A screen shot from the film All My Babies
Over at Colorlines I wrote about the Black midwives of the South who birthed generations of babies until the medical establishment pushed them out of business by the 1970s:
By the 1970s, births in hospitals attended by doctors and nurses (and later, nurse midwives) became the norm and these community midwives were phased out. This was done both by passing new laws and policies regulating the practice of medicine and who could provide services like attending childbirth, and through messaging campaigns that implied midwives were uneducated, dirty or even practicing witchcraft. By 1975, only 0.3 percent of all births were attended by a midwife outside a hospital.
In Alicia Bonaparte’s dissertation, “The Persecution and Prosecution of Granny Midwives in South Carolina, 1900-1940” she describes how these campaigns also used sexist and racist undertones to discredit the practicing midwives. “Some physicians even labeled grannies as ‘a cross between a superstitious hag and a meddlesome old biddy,’” she writes. “[This] evaluation served as an attack against the very bodies and ages of black women who were well respected in their communities.”
“All My Babies” is a respectful approach to Coley’s work as a midwife, and she’s portrayed as an accomplished woman in her community. But it also reveals her deference to the white doctor and nurse at the county clinic, and it even shows her questioning her own hygiene practices after a lecture by the doctor.
You can watch a full-length film about Coley online, which is a fascinating peak into the era and the practices of midwives like her.
After I posted the article online, Claudia Booker, a Washington, DC based midwife and doula, responded with this:
“Interesting footnote. The Elder African American Midwives, who had been referred to as “Granny Midwives” had a meeting about 20 years ago which was attended by many of our own current Elder midwives and proclaimed that they no longer wanted to be called “Granny”. They requested that they be referred to as “Grand Midwives’. This discussion was also transmitted to the white midwifery organization at a MANA Conference attended by Makeda Kamara and other Elder Grand Midwives. However the white midwifery organizations still struggle with the title the Grand Midwives have proclaimed for themselves. Let’s honor their request and referred to our Elder Midwives as “Grand Midwives”. They are grand!!”
Important to understand the history, but also respect how these midwives prefer to be referred to.