‘Famous Midwives’ is a Feminist Midwife blog series to bring awareness to the work of midwives, promote the national and international impact of midwifery, and advertise the images of those known to some by name, to few by face, but to midwives as part of our community. Each “Part” of the series includes midwives considered “famous” by the nature of their work, their contribution to the profession, and their presence as motivators and forward-thinkers and change-makers. Five midwives are included in each “Part,” with great respect for the diversity of the profession, attention to the past and the present, and ultimate adoration for the variety of capacities midwives fill in their provision of our dedicated model of care. If you know a famous midwife who should be featured on the series, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Margaret Charles Smith
Greene County, Alabama
Alabama Women’s Hall of Fame
Photo Credit: Alabama Women’s Hall of Fame
From her biography on the Alabama Women’s Health of Fame:
Margaret Charles Smith’s mother, Bueha Sanders, died three weeks after giving birth to a woman who became a legend for birthing babies. Her grandmother, Margaret Charles, a former slave, raised the future midwife, who delivered over 3,500 babies and never lost a mother. She lost very few babies.
Smith unexpectedly began her career as a midwife when she was about five years old. She was asked to stay with the wife of a cousin of her future husband while the father went for the midwife. Before the father and the midwife returned, Smith “caught” the early arriving baby!
She completed the third grade in a one-room rural grammar school in Eutaw, Alabama while living on her grandmother’s farm. She never stopped learning, however. She continued to read and study. The farm became her lifelong residence. Farming was both a hobby and a necessity for her. She continued farming until just before her death.
In 1949, Smith obtained a permit from the Greene County Public Health Team to practice midwifery. She was one of the first of Greene County’s official midwifes. In that time of segregation, even if black women had money local hospitals were not interested in having them as patients.
Being a black midwife in rural Alabama was not an easy way to earn money. Smith often had to make her way through fields and wade through water before delivering up to four babies a night. The mothers she attended were often malnourished and overworked. She often delivered twins, breech babies, and premature babies. Sometimes the mothers could not afford to pay anything. Sometime they paid in produce. Sometimes they paid up to five or ten dollars per birth. In 1976, Alabama passed a law outlawing midwives. Smith and about 150 other black traditional midwives were told they would be jailed if they continued to work as midwives.
In 1983 Margaret Charles Smith became the first Black American to be given the keys to Eutaw, Alabama, her hometown. In that same year she was honored at the first Black Women’s Health Project in Atlanta, Georgia. In 1996 she co-authored a book with Linda Janet Holmes called “Listen to Me Good: The Life Story of an Alabama Midwife.”
Smith was the 1997 keynote speaker at the New Orleans Rural Health Initiative. In 2003, she was honored by the Congressional Black Caucus in Washington, D.C. In 2004, she was given a lifetime achievement award at the Black Midwife and Healer’s Conference.
Smith put a lot into life, and a lifetime of hard work was not kind to her health. She suffered from uncontrollable hypertension and peripheral vascular disease. Nevertheless, she lived to be almost a hundred years old.
Ina May Gaskin, President of Midwives’ Alliance of North America, said that “Margaret Charles Smith is a national treasure. She can teach us about courage, motherwit, perseverance, our history, and how to face what’s coming – if we listen.”
Margaret Charles Smith and Linda Janet Holmes wrote the biography “Listen to Me Good: The Life Story of An Alabama Midwife,” chronicling the life of this famous midwife. In a review of the book, Maureen Byrnes in the Journal of Midwifery and Women’s Health, states:
Sherrill Elizabeth Tekatsitsiakwa “Katsi” (pronounced Gudji) Cook
Director of the Iewirokwas Midwifery Program, Running Strong for American Indian Youth
Advisory Council of Elders, Midwives Alliance of North America (MANA)
Photo Credit: Ronnie Farley Photography
From her biography on the Midwives Alliance of North America (MANA) Advisory Council of Elders site:
Katsi Cook is a member of the Wolf Clan of the Mohawk tribe. She was born on the St. Regis Reservation in northern New York State, the youngest of the four children of Evelyn Kawennaien Mountour and William John Cook. Her mother was educated by Catholic nuns, and died when Cook was eleven years old; her father was a captain in the U.S. Marines and a World War II fighter pilot. Cook was delivered by her paternal grandmother who was also a midwife. She was educated at Catholic boarding schools, attended Skidmore College from 1970 to 1972, and then transferred into the first class of women accepted at Dartmouth College. Soon after, stirrings of the American Indian Movement (AIM) sparked a “generational call to consciousness” and she left school. She married Jose Eugenio Barreiro, a Cuban-born academic and indigenous activist, and the first of their five children was born in 1975. She and Barreiro worked with the Kanienkehaka Longhouse Council of Chiefs from 1972 to 1977 and from 1979 to 1983, where she helped write and produce Akwesasne Notes and toured the U.S. and Canada with the White Roots of Peace, a “communications group” that Cook describes as a traveling university through which participants learned Native knowledge and imparted it to others.
