Once upon a time, English women practised a trade, largely in domestic settings. For the middle ages, records of their work are relatively scarce, but by the early modern period we know more. Some women practised more intensively, earning money from their labour and becoming known in their neighbourhoods for their skill. A few opened their homes to their clients, although parish officials intervened quickly if there was any trouble. In the later seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, however, this occupation was transformed as new technologies developed, clients’ expectations changed and men entered the business.
This story might sound like midwifery, but I am describing beer-making. My summary is drawn from Judith Bennett's classic analysis of the gendering of the work involved in making beer versus ale.
The overlap of the two chronologies, however imperfect, is thought-provoking. Women brewed beer and sold it in their homes, or delivered babies in other women's homes. They learned from their mothers or other experienced women. Some made their homes into informal taverns, or took in pregnant women for deliveries. With the development of ale-making, imported from the Low Countries, the scale and gender of brewing changed; some of today's biggest brewers started in the eighteenth century. An immigrant technology also seems to lie at the heart of changes in midwifery: the obstetrical forceps, the carefully managed trade secret of the Chamberlens, a Huguenot family.
This comparison of brewing and midwifery reminds us that both were gendered activities that grew into occupations in the early modern period, and altered their gender associations in the process. At the heart of such change is the puzzle of why and how some practices become gendered, and why and how the gendering changes. Alice Clark, one of the first historians of women's work, used midwifery as a prime example of ‘the way in which women have lost their hold upon all branches of skilled responsible work’. My implicit argument in this chapter is that we need to understand midwifery as female work as well as medical practice, and so resituate it as an economic activity shaped by larger shifts in workforces.
Before looking at the time of transition, we should think about midwives themselves, and the longer historiographic traditions that continue to shape our understanding of their work. ‘Midwife’ is not a timeless occupational category.