Meet The Unheralded Women Who Saved Mothers’ Lives And Delivered Babies Before Modern Medicine

But that didn’t stop granny midwives from being demonized. | By Nina Renata Aron

(W. Eugene Smith/The Life Picture Collection/Getty Images)
(W. Eugene Smith/The Life Picture Collection/Getty Images)

The first time Onnie Lee Logan witnessed a birth she was but nine years old, peering through a crack in the wall as her mother delivered her nephew. She said that her mother would have killed her if she’d known Onnie was watching, but Onnie couldn’t tear her gaze from the scene. “I didn’t actually see the baby born,” she told Katherine Clark, who recorded Logan’s life story for the 1984 volume Motherwit: An Alabama Midwife’s Story, “but when the baby cried I saw Mother pick it up and cut the cord. There was Charlie. That was the baby boy. Me peekin through the crack.”

Born in Sweet Water, Alabama sometime around 1910, Logan was one of the many black women who learned the practice of midwifery from their mothers. Referred to as “granny midwives” (although there is some reason to believe they weren’t fans of the moniker), these lay health practitioners assisted pregnant women during labor and delivery. And for many poor and rural women, particularly in the South, granny midwives were lifesavers.

The long tradition of midwifery has always sat at the intersection of science, health, and social work, even before those domains had names. It’s also always been, for many, a “calling” — the kind of work that offers emotional or spiritual nourishment that is tough to quantify. To be sure, Logan and those like her certainly weren’t in it for the money. According to her New York Times obituary, Logan delivered “virtually every child born in the predominantly black Mobile suburb of Prichard from 1931 to 1984,” but still was forced to supplement her income by working as a maid.

Still, then as now, the practice of midwifery seems to have offered something profound by way of compensation. After all, survival itself was a distinct challenge to black families living under the constant, senseless threat of terror and violence in the South. Pursuing community health in that context can be seen through the lens of the banal, but can also be viewed as an act of subversion, a radical gesture of hope amid the corruption and despair wrought by white supremacy. As granny midwife Mary Coley of Baker County, Georgia — who delivered over 3,000 healthy babies — put it, “they’s all my babies.”

But midwives — the granny midwives of the South in particular — were repositories of knowledge that the state sought to control. Much has been made recently of the notion that women with expertise in healing practices have historically been persecuted. This awareness first peaked in the 1970s, as Second Wave feminists were learning about the ways female healers had been maligned, marginalized, and outright abused by the medical establishment. In 1975, Barbara Ehrenreich and Deirdre English published their study Witches, Midwives, Nurses: A History of Women Healers. In it, they trace a centuries-long tradition of women in medicine, writing, “They were abortionists, nurses, and counselors. They were pharmacists, cultivating healing herbs and exchanging secrets of their uses. They were midwives, travelling from home to home and village to village. For centuries, women were doctors without degrees, barred from books and lectures, passing on experience from neighbor to neighbor and mother to daughter. They were called “wise women” by the people, witches or charlatans by the authorities. Medicine is part of our heritage as women, our history, our birthright.”

This history has enjoyed a resurgence in recent years, as interest in home birth, natural birthing methods, and midwifery have skyrocketed (albeit largely among upper-middle-class white women), and as young women have taken to witchcraft in droves. And in the case of granny midwives, it’s relevant to their eventual decline.

As sociologist Alicia D. Bonaparte demonstrates in her 2007 dissertation, The Persecution and Prosecution of Granny Midwives in South Carolina, 1900–1940, physicians did not gently elbow out their competition as birth grew increasingly medicalized in the 20th century. In South Carolina and elsewhere, they actively advocated for the elimination of granny midwives in medical journals. Consequently, as Bonaparte writes, “women of color suffered devaluation and stigmatization and were viewed as illegitimate medical practitioners.”

The medicalization of birth resulted from the growth of the field of gynecology in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The American Medical Association, founded in 1847, was largely an effort to professionalize the field of medicine and standardize its practices, and the ongoing work of midwives like Onnie Lee Logan posed a direct challenge to formalization, and sowed, in Bonaparte’s words, “inter-occupational conflict.”

In 1900, the infant mortality rate in the United States was 165 per 1,000 live births. (And according to the CDC, in some cities, up to 30 percent of infants died before their first birthday.) In subsequent decades, that number would drop into the single digits — between 1915 and 1997, it declined by 90 percent to just above seven per 1,000 live births — owing to a range of improvements in living conditions. These weren’t only medical advancements; developments like central heating and clean drinking water helped, too.

For most modern Americans, it’s near impossible to imagine a birth that takes place entirely outside the twin bureaucracies of the hospital and the court, and it’s easy to romanticize that experience as one less mediated, and more “natural” than, say, a C-section. As Valerie Lee points out in her 1996 book Granny Midwives and Black Women Writers: Double-dutched Readings, “When babies began to be delivered into the hands of men, a number of surgical procedures and instruments became popular.” But in the absence of even the possibility of medical intervention, the risks of birth could be fairly high. It must therefore be noted that the rise of hospital-based obstetrics did dramatically lower the infant mortality rate in the United States.

Still, by formalizing and rationalizing knowledge about pregnancy and birth, and barring women from entrance to medical school, the medical establishment effectively discredited (and in some cases rendered obsolete) the accumulated folk wisdom women had been gathering for hundreds of years. In marginalizing women’s direct experience of birth, much is lost. The contemporary natural birth movement can be seen as a way to redress this loss, and recuperate the wisdom of granny midwives and their ilk.

The midwifery model of care is also one that could never be neatly supplanted by medical doctors. Lay midwives like Onnie Lee Logan knew that the support they provided was more amorphous, and more encompassing. In many cases, midwives offer emotional support to laboring mothers and their family members, including husbands. In her obituary, Logan is quoted as saying, “They’re not going to stop me from doing the gift that God give me to do. I don’t be going there on no license. I be going there as a friend to help that husband deliver his baby.”

Watch: Granny Midwives who birthed babies in the rural South


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