Birthing A Nation: Enslaved Women and Midwifery in Early America, 1750-1820

Sara Collini

Advisor: Randolph Scully, PhD, Department of History and Art History

Committee Members: Cynthia Kierner, Yevette Richards Jordan

Research Hall, #162
April 15, 2020, 02:00 PM to 04:00 PM


This dissertation explores the lives and work of enslaved midwives in Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, and South Carolina during the eras of the American Revolution and Early Republic. It argues that by helping to birth free and enslaved children, enslaved midwives supported both southern families, namely African American families, and the growth of the United States in significant and paradoxical ways. Enslaved women navigated the physical, social, emotional, and commercial landscape of the revolutionary era to learn and practice midwifery, creating spaces to advocate for families and for themselves within a system of racial oppression. They accessed transatlantic networks of medical knowledge and goods, traversed the plantation landscape to aid families and communities through birth and death, and even earned compensation for this work that provided a small amount of financial agency and material comfort for their own families.

Through that work, however, enslaved midwives inadvertently supported the birth and growth of the United States and the expansion of the slave system. Coupled with colonial-era laws that defined enslavement through the status of the mother and the increased growth of the enslaved population through childbirth, enslaved women and the children they bore formed the core of the plantation system. Throughout the eighteenth century, those engaged in the business of slavery scrutinized and commodified enslaved women’s bodies and developed and adapted capitalistic technologies to maximize profits from both crops and human capital. Further, the American Revolution catalyzed a reliance on the domestic reproduction of slave labor and increased the political significance of enslaved midwives’ actions through decisions like the non-importation resolutions and the Three-Fifths Compromise of the Constitution. Politicians, enslavers, and capitalists leveraged enslaved midwives and the children they helped to birth as political and financial capital in the new nation. As the United States expanded westward and closed the transatlantic slave trade, the institution of slavery expanded into new territories, solidifying a market for both cotton and domestic reproductive slavery. Those engaged in the business of slavery transformed enslaved midwives into essential resources that could help ensure successful plantations, healthy human capital, and buttress the American political economy.

This dissertation contributes to recent historiography on slavery, capitalism, and reproduction around the Atlantic by exploring the role of enslaved midwives in the context of family stability, plantation management, and nation-building during the eras of the American Revolution and Early Republic. It employs social history methodology to reconstruct this history, examining plantation account books, farm reports, diaries, and correspondence written by enslavers, as well as newspaper advertisements, tax documents, census data, congressional debates, legislation, midwifery manuals, and the writings and interviews of formerly enslaved people. Recovering this overlooked aspect of women’s history ultimately reveals the importance of childbirth and the complexity of enslaved women’s agency and advocacy during the founding era, as they helped birth African American families, enslavers’ families, and the United States.