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Mothers and midwives in the Rockies and Plains chronicled in new book

The book "Birthing The West" sits on a blue, black and white woven blanket with a pink pacifier next to it.
Taylar Stagner
Wyoming Public Media
"Birthing the West" is a history hard to come by. Professor Jennifer Hill says many archives don't have many primary sources of reproductive practices.

A new book called "Birthing the West: Mothers and Midwives in the Rockies and Plains" catalogs the history of birth in Wyoming, Montana, North and South Dakota. The author Jennifer Hill told Wyoming Public Radio's Taylar Stagner that finding information on reproductive practices is difficult because many don't see the importance of documenting birth. So, she used what she had.

Jennifer Hill: So, a lot of historical societies and archives really made a push in the 1970s and 1980s, to record the stories of what were at that time very often termed "settlers" or "pioneers" to the area, basically white people who had emigrated to the Dakotas in Wyoming and Montana and who were elderly. And there was a recognition that their stories were important. And in the recording of those stories, if it was females whose stories were being recorded frequently, they talked about their birthing experiences, it was important to them, and they somehow snuck it in, even if interviewers didn't ask them about it.

So, one of my primary sources of material was all of these oral histories that had not been intended to capture reproductive details but had inadvertently recorded a lot of this important history.

Taylar Stagner: Was birth a family affair? Or was it fairly isolated? What did that look like? And how was it affected by moving by women moving out west to these very rural areas?

JH: Absolutely, yes. So this is the era of social birth, what we call it. And for those of us now, it's really hard to think of having a baby. And our immediate thought is, "Oh, this is a medical event." But in the 1800s, in the early mid-1800s, that was not how it was perceived at all, it was seen as a social event, and very much an event that occurred within the women's world.

So, if you were someone who was immigrating to Wyoming, from somewhere in the east, or even somewhere in the midwest, you would have seen childbirth as being a chance to invite all your female friends over, it would have been social. And it would have been something very communal, there would have been, it wasn't something there would just be one person there.

But as these women then emigrated to the Dakotas, and Wyoming and Montana, they were in situations where they couldn't get a whole crowd of women there, then people lived such a long distance away. And so they were very concerned that they had at least one other woman there. And that was something that women talked about, not so much the fear of childbirth, as in "I'm going to die." But instead, the fear of being alone.

Most of Wyoming and the Dakotas and Montana are rural and so we have women who were isolated and very much longed for the companionship of other women in the delivery process.

TS: So something Wyoming specific, Wyoming had special licensing for midwives. Can you talk a little bit about what you found about that episode?

JH: One of the fun things that I came across was that the test for getting a midwifery license in Wyoming was actually offered in different languages. And that was a refreshing thing to see. And it also indicates what a wide variety of backgrounds people were coming from. And if you were using the services of a midwife who was coming from a country, especially some of the countries that promoted midwifery training, like Norway, Sweden, Finland, et cetera, she would have been a highly trained professional, both in terms of academic training, but extensive hands on training, which would have for the most part exceeded a lot of the training that male physicians at the time received because childbirth was not necessarily something that was part of widespread medical education in the early 1900s. And the availability of that test in other languages that Wyoming offered actually encouraged or made possible, the admittance of trained, highly trained midwives to be available to Wyoming women who were delivering, so it's a star in Wyoming's history.

TS: Can we talk about the manufactured distrust of midwives during this time period?

JH: Yeah, and that quote unquote distrust of midwives was absolutely something that was created by the medical profession. So numerous scholars have documented this in all sorts of ways and all sorts of places across the United States. And what happened was that given we could say, the corner on the market that midwives had with deliveries, because that was the tradition. That's what women were familiar with. And that's what worked within the existing cultural system. Then, as the field of medicine developed, there was a desire to get more of that business, and physicians or organ organized medicine, promoted what was called the midwife problem. And physicians termed this the midwife problem. And what the midwife problem was, is that midwives had more business than physicians had. That was what the problem was. And so we actually see documented throughout newspaper records, medical journals, et cetera, was the, it was a public relations campaign to discredit midwives, in order to get more of the birth business. This is relatively recent history, given how long humans have been reproducing, and how very long midwives have been an integral part of the birth process. But what we have also lost is the sense that it is recent, we tend to think of this as the way birth happens now. And that is an important historical corrective that I want to offer in birthing the West, is an understanding of the fact that this is really, really recent, and that it was not based on medical science or death rates or something like that, but instead was an economic choice.

Birthing the West: Mothers and Midwives in the Rockies and Plains" was released this year and is available now through Nebraska Press.

Taylar Dawn Stagner is a central Wyoming rural and tribal reporter for Wyoming Public Radio. She has degrees in American Studies, a discipline that interrogates the history and culture of America. She was a Native American Journalist Association Fellow in 2019, and won an Edward R. Murrow Award for her Modern West podcast episode about drag queens in rural spaces in 2021. Stagner is Arapaho and Shoshone.
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