Nicky Leapand Billie Hunter, The Midwife's Tale: An Oral History from Handywoman to Professional Midwife Scarlet Press, London, 1993
This is, as the blurb describes it 'a fascinating oral history' about midwives' and women's experiences of childbirth and related matters prior to the inception of the National Health Service. The material is very strong, justifying the lengthy verbatim quotes, and has been helpfully organised. It will prove a valuable work for historians and others interested in questions of midwifery and women's health.
However, the authors reveal a certain naïvety in the way they decided upon and set about this project. Is it really the case these days that 'traditional textbook history rarely deals with the everyday, commonplace experiences of most people's lives'? This seems very debatable, although it does not, of course, invalidate the actual project. Furthermore, oral history is by no means a new discipline and oral historians have surely encountered and considered, if they have failed to solve, the problems Leap and Hunter encountered about the ethical position of the interviewer, the fallibility of memory, and the tendency of interviewees to say what they feel is expected. It is clear from the bibliography that the authors have not neglected the recent historiography of midwifery and childbirth, but they do not seem have explored the wider ramifications of the methodology they (with very good reason and excellent results) chose. A mere 26 interviewees, though providing qualitatively rich material in 'hundreds of hours of interviews', must also raise questions about representativeness.
It would also have been interesting to place the reminiscences of old women looking back to the past alongside contemporary accounts: while such works as the Women's Cooperative Guild's Maternity, Pember Reeves's Round About a Pound a Week, and Spring-Rice's Working Class Wives are cited, their data is not compared in any systematic fashion with the oral accounts. A strange omission in primary material consulted is Marie Stopes' Mother England, based on the letters received after her popular articles in John Bull: though Leap and Hunter mention these they do not seem to have read the book. The original letters (and many, many, more) are now in the Contemporary Medical Archives Centre at the Wellcome Institute, as are letters from women to Grantly Dick Read recounting their good and bad experiences in childbirth. Such documents are surely as 'authentic' as oral testimony many years after the event.
Several of the anecdotes recounted by the interviewees when describing the obstetric incompetence of the medical profession feature women doctors. This point has not been taken up by the authors: was this just happenstance, and were there even more accounts of the ineptitude of male doctors (who would presumably have been much more often encountered) or could there have been some specific sense of rivalry between midwives and medically qualified women?
The Midwife's Tale can be heartily recommended for its vivid but unsentimental depiction of a lost world of women, and its undermining of myths about the 'handywoman': neither a grimy finger-nailed Sairey Gamp, nor the repository of lost treasures of female wisdom.
Lesley A Hall
Wellcome Institute for the History of Medicine