Birthing-Room Narratives: The English Midwife and Her Entrance into Academia, 1649-1688

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Medical practitioners in seventeenth century England came in many different forms, from herbal hawkers to apothecaries to barber-surgeons and physicians. Midwives occupied a special role within this complex cast of characters, as the only group of practitioners dominated by women. Working within the birthing room, midwives determined patrilineage through declaring births legitimate or illegitimate. In a patriarchal kingdom, this power determined property rights and often, the very throne of England. As informally educated practitioners, midwives drew their authority from observing more experienced midwives, attending successful deliveries, and even delivering their own children. Formally university-educated practitioners such as male physicians attempted to co-opt the power of the birthing-room through an absorption of reproductive health knowledge into the male academic sphere, a place where this knowledge had never been before. Rather than passively allowing a male intrusion, some midwives entered academia themselves to publish treatises valuing experiential knowledge over the hypothetical knowledge touted by physicians, who never attended childbirths. This thesis analyzes the ways in which midwives, despite the prevalent gender-based stereotype of their ignorance, disseminated their own reproductive health knowledge in academia while simultaneously adapting their responses to the social and political context of 1600s England.






Wang, Carrie (2018). Birthing-Room Narratives: The English Midwife and Her Entrance into Academia, 1649-1688. Honors thesis, Duke University. Retrieved from

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