On Racism and Midwifery

Let’s get this out right away. This website is being run by a new scholar, not an organization. And I’m pretty new at the history of midwifery in the 20th century. As with everything, the more I learn, the more I realize I don’t know. Metaknowledge – got some?

In writing and researching the history of nurse-midwifery in the 20th century, I came across Mary Breckinridge. She started the Frontier Nursing Service! What a cool lady, leaving her life of privilege behind and educating herself to go in and help the poor in Kentucky. And a lot of the nurse-midwifery programs in our colleges and universities got their start because of women who graduated from her midwifery school. That sounds like a great story.

And then I came across this article from Nursing Clio.

Breckinridge turned out to be a White supremacist – not the kind of lady who is just trying to do good but her unconscious attitude about Black people leads her to reenact white supremacist hierarchies. That’s still pretty bad, but it can be worked with. Most people don’t want to be racist (at least, that’s my hopeful belief in people) and can be helped in their misperceptions with knowledge. I know I have a lot to learn. No, she was a full-blown believer in helping out the “pure” Anglo-Saxon stock in the Appalachians.

I also knew about the old Black midwives of the South and how the white medical establishment scorned them as dirty and uneducated, but before I read the article, somehow I saw the FNS as working with them. But the reality is that the FNS midwifery school did not train a single black midwife until Breckinridge died, and in the area served by FNS, no black women received care from them. All the while, they denounced the Black midwives who served those women.

When I read things like that, sometimes that hope dims a little. Yeah, I know, she’s from the early 20th century but how embedded in our culture are White supremacist beliefs and structures? However much it is, it’s too much.

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