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We Celebrate “HerStory”: In honor of Black History Month

“History never looks like history when you are living through it.” - John W. Gardner

By Karline Wilson-Mitchell, Heather Clarke, and Maria Valentin-Welch

The women of color who paved the way for modern midwifery in the United States probably never envisioned the amazing impact their life's work would have on the thousands who followed – just as we today can scarcely believe that our stories will feed momentum in the women’s health movement of the future. Many of us sighed with relief as we welcomed the enactment of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, which promised health care access to thousands of vulnerable women and families as well as funding and enhanced reimbursement for midwifery services. We were proud to share the positive findings of the National Birth Center Study II, because it validated years of swimming upstream in the face of strong opposition to the more physiological birth that healthcare consumers desired. These events were history: in the making, during our lifetimes. These accomplishments allow us to feel more valued, credible and rewarded. These are reasons for celebration. These are our stories, the realities that our daughters will one day describe as “herstory.” And with Black History Month this February, it’s time to recall the many activists, leaders, researchers, and educators without whose sacrifices these recent accomplishments would not have been possible.

When did equitable healthcare for the marginalized, the vulnerable, and the disempowered become contentious enough to sacrifice your career, your livelihood and your energies? Who are the champions we need to remember - the ones who helped write “her-story” in America?

If you visit Alabama and ask grandmothers to recount their birth stories, they may tell you about Margaret Charles Smith (1906-2004) who worked as a midwife in the days of Jim Crow. In her own common sense sort of way, she would describe how she had to enter through the side or back door to attend white mothers and catch their babies. Likewise, she would also describe how home births provided the opportunity for the midwife to “stay with the woman as long as she needed,” in stark contrast to the lonely hospital environment. She described her role as providing support, knowledge and advocacy for her community. For her tireless work, Ms Smith was inducted into the Alabama Women’s Hall of Fame in 2000, and in 2004 received an award from the Congressional Black Caucus.

You might hear about Onnie Lee Logan (1910-1995), the Alabaman midwife who seemed to know every secret, herb, folk remedy, and “motherwit” required to have a birth in a low-resource community. Onnie Lee performed a role that many midwives filled, meeting needs holistically, whether catching a baby or providing food to a poor family. Unlike the midwives who practiced out of duty during slavery, these midwives practiced with a strong commitment and sense of spiritual calling. Onnie Lee often said “75% of what I know came from God.” They were truly the “wise women” of their towns.

If you visit Pineville, South Carolina, you may hear about Maude Callen (1899-1990). In 1951, Life Magazine published a lengthy photo essay on this formidable midwife whose tireless work no doubt saved the lives of many mothers and infants in her community as both a nurse-midwife and public health nurse.

Who are our more recent heroines? Let’s remember Armentia Jarrett: educator, researcher, and the first African American recipient of the prestigious Hattie Hemschmeyer Award (1992) for the research she conducted in Madera County, CA in the 1960s. “The Madera County Project” demonstrated lower maternal and perinatal mortality rates with midwifery care compared to that of obstetricians. This study contributed to a dramatic, positive change in the public’s perception of safety in midwifery care. Because of Armentia, consumers began to take the profession seriously.

What about Betty Carrington, the second African American Hattie Hemschmeyer Award recipient (2001) and the first African American ACNM Vice President (1973-74)? Betty also served on three ACNM Divisions, including Research, Publication, and Accreditation. As Chair of the Division of Accreditation, she was instrumental in procuring federal recognition for accreditation of educational institutions. Among her many other achievements, Betty was the Director of the nurse-midwifery education program at Columbia University (1986-1991) and has been the recipient of numerous professional awards.

Remember the three African American leaders of the International Confederation of Midwives (ICM), the worldwide professional association the growth of which has been considered foundational to the strength of midwifery. Frances Day-Stirk is the current ICM President, and Vice President Debra Lewis and Americas Regional Representative Frances Ganges were both recipients of the Dorothea Lang Award in 2012 for their pioneering and visionary work in the field of midwifery.

Finally, we cannot forget Gwendolyn Spears, the second African American Vice President of ACNM (2002-2004). Gwendolyn’s work and accomplishments have provided valuable modeling and inspiration for countless midwives of color. She first worked as director of a full-scope nurse-midwifery service in a medically underserved community in Los Angeles, California, then became the first director of the nurse-midwifery education program at Charles R. Drew University.

We offer our deepest gratitude to these sisters and mentors and to many more not mentioned here. They have prepared the way ahead of us. The story continues, and we continue to write it as we work with and for women, whether that work is attending women in birth, educating the next generation of midwives, or providing leadership in research and policy. We are writing the stories that our daughters and granddaughters will read one day. We are writing “her-story”.

Posted By Barbra Elenbaas | 2/21/2013 10:27:56 AM



Any opinions expressed in this blog are those of the individual participant(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the American College of Nurse-Midwives. ACNM is not responsible for accuracy of any of the information provided by guest bloggers and/or members via the Comments section. We welcome all feedback – including comments, ideas and suggestions. We also welcome civil, friendly debates. However, any and all content that is deemed inflammatory or rude will not be posted.


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