Sunday, May 17, 2020

Midwives in the 1800s - and Now


By Davalynn Spencer

Women have been giving birth since … well, since Eve bore Cain. And for millennia, other women have been helping with the process. We see reference to it in the biblical book of Exodus when Egypt’s king tells the Hebrew midwives to kill the male babies of the Hebrew women but let the female babies live. (The Hebrew population was exploding.)

The midwives “feared God,” we are told, and because they wouldn’t go along with the scheme, God later blessed them ( Exodus 1:15-21). 

Hebrew midwives telling Pharaoh that the Hebrew women were "lively"
and delivered their babies before the midwives could arrive.
Pharaoh and the Midwives, c. 1896-1902, by James Jacques Joseph Tissot
Something else we see mentioned in that passage is the term “birthstools.” Artwork from ancient cultures such as Egypt, Greece, and Rome depict different chairs or stools used during the birthing process. In fact, nearly every civilization’s history mentions the use of birthing stools or chairs, and women assistants are depicted in most artistic representations.

A pregnant woman sitting in a birthing chair, attended to by three midwives.
Rueff, Jakob, ca.1500-1558, Author Publication: Zürych: Christoffel Froschover, 1554.
Wikimedia Commons

Wall relief of childbirth and birthing chair in Treasure hall, temple of Edfu, Egypt, Remih. Wikimedia Commons.

Image: American pioneer birth scene
Gustave Joseph Witkowski, 1887

In the early 19th century, at-home childbirth was still the norm. Midwives were typically women who had successfully delivered many children of their own or of others and were valued for their experience. If available, physicians were called upon only if the birth was not proceeding normally, or if the lives of mother and child were at risk.

But when male physicians and anesthesia became more involved in the birthing process, the chairs that offered a vertical gravitational help were replaced with conventional flat beds.

By the mid-1800s, women in bigger cities often went to lying-in hospitals where babies were delivered by physicians not well-versed in germ theory – an idea that had not yet taken hold across the board. However, midwives in homes seemed intuitively aware of the importance of washing hands and keeping things clean unlike physicians who would pass from patient to patient – and sometimes autopsies – without washing their hands before attending a birth.

Rural women still depended on the help of midwives – a calling that was not particularly easy. Midwives often dealt with miscarriages and still births. But many women preferred their help, not only for their skill, but for their comfort and nurturing, as portrayed in my upcoming novel, An Impossible Price.
British surgeon Joseph Lister had taken to heart the opinions and work of experts such as Ignaz Semmelweis, Oliver Wendell Homes Sr., and Louis Pasteur regarding germs and employed the use of carbolic acid on wounds and in surgical settings. His ideas and use of antiseptics were at first mocked, but later proved famously successful, and he was credited with infection-free surgeries on both Queen Victoria and her successor, King Edward VII.

By the 1880s, germ theory and the importance of disinfecting had transformed public health in hospitals and reduced the number of maternal deaths due to puerperal (childbed) fever which had been caused by the transmission of streptococci due to unwashed hands.

Physicians continued to compete with midwives in the birthing arena, and midwifery tapered off in the 1900s.

Today, as seems to be the natural turn of events, “the times they are a-changing.” More and more women are seeking midwives to help them during their prenatal, birth, and postnatal days. A close friend of mine gave birth at home to three of her four children, and her oldest daughter has done the same. However, in the United States, midwifery is now controlled by laws that vary from state to state.

Only a certified nurse-midwife may assist at-home births in Iowa and North Carolina. In California, midwives must be under the supervision of an on-scene doctor, and other states have varying parameters.

As of July 2017, it was illegal to work as a midwife in twenty-three of the fifty states. Those who did so could be arrested for practicing medicine without a license. However, certified nurse-midwives are allowed to practice in all fifty states.

Do you know of anyone who has experienced, assisted with, or arrived via a home birth? Comment below, and I’ll bundle your name in the bassinet for a drawing for an Advanced Reader e-Copy (ARC) of my upcoming book, An Impossible Price. A random winner will be drawn May 22.

Coming June 4, 2020
Bestselling author and winner of the Will Rogers Gold Medallion for Inspirational Western Fiction, Davalynn Spencer can’t stop #lovingthecowboy. When she’s not writing Western romance, she teaches writing workshops and wrangles Blue the Cowdog and mouse detectors Annie and Oakley.


  1. Great post! I do know many women who have chosen home birth. Some have had to go to the hospital anyways for medical intervention, but most likely not because they started the process at home. I'm glad that families have options.

    1. I have similar associations, Connie. And yes, praise God for the choice.

  2. Yes, I know of a couple of people who have chosen home births. I have seen some on television also, as well as read a couple of stories about midwives. I'm interested in this book. I love historical fiction books, especially
    of the wild west.
    Susan in NC (

  3. My mom's exhusand,in Alabama,was born at home. My parents were born in the hospital. My brothers and I were born in the hospital. My kids were also born in the hospital.

    1. Tammy, congratulations. You are the random winner of an Advanced Reader Copy of my coming release, An Impossible Price. Please contact me with your email address.