The Isabel Babson Memorial Library and Midwifery in the Seventeenth Century
The Isabel Babson Memorial Library was established in 1961 by Roger Babson to honor his forebear, Isabel, who was a midwife. According to a 1989 New York Times article on the library, Roger was inspired by his accomplished ancestral matriarch and motivated by the power of positive thinking and learning to provide a library about maternity and parenthood.
It is well-known that midwives, from the earliest colonial times, served as highly important medical practitioners in the community. Lesser-known, however, are several other aspects of the practice of midwifery and the social roles of midwives amid the broader gender-specific division of labor, and class stratification in the colonies at the time.
Puritan communities valued literacy, which was also a mark of valuing education and training. Writing was an almost exclusively male skill in those times, however. Scholarship on women’s daily experiences has been aided by the Puritan proclivity for written documentation, but the experiences of Great Migration-era and early colonial New England women have been cobbled together by scholars primarily through the eyes of the men doing the documenting. An exception, however, were midwives, who needed to keep written records of their work. Isabel Babson was literate, as she was able to sign her name to a deposition taken from her oral testimony in a case involving a stillbirth under controversial circumstances. This accords with a picture of class position of Great Migration families as middle class, or in the case of skilled tradespeople, akin to the “upper middle” or “professional” class of the USA of today. Isabel’s son James would extend this class and occupational identification in his work as a cooper, which was an essential profession for the foundational industry of maritime trade in Cape Ann.
Most women in the early New England Puritan communities, including Isabel’s daughters Joan and Agnes, knew their place, so to speak, as “help-meets” to their husbands, or at least, the mistress of the “Oeconomic” or domestic domain. This public-private gender divide is a common motif in social history. However, Puritan communities aimed for a symbiotic male-female, husband-wife hierarchy; men attested to women’s essential role in society, as those whose “work is never done” maintaining a household. Women’s public activity was limited mostly to activities of exclusively female orientation, for example, borrowing or exchanging not only needed tools, household items, but also skills and services. Midwifery was a social, communal practice involving groups of women to attend to the various duties necessary for safe childbirth. It was exclusively female.
This changed however with the rise of what could be called Enlightenment medical practice, whereby medicine was construed as a scientific and practical activity based not just on study of recorded knowledge about anatomy and physiology, but on the construction of empirical knowledge through observation and/or experimentation. Medical schools rose in stature and importance during the Enlightenment, an era roughly corresponding to the 17th and 18th centuries. No surprise, women were not admitted to medical schools in those colonial times; indeed it was not until the mid-nineteenth century that this would be the case.
With the rise of Enlightenment medicine, so to speak, men used the new faith in the power of science to justify in doing what had been throughout recorded history almost exclusively female work. Male doctors might be brought in as a last resort to save the life of mother or child, but reputable midwives gained their stature because by their expertise, they could limit the problems of childbirth. This expertise was gained, as scholar Laurel Ulrich has stressed, though years of experience. Midwife training started young, and the older a midwife, the more experienced, respected and successful.
Isabel Babson, when she arrived in Salem from Somersetshire in the southwest of England in 1637, was around 60 years old (no birth record exists to verify her birthdate). It is safe to assume that she was by that time a seasoned, expert midwife, who very likely trained younger women in the practice. Religiously, there was expectation that Puritan women as young as their mid-teens would be preparing for a fertile motherly career. This entailed the need for midwives. Good midwives were scarce in the colonies at that early time, and so Isabel Babson likely played an important role in her community in Gloucester. For this reason she was brought in as an “expert witness”, so to speak, (at the age of “about 80” in her own words) regarding a 1657 trial against a local man who was accused of causing a woman to miscarry a late pregnancy and almost lose her own life in the process. Isabel’s sworn deposition attested to the good character of the expectant mother, who had been accused of witchcraft, and described the brutal experience of childbirth that resulted in the death of the fetus and the severe trauma of the mother. “Mother Babson”, as she is referred to in the deposition, must have had a good reputation, such that an accusation of witchcraft would not touch her, as midwives were often accused of being witches themselves. Midwives were expert in preventing commonly fatal complications of childbirth, and Isabel’s description of how she and her team kept the mother alive attested to this expertise. Contrary to the Enlightenment expectation that midwives plied their trade as enchanted alchemists, they were in fact one of the most reliable and effective medical practitioners of early colonial New England. The best midwives could boast a successful record of thousands of healthy births and only a handful of injuries or deaths, even in such early modern times. It is no surprise that midwives were regarded as local leaders and legal authorities.
The Isabel Babson Memorial Library no doubt carries many scholarly materials about this history, but also contemporary advice for expectant and experienced mothers, as well as general parenting advice. Its unique background and distinctive focus, one of the only libraries like it in the country, make it a worthy visit for anyone in the Cape Ann region interested in parenting, maternity, obstetrics, and the specific history of these latter in colonial New England.
Berkin, C (1997). First generations: Women in colonial America. (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux).
Driscoll, A. (1989, January). Library’s stock is books on family. The New York Times, Sec. 1, p.32.
Tannenbaum, R.J. (2002). The Healer’s Calling: Women and Medicine in Early New England (Cornell University Press).
Ulrich, L.T. (1989). “The Living mother of a living child”: Midwifery and mortality in post-Revolutionary New England. The William and Mary Quarterly, 46 (1), 27- 48.
Williams, A.C. (2017). The Babson Genealogy 1637-2017: Descendants of Thomas and Isabel Babson, Volume 1. (Gloucester: Babson Historical Association).
This article was prepared by Andrew N.C. Babson who studies youth development and educational policy and practice in global perspective. He is a Lecturer at the University of Pennsylvania and an Adjunct Assistant Professor at Temple University. He is also a Trustee of the Babson Historical Association.