Rocking the Birth Dogma Boat

Why Ina May is not my hero | September 6, 2011

Again, because history left unaddressed becomes the present:

There’s a lot of mythology to midwifery, and not just in sense of herbal medicine and holding the space, though those stereotypes are present, too.  Most of our mythology involves our history, and I am about to attack one of our giants, Ina May Gaskin. Ina May is a poster grandmother, if not a poster child, a white hippy who founded a back to the land commune in Tennessee in the 1970s, The Farm.  Ina May began doing births for the women of the farm, with very little training, teaching herself midwifery by reading obstetrics textbooks, and opening a birth center that women flocked to, avoiding the more restrictive hospital conditions of the day.  Ina May is often credited with founding, or at least re-discovering U.S. midwifery, but the truth is that midwifery was here all along, it just was not White.

At a time when the “first” U.S. midwives were studying obstetrics texts and going to Guatemala to learn/co-opt “Indigenous Midwifery”, the last of the Black midwives of the South were losing their rights to practice, bullied out of existence by boards of health, forced underground by the fresh out of school young White nurses sent to “train” midwives who had practiced for decades with never a baby lost.  Great-grandchildren of slaves, women who served their communities in an era of segregation, and separate but unequal hospitals, who, in the words of midwife Margaret Charles Smith “cared for every woman, no matter what.”

This was midwifery, summoned to birth after birth, educated and practiced in the art of seeing women and babies through safely, sitting with mothers all night long,  advising, welcoming, welcoming into a world of Jim Crow laws and family who loved you, caring for everyone, no matter what.  And enduring harassment from the board of health, the doctors, the health clinics, the nurses, a world that tried to say it knew more the whiter it was.  Margaret Charles Smith delivered thousands of babies, and was portrayed as an ignorant, unsafe Black granny unfit, actually harmful to women, who were seen as better off under the care of young white public health nurses, most of whom had never seen a birth.  She was stripped of her right to practice midwifery by a racist board of health in the early seventies,  and kept on delivering babies because her community needed her to.  A few states away, at the same time, White women on The Farm, were discovering birth as groovy, empowering and spiritual.  This was not a discovery to Mrs. Smith, but the very women bemoaning the disappearance of midwifery on the Farm did not know she existed.  Two worlds, sometimes only miles apart, and never the two did meet.

When I was in midwifery school, I was told that Medicine moved in and broke the chain of midwifery in this country, made it ripe for re-discovery in the 1970s.  Like all young midwives, I grieved the broken chain, the many years with no midwives.  And then I started reading biographies, stories of women who were midwives when supposedly there were none.  And I realized that the links in the chain of midwifery came over on slave ships, and those midwives who survived the journey midwifed enslaved women, found American substitutes for African herbs, and passed on their knowledge.  The chain continued through emancipation and sharecropping, and the chain continued up until midwives like Margaret Charles Smith were forced out of practice in the 1970s.  And I questioned what else I was missing, if I was told that only chains of white midwives are real.

As a white woman, I do not want to co-opt this history, and I do not want to talk about the struggle for reproductive justice as if it is just homebirth, or even includes homebirth.  Where and how privileged people give birth seems to me like less of an issue than race-based inequities in who survives birth.  Modern eugenics are flourishing, and medical experimentation on women’s bodies continues, while health is determined by socioeconomic status.  And I wonder why these aren’t midwifery issues, why day to day conditions that affect women aren’t given the same import as where someone gives birth.  And on cynical days, I think about Ina May Gaskin discovering midwifery while Margaret Charles Smith delivered babies, and I think I have my answer. I worry about history repeating itself over and over, until it is addressed.  I invite us to address it.

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1 Comment »

  1. This is such an amazing post – my own thoughts and conversations, yet so much more eloquently phrased. I hope you will not mind my quoting you. I am a white, ex-pat South African and feel these emotions acutely – their sting is fresh, as it is not our history, but our on-going reality. I am moved so deeply by the line, “Where and how privileged people give birth seems to me like less of an issue than race-based inequities in who survives birth.” Being on the side of privilege and working with women who are not, this truth is glaring and sharp. Thank you for being convicted enough to address this in spite of the icons.

    Comment by clearroadbirth — September 6, 2011 @ 1:43 pm


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