“Birthing A Nation: Enslaved Women and Midwifery in Early America, 1750-1820” Dissertation Project

“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, North Carolina, and South Carolina. Enslaved midwives worked in a varied social and cultural environment, crossing boundaries of race, servitude status, and gender. They contributed to the medicalization of childbirth that occurred in the mid-nineteenth century and participated in the transatlantic circulation of medicinal and cultural knowledge.

Enslaved midwives also shaped important and interrelated economic and political processes of the early national period. They established informal economies on plantations by acting as midwives and often receiving financial compensation. That work helped to bring new children into the world, which fortified communities and families. However, the growing internal slave trade constantly threatened to cut those social and kinship connections. As the transatlantic slave trade closed and the trade in enslaved bodies turned inward, slave owners transformed enslaved midwives into central parts of the plantation economic machine. Further, the Constitution’s three-fifths compromise integrated the enslaved population into national calculations of representation and taxation. The birth of children into slavery influenced the balance of political power within the new United States. As a result, enslaved midwives’ work facilitating the birth of children in an expanding slave society was ultimately entwined in both the strengthening of African American families and the growth of an American nation and empire.