Many years ago, I had the extraordinary pleasure of meeting with two influential MIdwives of color that have made strides in the birth world. Gladys Milton and Margaret Charles Smith spoke to their midwifery experiences at a conference for practicing and aspiring midwives that I’ll never forget.
In these sessions, Margaret and Gladys enlightened our group to the challenges of Midwifery in the mid-1900s. They took care of the women doctors and hospitals didn’t want to care for during that time. Poor women, primarily women of color. They had limited access to resources and were rarely paid for their work as Midwives. Midwives have made progress legitimizing their profession with specialized care and training. Gladys Milton moved and inspired us all with her experiences, validating our passion for improving the birth of children in our communities.
Gladys was recruited by the Walton County Health Department to provide birth and delivery services to women in low income areas. As this was during the peak of racial segregation, many African American women had to rely on midwives for birth services. After taking this opportunity in Walton, she was trained and licensed in nearby Alabama to practice midwifery in 1959.
After acquiring her license, Gladys delivered babies and provided in home postpartum care for nearly two decades before opening her own center in 1976. This center was the first birthing center in Walton county, now known as the Milton Memorial Birthing Center. Milton Memorial is run now by Glady’s daughter and Midwife, Maria Milton and continues to provide care to low-risk families in their community.
Margaret Charles Smith was one of the first official Midwives in Alabama in 1949 and was still practicing in 1976 when Midwifery became illegal in Alabama and was permitted to practice until 1981. She caught her first baby at the age of 5 when the Midwife didn’t show up in time, she Midwifed herself through 3 births, and welcomed over 3000 babies to some of the poorest women during her Midwifery career.
Margaret co-wrote a book in 1996, “Listen to Me Good: The Story of an Alabama Midwife” and was inducted into the Alabama Women’s Hall of Fame in 2010. But what I remember the most about her was the stories she told at the Mana Conference in 2000. She shared with us her trials & tribulations as a midwife and was open to questions. One woman asked her, since she was prohibited by Alabama law from performing internal exams to assess dilation, how she knew when it was time for a woman to push… her response.. “Have you ever heard of crowning?”. She had quite the sense of humor.
Since she was restricted, like most of the Midwives back then, from using medical equipment and performing specific exams, she became more attuned to nuances of normal healthy pregnancy and the signs of problems. Several years after hearing her stories and her sharing some of her tricks of the trade, I had a mother experience a prenatal complication that did not present with the typical symptoms, yet it was Margaret’s words that came to me and allowed me to recognize the issue at hand and allowed this mom and baby to get the care that they needed.
I often think of these amazing Midwives and am thank full for the knowledge and wisdom they have shared that continues to support moms & babies today.
During the month of February, we take a moment to recognize women like Gladys Milton and Margaret Charles Smith and the men and women that inspire us every day to continue improving childbirth and midwifery care.
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