Book Birthdays celebrate one year of a book’s life in tweets, reviews, and more. This month we’re saying Happy First Book Birthday to Birthing the West: Mothers and Midwives in the Rockies and Plains (Bison Books, 2022) by Jennifer J. Hill.
About the Book:
On a cool June morning in 1915, Lizzie Maclean strode across the northern Montana grasslands, following a path worn by multiple trips in just the past several weeks. She went to check…again…on her neighbor and friend, Mrs. Hicks, to offer reassurance, dexterous hands, and delivery expertise. Maclean supervised the birth of Olive, the newest addition to the Hicks family, and postponed the work of her own homestead as she supported mother and baby in their recuperation.
Birthing the West recounts the caregiving efforts of women like Lizzie and her neighbors as they collaborated, supporting each other through pregnancy, delivery, and post-partum challenges. From the late 1800s through the 1940s, women fashioned an informal yet effective healthcare infrastructure stretching from Montana to the Dakotas and Wyoming. These birthing networks nurtured regional culture and advanced the settler colonial project.
Midwives’ efforts brought innumerable benefits to the nation, but over time, practicing midwives were stigmatized and pushed aside. Birthing the West documents the stories of the women who made the courageous choice to care, and charts the dramatic developments in the professionalization of medicine and the expansion of public health, even as midwifery was nearly eradicated across the mountains and plains of the American West.
A Word from the Author:
Researching and writing Birthing the West brought a host of long-gone women into my present-day reality – quirky individuals who journeyed to the American West, some because they had no choice, and others who sought risk and opportunity. Empathizing with and reveling in those experiences made their long-ago adventure and heartache come alive.
Over the last year I’ve spoken about Birthing the West in numerous venues, and audience members have enthusiastically shared pictures of their grandmothers and great aunts, recounting story after story like the ones that fill the pages of the book. Their descriptions of the unrecognized efforts of these women, the sacrifices they made in continuing the important work of caregiving, the pride and joy they took in offering their knowledge – the stories keep coming.
While daily occurrences, especially ones overseen by women, aren’t typically the stuff of history, dialoguing about Birthing the West has renewed my conviction that these kinds of stories are just the sort we should be working to document. In focusing on the everyday and ordinary, we understand the human experience in all its sadness and sweet success. Childbirth is not a glamorous proposition, but it was once the purview of women who knew their craft, who watched women’s bodies with intent and care, who shepherded new members into a connected community.
As I contemplate the future of Birthing the West, I look forward to the conversations and photographs yet to come. The American West is a space of untold stories. We learn by listening to the voices of mothers and midwives. They teach us about the complex processes of reproduction, the necessity of care, and the power of relationality.
Reading the West Longlist for Nonfiction
“This is an excellent resource book about a subject seldom in the forefront of Western literature.” – True West Magazine
“In a heavily footnoted academic work, Hill writes an absorbing tale of Western childbirth and family life.” – The Denver Post
“Hill provides a clear picture of the difficulties faced by pregnant women and the fundamentally important role that female community members—especially midwives—played in the settlement of the West.” – Montana: the Magazine of Western History
“Birthing the West provides an important overview of reproduction work in the West, as well as the history of medicine and intellectual and political history of the region.” – Synapsis
“When Jennifer Hill, an American Studies professor at Montana State University, began the research on what would become her book, Birthing the West: Mothers and Midwives in the Rockies and Plains, she expected to uncover one or two outstanding stories to highlight. Instead she found a network of women who traveled to the homes of expecting mothers and then stayed for extended periods of time to provide postpartum care.” – Belgrade News