The Origins of Midwifery
As we begin our celebration of the International Confederation of Midwives’ 100th anniversary, we’re looking back on centuries past. From the Stone Ages to modern day, midwives have shown up to stand with women. But where did it all begin?
As we know today, a midwife is a person who graduated from an approved program that meets the essential competencies of International Confederation of Midwives (ICM). But midwifery is an ancient profession that is as natural and critical to humanity as birth itself, upholding and reflecting the cultural practices of women and their families.
A brief glimpse into the history of our profession:
- The practice of midwifery can be traced back to the palaeolithic era (40,000 B.C.), where pregnancy and childbirth required women to give birth in challenging and often life-threatening environments. Women supported themselves during birth based on knowledge and skills they learned from observing other mammals.
- Indigenous cultures all over the world practised various traditions around birth, many of them spiritual and rooted in nature and herbal medicine. The Māori people of New Zealand, for example, used supplejack and flax root for contraception, and would typically burn the designated birthing spot after labour.
- From 3500 B.C. to 300 B.C., the Egyptian and Greco-Roman eras saw enormous progress in the development and acknowledgement of midwifery as an autonomous, scientific and respected paid profession. But in late 300 BC, the social attitudes about female midwives changed, and midwifery became a profession under the hierarchy of male-supervised medicine.
- In Europe and the Mediterranean, the biblical era (2,200 BC – 1,700 BC) saw the empowerment of women play a large role in building professionalism in midwifery. However, by the arrival of the High Middle Ages (1,000-1,250 AD), female midwives or healers were considered heretics or witches and would therefore be hung or burned to death.
- In China, female midwives practiced midwifery by means of traditional Chinese medicine—like qi, yinyang and wuxing principles—for thousands of years. These women were often illiterate, and most of these practices were confined within small communities and performed in the home. These practices remained the same until the 13th century, when male medical practitioners began to formalize and control medicine and obstetrics.
- In both Thailand and Chile, centuries-old practices of midwifery were originally and historically services reserved for the poor and underprivileged, although today, women and birthing people of all socioeconomic backgrounds access midwives.
- All over Africa, traditional midwives and other healers have been an integral part of medicine for centuries. But when Europeans brought African people to the United States and enslaved them in the 17th century, some African women were enslaved to train and serve as midwives. Midwives were still the main healthcare providers in birth on the colonies, and they continued to serve African and white women in birth—until the turn of the 19th century, when the male physician replaced midwives with the introduction of male-supervised obstetrics.
Midwifery has come a long way since its early origins, and we encourage you to learn more about its history, as we celebrate and reflect on the 100 years of progress we have made for women, birthing people, newborns and families all over the world. Each region, country and community has its own history of midwifery, unique to its respective history, belief systems and political context. Those journeys, of course, are still unfolding.
We encourage you to learn more about the roots of midwifery in your area. Here are just a few of the many resources we can recommend for doing so:
- Midwifery and Midwives: A Historical Analysis, Najla Barnawi, Solina Richter and Farida Habib
- A History of Midwifery, Della R Sherratt, Midwife Adviser in Laos, UNFPA
- Keeping an ancient tradition alive: meet the indigenous midwives of the Amazon, Rodrigo Pedroso
- Te whānau tamariki – pregnancy and birth in Māori tradition, Hope Tupara
- Traditional First Nations Birthing Practices: Interviews With Elders in Northwestern Ontario, Terry O’Driscoll, MD, CCFP, Lauren Payne, MPH, Len Kelly, MD, MClin Sci, CCFP, Helen Cromarty, RN, HBScN, Natalie St Pierre-Hansen, Carol Terry
- Traditional Midwifery in the Balikumbat Fondom of the Bamenda Grassfields from Pre-Colonial To Post-Colonial Era, Nyongkah Rachel Tati, Ph.D.
- Midwifery in Modern China, Tara Mulder
- Black History Month: The Importance of Black Midwives, Then, Now and Tomorrow, Cara Terreri, CD (DONA), LCCE