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Journal of the History of Sexuality 10.2 (2001) 307-310

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Book Review

Catching Babies:
The Professionalization of Childbirth, 1870-1920

The Making of Man-Midwifery:
Childbirth in England, 1660-1770

Catching Babies: The Professionalization of Childbirth, 1870-1920. By Charlotte G. Borst. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1995. Pp. xi + 254. $45.00 (cloth).

The Making of Man-Midwifery: Childbirth in England, 1660-1770. By Adrian Wilson. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1995. Pp. xii + 239. $39.50 (cloth).

Like the rituals associated with other life-events, those accompanying childbirth vary substantially across cultures. However, some aspects of women's experiences in childbirth are shared around the world. Women, for instance, normally go through labor in the presence of an attendant--an older woman, a midwife, an obstetrician. This has certainly been true throughout recorded history and, in fact, through much of [End Page 307] our evolutionary history. By far the most common situation is for the attendant to be female and, while not formally educated, experienced in the process of labor and delivery; and for the birth to occur in a familiar, often intimate setting with a number of other people present. The two books under review here deal with how female midwives were replaced by male physicians as attendants at childbirth in two different historical and cultural settings: Midwestern America in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and London in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. In addition to providing information about the particulars of these situations, these two books are relevant to the general history of medicine and help answer questions about the interaction of gender, ethnicity, politics, and the professionalization of work.

In Catching Babies: The Professionalization of Childbirth, 1870-1920, Charlotte Borst examines the transition from female midwives to male physicians as attendants to American women in four counties in Wisconsin. She makes good use of a wide range of historical documents, including birth certificates (filed by midwives or physicians), the Milwaukee Health Department's Physicians' Register, state midwife licenses, federal and state censuses, Milwaukee city directories, and physicians' education records. These gave her access to a rich body of quantitative data spanning fifty years and comprising almost 29,000 births. In addition, she made use of midwives' descriptions of their own lives and work.

The data that Borst collected allow her to examine the choices that women in these Wisconsin communities made about birth attendants, as well as to tease out the reasons for particular choices. Because many of the women in Borst's sample were immigrants or first-generation Americans, they were much more comfortable with someone who shared their ethnic background than with an outsider. Thus, their choice of a particular midwife or physician often reflected that concern. In turning to physicians (who were largely male) rather than midwives (who were female), women reflected in their choices a growing respect and preference for scientifically educated professionals over less formally trained midwives.

In the first four chapters of her book, Borst examines the education, lives, and practices of midwives in both rural and urban Wisconsin communities. In addition to describing vividly the cases of individual midwives, she employs quantitative data from the sources above. Although at the end of the nineteenth century, midwives began to receive more formal training than they had previously, they failed to professionalize in the way that physicians and nurses did. In the next three chapters, Borst discusses how formal education and training helped physicians take on the role of birth attendant and how general practitioners and specialists began to focus on obstetrics in their medical practice. She concludes: [End Page 308]

Midwives in Wisconsin were not pushed out of practice by elitist or misogynist obstetricians. Instead, their traditional, artisanal skills ceased to be valued by a society that had come to embrace the model of disinterested, professionalized science. In addition, the physicians who disseminated this new science did not impose values foreign to the community. Instead, the community that had...


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