantitative practices and medical causality (2).
Even as male midwives gained popularity, their acceptance was not unanimous. Some people believed that men did not belong in the birthing room; since men could never experience childbirth, some believed it was beyond the realm of male expertise. Such critics often cited the Bible, claiming the absence of men at recorded births. Other critics viewed male midwives as interlopers into other men’s domestic territory. In a space where the husband or father was absent, the male midwife’s presence stood out as inappropriate; it raised questions about the male midwives’ potentially inappropriate behavior toward vulnerable female bodies. Thus issues of female modesty and male property emerged, and opponents called upon husbands to bar male midwives from their homes (3).
While gender issues caused debate, so too did suspicion about scientific instruments and their over-use in the birthing room. Frequently, male midwives used tools even in “normal” births that might not necessitate them — and the tools posed additional risks. Not only did the tools threaten additional infections, but their misuse could harm the baby or its mother. Renowned female midwife Sarah Stone, for example, claimed that in her career she had only seen four cases that could have been safer through the use of tools (4).
Image: Fores, Samuel William. “A Man-Mid-Wife.” From Man-Midwifery Dissected. London, 1793. (Wellcome Library, London)
(1) Schnorrenberg. “Is Childbirth Any Place for a Woman? The Decline of Midwifery in Eighteenth-Century England.” Studies in Eighteenth Century Culture (10) 1981: 393.
(2)Fife, Ernelle. “Gender and Professionalism in Eighteenth-Century Culture.” Women’s Writing (11:2) 2004: 185-200.
(3)Blunt, John. “Man-Midwifery Dissected: or, The Obstetric Family Instructor.” 1793.
(4) Stone, Sarah. “A Complete Practice of Midwifery.” 1737.