“Birthing A Nation: Enslaved Women and Midwifery in Early America, 1750-1820” explores enslaved midwives during the late colonial and early national periods in Maryland, Virginia, and the Carolinas. Enslaved midwives worked at the confluence of multiple historical forces. They crossed social boundaries of race, servitude status, and gender, and they contributed to the development of professionalized medicine and medicalization of childbirth that occurred in the mid-nineteenth century. These women also contributed to the transatlantic circulation of medicinal and cultural knowledge across generations and regions, carrying their understandings of childbirth from West African ports to the British Caribbean, to mainland colonies, and beyond.
Enslaved midwives not only stood at these historical confluences; they also became the catalysts for interrelated economic and political processes. These women often forged their own informal economies by serving as plantation midwives and receiving monetary compensation for that skill. Slave owners then transformed enslaved midwives into integral parts of the plantation economic machine as the early nineteenth century progressed and the national transatlantic slave trade closed, and, in ways that recent historians have demonstrated, shaped the rise of early American capitalism. Furthermore, the Constitution’s three-fifths compromise incorporated enslaved populations into national calculations of representation and taxation; the birth of enslaved children affected the political balance of power within the nation. Thus, enslaved midwives’ work facilitating the birth of newly enslaved people, along with free Americans, was ultimately entwined in both the formation and expansion of African American identities and the growth of an American nation and empire.
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