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Topic section: Out of the home into the maternity ward
Out of the home into the maternity ward
For centuries, childbirth was the business of women, not doctors. Female friends and family, or sometimes a midwife, looked after women in labour. These female attendants traditionally delivered babies in most communities, usually for a small fee. During the eighteenth century, doctors became involved in childbirth, often using instruments such as forceps. Sp
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Midwives criticised doctors for over-hasty use of instruments causing rushed traumatic deliveries.
NMPFT/Syndication International
ecial maternity or ‘lying-in’ hospitals were founded. In them doctors moved between the wards and the dissecting rooms. Most women still had their babies at home until the mid-twentieth century, but by the end of the cen

Disputes between midwives and medical men were frequent

tury almost all births in the developed world took place in hospitals.

Some of the eighteenth century doctors who started to attend births were interested in the anatomy and process of labour. Others needed extra income. Disputes between midwives and medical men were frequent. Doctors accused midwives of being untrained (at this time they usually had no formal training but learnt from experience) and ignorant (which was not necessarily so). Midwives’ main criticism of doctors was that they used instruments, causing rushed, traumatic deliveries and damaged babies. This was essentially a professional dispute. Forceps, properly used, could save the lives of babies, and mothers. Doctors opposed the regulation of midwifery, fearing competition for patients, but even when formal training for midwives began, largely in the late nineteenth century, it was under the supervision of male doctors. Midwives’ status increased when a professional body to govern training and practice was established in 1902.
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Women used this chair, dating from 1701-1830, when they were giving birth.
Credit: Science Museum/Science & Society Picture Library

Eighteenth and nineteenth century doctors managed patients more actively than midwives. Armed with new understandings of female anatomy and the processes of labour, they designed new tools and methods to deliver babies. After the widespread adoption of anaesthesia and antisepsis in the 1890s, caesarean section became more frequent.

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Ultrasound machines like this one are used to obtain detailed pictures of the foetus.
Credit: Science Museum/Science & Society Picture Library
By the mid-twentieth century most doctors advocated hospital births. Here, new technologies such as ultrasound could be used and powerful drugs given.Labour was often artificially induced and continuously monitored with machines. In the 1970s, amid growing support for feminism and consumerism, western women began to campaign for a return to more ‘natural’ methods. The right degree of medical intervention in childbirth is still hotly debated. 

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Topic section: The battle over birth control
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Before the twentieth century, the medical profession had little interest in sexual matters. This gave women the opportunity to create their own methods of birth control. Even butter or powder puffs could become methods of preventing pregnancy.  > more

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Topic section: A woman’s body; a surgeon’s eye
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Anatomical figures represent women’s figures to future medical practitioners, but they also reveal the doctor’s view of women. The female models recline as passive objects, sometimes in sexually inviting poses.  > more
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