Monday, March 14, 2011

Women to be Feared: Midwife Series Part 4/4

Laurie has saved her best information for the last post in her research into midwifery. If you're writing historical fiction, what Laurie has revealed can add conflict to any manuscript if you have any issues central to this theme.

Women to Be Feared
(redacted from “Women of Power” by Laurie Alice Eakes)

One of the reasons why midwives took an oath, the main reason why the licensure fell under the jurisdiction of the Church, was to prevent sorcery being used in the aid of childbirth.  In the event that the child died before, during, or soon after birth, midwives needed to baptize the child; thus a portion of their oath assured the Church that they would do so in a Christian manner.

By the mid seventeenth century, few midwives still performed baptisms; however, another part of their oath outlines their responsibility of learning the truth about who fathered the child being delivered.

Occasionally, women were called to testify in court for civil suits or to recount conversations they had heard or in which they had participated.  Midwives, however, were the only women who regularly appeared in court as witnesses and, in special cases, jurors.  Under both English and colonial laws, a midwife needed to learn the identity of a baby’s father.  Persons were fined for fornication, but the most important reason for the requirement was to determine who was responsible for supporting the child.  The custom was for the midwife to wait until the woman lay in the most intensive throes of labor, then ask the identity of the father, for the belief was that, due to pain and desire for aid, the woman would be compelled to tell the truth.  Martha Ballard notes thirteen such incidents in her diary.

Being the recipient of private information gave midwives unique power among and over their female peers.  Besides being called upon to testify in court regarding paternity and bastardy suits, an unscrupulous midwife could ruin a woman’s reputation with her knowledge.  Anne Johnson, a Maryland midwife, harassed her patient, Mary Taylor, into confessing an adulterous affair that resulted in a child.  Instead of going immediately to the courts as required, Mrs. Johnson waited several months during which time she attempted to obtain a bribe from Mary Taylor to keep silent about the matter.  When Mrs. Taylor physically and verbally attacked Mrs. Johnson, she went to the authorities.

A woman who failed to call a midwife and consequently bore a dead child, could be accused of infanticide. Courts assigned midwives to question women suspected of committing infanticide. Midwives examined the bodies of babies who were born in secret and died to determine whether the cause of death was natural or induced.

These posts only scratch the surface of the role of midwives in society. It is, and forever will be, a fascinating subject for me to continue to read about and explore as more and more documents from history come into my possession. If you want to read more, Google Books has a number of treatises for and by midwives. And I endeavor to cover some of the issues with which midwives dealt in my midwives series from Baker/Revell. Lady in the Mist is the first one released in February. The follow-up book will be out next February. And I think more midwives will appear in my books, even as secondary characters.


Midwives historic role in society began to fascinate Laurie Alice Eakes in graduate school. Before she was serious about writing fiction, she knew she wanted to write novels with midwife heroines. Ten years, several published novels, four relocations, and a National Readers Choice Award for Best Regency later, the midwives idea returned, and Lady in the Mist was born. Now she writes full time from her home in Texas, where she lives with her husband and sundry dogs and cats. Laurie Alice Eakes--Lady in the Mist from Revell Books, February, 2011. Read an Excerpt at:


  1. Wonderful post about a fascinating, under-addressed subject. You've helped me tremendously as my current series has to do with an illegitimate baby. Thanks for this and a great book!

  2. Absolutely fascinating, Laurie Alice!

  3. Thanks Laura and Carla for your comments. This was my favorite post of Laurie's. So many ways to increase the conflict for fiction!

  4. Love this post! Laurie, you are gifted. Jordyn, I don't get to visit as often as I'd like but you are doing a tremendous job. I'm so glad you developed this site.

  5. Jillian, thanks so much for your comment. Your support means a lot to me.