Cook took up midwifery in 1977 following the Loon Lake Conference of the Six Nations, where control of reproduction was designated as a prerequisite to Native American sovereignty. In 1978 she undertook a midwifery apprenticeship at The Farm in Tennessee, followed by clinical training as a women’s health specialist at the University of New Mexico. Cook lived briefly in South Dakota, where in 1978 she attended the founding meeting of Women of All Red Nations (WARN), and in Minnesota, where she founded the Women’s Dance Health Project in Minneapolis/St. Paul. Cook returned to Akwesasne in 1980, where she practiced midwifery, helped develop the Akwesasne Freedom School, and founded and directed the Women’s Dance Health Program (funded by a grant from the Ms. Foundation). When concerns arose among women on the reservation about the safety of breastfeeding, Cook started the Mother’s Milk Monitoring Project in 1984, to monitor PCB levels in breast milk and to address the environmental impact of industrial development of the St. Lawrence Seaway Project, begun in the 1950s. The Mother’s Milk Project is still extant and provides services and advocacy for residents of Akwesasne (one of the most severely polluted Native American communities), among them inclusion in the Superfund Basic Research Program.
Cook has participated in national and international women’s health movements, including service on the board of the National Women’s Health Network, involvement in the Nestle boycott, and work with Mayan midwifes in Guatemala. She monitors indigenous rights in the drafting of midwifery legislation and is the founding aboriginal midwife of the Six Nations Birthing Centre where she assists with student training, curriculum development, and community education. Cook is Director of the Iewirokwas Midwifery Program of Running Strong for American Indian Youth. Supported by a Ford Foundation grant, she is currently developing the First Environment Institute to restore indigenous puberty rites as means of advancing maternal and child health on the Akwesasne and Pine Ridge reservations. She is also conducting research with the Indian Health Service and writing Daughters of Sky Woman: A Cultural Ecology of Birth.
Katsi contributed to “Our Bodies, Ourselves,” and her biography on that site quotes her:
“Women are the first environment. We are an embodiment of our Mother Earth. From the bodies of women flows the relationship of the generations both to society and the natural world. With our bodies we nourish, sustain and create connected relationships and interdependence. In this way the Earth is our mother, our ancestors said. In this way, we as women are earth.”
Joyce Follet interviewed Katsi Cook for the “Voices of Feminism Oral History Project” at Smith College, the full text of which is publicly available. On page 12, the following quote spoke to me:
“…They say we construct our world through the use of our language. It’s so deep and so scientific and so intelligent, that I have a great respect for my language, because it always cues me in for what’s really going on in any given situation. And for a midwife to be able to reflect on the multidimensional experience that birth is, it’s like that fire. That woman, her uterus is that fireplace, and her whole body is that fire that’s speaking to you at many different levels, not just what her blood pressure is and what’s the data for the chart, but the stories of her life, stories in her dreams, what’s going on in her family at that particular moment that she’s carrying that new life, what’s going on at that moment the baby enters the world. But even that, the story begins at the moment of conception: How is this woman thinking as she plans to bring — or doesn’t plan, because we know that over 50 percent of pregnancies aren’t even planned — but all of that becomes the narrative…”
And page 23:
“…And given my own history and background, my own birth story, by the time I became pregnant, I never imagined I wouldn’t have my baby at home. So, we know from international health research that midwifery resurges at times of war, of any kind of trauma, you know, political unrest — something’s going on and the people have to get back to basics — and midwifery is one of those clear things you need to get back to basics…”
And page 32:
“…I just think midwifery is a natural when it comes to women’s health, because it incorporates all of the women’s life cycle. It’s the perfect repository for women’s knowledge, midwifery, because it’s such deep knowledge. It’s not just superficial. It’s not just storytelling. It’s going from understanding mechanisms at the cellular level, not just physiologically but spiritually, and how those two knowledges, whether it’s spiritual knowledge from a tradition or scientific knowledge — I hate to use that term, scientific, as if this weren’t scientific also, because they complement each other. The knowledge you’re integrating is also that. And this new generation that understands alternative and complementary medicine, the research that’s being done even in that shows that how those mechanisms, that holistic approach, is really the way to go — how the multidisciplinary, interdisciplinary, metadisciplinary approaches make anything so much stronger than just the single approach, which eventually is not strong enough to really make a difference or to tip that individual into a place where they can be responsible for their own well being, or a community, for that matter. Empowerment is a process and an outcome. It involves control, as we’ve heard of the kind of control of education, of reproduction, of language, of jurisdiction, of psycho-religious life — control from the perspective of capacity to do, capacity to know, capacity to look again, as in re-search, our own ability to practice and to implement these things that we value into building institutions that can really function, can really make a difference for our people…”
Katsi Cook has her own Wikipedia page, detailing more of her personal history and global contributions.
