The best books on the history of childbirth

The Books I Picked & Why

A Midwife's Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary, 1785-1812

By Laurel Thatcher Ulrich

A Midwife's Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary, 1785-1812

Why this book?

A Midwife’s Tale is a beautiful recounting of life in the late 18th-early 19th c. Maine through the eyes of midwife Martha Ballard. I first read this book in graduate school, and was amazed at how effectively Laurel Thatcher Ulrich fleshed out medicine, midwifery, and everyday life on the Maine frontier, from Ballard’s diary. Each chapter begins with a passage from the diary, followed by an analysis by Ulrich. As a historian of women’s history, Ulrich artfully teases out the secrets and meanings behind the relatively mundane accounting of Ballard’s daily visits and chores. The reader learns about the emergence of an epidemic, a rape, a mass murder, alongside the incredible career of a midwife who safely delivered over 800 babies.


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Baby Catcher: Chronicles of a Modern Midwife

By Peggy Vincent

Baby Catcher: Chronicles of a Modern Midwife

Why this book?

I could not put this book down. Vincent is a licensed home birth midwife in California, and Baby Catcher represents her accounts of many of her clients’ births. Her stories capture the diversity of experiences, the fears and joys of each mother who has opted for an out-of-hospital birth, and the beauty of bringing new life into the world. I have assigned this book in college courses and students love it; they come out angry at how broken our system is when it comes to maternity care.


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Birth Matters: A Midwife's Manifesta

By Ina May Gaskin

Birth Matters: A Midwife's Manifesta

Why this book?

Ina May Gaskin is one of the most influential midwives in the United States, whose birth manuals are widely read. This, her most recent publication, speaks to the importance of empowering women, valuing birth, and providing and supporting women’s choice of birthplace. It is smart, very readable, draws on scientific evidence, and makes you think.


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Make Room for Daddy: The Journey from Waiting Room to Birthing Room

By Judith Walzer Leavitt

Make Room for Daddy: The Journey from Waiting Room to Birthing Room

Why this book?

I was torn between this and Walzer’s earlier book, Brought to Bed: Childrearing in America, 1750-1950. They are both wonderful books on the history of childbirth written by a leading historian. I chose Make Room for Daddy because it fills an important gap in our understanding of the transformation of birth. Here, we learn about the changing role of fathers (and expectant fathers), and their influence on hospital birth practices. She draws on a rich array of sources (letters, journals, interviews, and popular media) to illustrate how fathers became more involved in the birth experience between the 1940s and the 1980s.


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The Midwife: A Memoir of Birth, Joy, and Hard Times

By Jennifer Worth

The Midwife: A Memoir of Birth, Joy, and Hard Times

Why this book?

I think many Americans didn’t even realize midwives were still “a thing” until the emergence of the award-winning British television series, Call the Midwife. That series is based on Jennifer Worth’s memoir, which details her experiences as a young woman who moves into a convent and becomes a midwife in the slums of London’s East End. Like the other firsthand accounts I’ve mentioned here (Martha Ballard’s diary; Peggy Vincent’s memoir), this book humanizes birth, and reminds us of the important role midwives have played in making mothers feel safe and empowered in a wide variety of times and settings.


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