Birth as battleground: how the debate between modern obstetrics and traditional midwifery was racialized in the US (1900-1950)

Thesis Type: Postgraduate

Institution Of The Thesis: Istanbul Technical University, Lisansüstü Eğitim Enstitüsü, Turkey

Approval Date: 2021

Thesis Language: English


Supervisor: Tuncay Zorlu


This thesis is about the transformation in the U.S. between the 1900s and1950s when women went from giving birth at home with midwives to delivering babies in the hospital setting attended by physicians. The research focuses on the role of race in the rhetoric against midwives during this period. Historical document analysis was the methodology used for this project. Primary documents of all sorts ranging from official government reports to peer-reviewed journal articles, oral histories, visual accounts, illustrations, paintings, women's magazines, works of fiction from this period were gathered and analysed. Empirical evidence from several studies that look at the safety of birth assisted by doctors vs. midwives from this period was included to demonstrate that, contrary to the doctors' claims from this time, doctor-attended births were not safer for women due to several reasons. These reasons include the inadequacy of medical training, doctors' lack of practical experience, and their tendency to intervene when unnecessary. I conclude that the swift takeover of doctors was not due to medical advances providing better care to birthing mothers but rather was a result of an amalgamation of factors. These factors included the privately funded health care system, doctor's financial concerns, allure of science. However, arguably the most crucial factor was the xenophobia and racism of this particular moment in American history which white male physicians weaponized against the midwife community. Midwives were primarily poor, indigenous, immigrant, and black women of colour, some of the most marginalized individuals in American society. Keywords: midwifery, midwives, American midwives, traditional midwifery, traditional knowledge, modern medicine, modern science, medicine, American history, whiteness, white supremacy, xenophobia, medical history, obstetrics, gynaecology, birth, childbirth, delivery, situated knowledge