President, National Association of Certified Professional Midwives (NACPM)
Photo Credit: NACPM Board of Directors Website
Ellie Daniels has been President of the Board of Directors for the National Association of Certified Professional Midwives (NACPM) since 2012.
From her biography at Morningstar Midwifery:
Ellie Daniels is a Certified Professional Midwife who has been involved with homebirth for over 30 years. Ellie began her study of midwifery just after the unattended birth of her daughter at home in 1978. After apprenticeship, she opened a practice in the MidCoast area in 1983, and has since attended the births of close to 1000 babies.
Ellie has a long-term commitment to mentoring new midwives. In addition, she is energetically involved in achieving state and federal recognition of CPMs through legislation and advocacy. She teaches at Birthwise Midwifery School in Bridgton, Maine, and is the past president of theMidwifery Education Accreditation Council, which accredits direct-entry midwifery schools. She also serves on the Steering Committee for the MAMA Campaign, working to gain federal recognition for CPMs.
Ellie owns a second business, The Green Store, which grew out of her commitment to make non-toxic and sustainable products more available in the local community. Now in its 18th year, the Green Store has become an integral part of downtown Belfast.
In the interest of helping to change the culture of birth in our country, she has written a middle school curriculum about normal birth, and a book about homebirth for children and their families. She has three children, three stepchildren, and five grandchildren, three of whom were born at home. In her spare time, she loves to garden, knit, hike, sauna, and sit by the pond watching the antics of kids and adults on the diving tower.
Matrix Midwifery Enterprises, Ltd.
Photo Credit: MidwiferyBooks.com
From her biography at MidwiferyBooks.com:
As a student midwife in 1978, I noted the dearth of comprehensive literature aimed at midwives. There was virtually nothing written on suturing at that time. References on laboratory analysis were woefully inadequate to begin with, and almost entirely lacking information about how test results might be impacted by pregnancy or what these changes may indicate.
While still in clinical training, I began a chapter on the Complete blood count and my writing mushroomed from there. When I left school, Rahima Baldwin, founder of Informed Homebirth, Inc. offered me the opportunity to bring what I had learned to other midwives via extensive midwifery skills workshops.
The writing I had done up until then became the handouts for those workshops. Soon, midwives who had not taken the workshops began to request these handouts, so we printed overruns and sold them through Moonflower Birthing Supply. When those ran out, the requests just kept coming.
In 1983, I rewrote Lab Work and printed 500 copies. Those sold fast. I vowed not to do more writing until I had a computer. The requests for the 4th edition of Lab Work were pouring in so fast, I just stopped writing when I thought I could, printed it, and immediately started on the 5th edition. Demand for the other books has grown in a similar fashion.
At present, I am working on various projects, including learning how to deal with this new website. I look forward to once again writing full time with the goal of completing the 3rd volume of Holistic Midwifery.
Anne Frye has written some of my favorite midwifery texts, including “Healing Passage: A Midwife’s Guide to the Care and Repair of the Tissues Involved in Birth,” and all of her books are well worth the cost.
Editor-in-Chief, Journal of Midwifery and Women’s Health
Investigator, Vanderbilt Evidence-Based Practice Center
Co-Author, Women’s Gynecologic Health
Photo Credit: Dr. Likis’ Twitter Account
From her biography in Women’s Gynecologic Health:
Frances E. Likis, DrPH, NP-BC, CNM, FACNM earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Vanderbilt University and her doctorate in public health from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She received her nurse-midwifery and women’s health care nurse practitioner education from Frontier Nursing University, and she earned a certificate in medical writing and editing from the University of Chicago. Francie is a women’s health care nurse practitioner, family nurse practitioner, and certified nurse-midwife. Her clinical experience includes family practice in community health and urgent care centers, performing sexual assault examinations, and midwifery practice in a freestanding birth center and a large obstetrics and gynecology group practice. Francie has authored several journal articles, systematic reviews, and book chapters related to women’s health, and she has given numerous presentations at national meetings and invited lectures. Her awards and honors include the Student Choice Award for Teaching Excellence at Frontier Nursing University; selection as a Vanderbilt University School of Nursing Top 100 Leader, one of 100 distinguished alumni and faculty honored in commemoration of the School’s Centennial; the Kitty Ernst Award from the American College of Nurse-Midwives (ACNM); and induction as a Fellow of the ACNM. Currently she is an Investigator for the Vanderbilt Evidence-Based Practice Center at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, and the Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of Midwifery & Women’s Health, the official journal of the ACNM.
Francie is a co-Editor of the textbook Women’s Gynecologic Health, from which I often quote for this blog, and in which I am partial to Chapter 1: Women’s Health From a Feminist Perspective.