In 18th-century England, the male midwife or accoucheur was a controversial figure. As more and more men attended births, some people fiercely resented their invasion of this traditionally female sphere.
The debate over male midwives
Before the 18th century, men were mainly brought in to childbirth to help with difficult labours and emergencies. But around 1750, male surgeons and physicians such as William Smellie began to promote their own role in regular births. They questioned women’s reliance on tradition and experience, and emphasised the value of anatomical study and technical training with forceps. Armed with instruments, male midwives were more expensive and they became the fashionable choice for many higher-class women.
However, other practitioners such as Sarah Stone argued that male midwives did more harm than good by over-using instruments (A Complete Practice of Midwifery, 1737). They also suggested that men threatened women’s modesty by preying on their exposed bodies.
Man-Midwifery Dissected (1793)
This treatise seeks to expose the ‘cunning, indecent and cruel Practices’ of the new breed of male midwives. It was written by Samuel William Fores (1761‒1838) under the pseudonym of John Blunt, and promotes the ‘proper education’ of female midwives and ordinary men and women. Blunt compares his own work with conventional conduct manuals, insisting that it is more important to teach women ‘to preserve their own life’ than to ‘shine in a ball-room’ or understand the ‘flattery of a Frenchman’.
A two-sided ‘monster’: The hand-coloured cartoon
This cartoon by Isaac Cruikshank depicts the male midwife as a kind of hybrid ‘monster’ who attempts to cross the boundary between male and female worlds. The left half is a fashionable man brandishing a lever to help him prize the baby’s head out. In his surgeon’s dispensary there are shelves of forceps and hooks, while another shelf holds ‘Love Water’ to allow him to seduce women. In contrast, the right half is a woman in a cosy, domestic scene where the homebirth is to take place.
Dr Slop and Tristram Shandy (1759‒67)
In Tristram Shandy, Laurence Sterne reflects these contemporary tensions between science and nature, and between male and female midwives. In the farcical scenes surrounding the hero’s birth, Tristram’s mother puts her trust in a ‘motherly, notable, good old body of a midwife’ whose skills come from ‘dame nature’ (Volume 1, Chapter 7). But Tristram’s father insists on calling Dr Slop ‒ a ‘scientifick operator’, based on the real Dr John Burton (Volume 1, Chapter 18). Slop sits downstairs chatting for most of Elizabeth’s labour and then crushes Tristram’s nose with his ‘vile’ forceps (Volume 3, Chapter 27).