Little is known about the life of 17th Century midwife, Jane Sharp, but her book on pregnancy and childbirth was nothing short of ground-breaking. It provided a much-needed female voice in what had been a male-dominated area of writing.
The exact date and place of Jane Sharp’s birth is unknown. Her book, published in 1671, states that she had been “A practitioner in the art of midwifery” for more than thirty years, so we might guess that she was born in the early 17th Century. Although the evidence to support the claim is sparse, some historians believe that she lived and worked in the North West of England.
Her book is erudite, and indicates a detailed understanding of contemporaneous theories of human biology and medicine. It therefore seems likely that Jane was formally educated. What is obvious from her work is that she was not only an experienced and skilful midwife, but a woman of tremendous intellect.
Jane’s seminal work, Midwives Book: or The Whole Art of Midwifery Discovered, was first published in 1671. It was the first text on this subject to be written by a woman in England, and remained the only one until 1700. It appeared in four different editions, the final one being published in 1725.
Until Jane’s book, this area of publishing had been dominated by work written exclusively by males. Those seeking knowledge and instruction with regard to human reproduction and childbirth could either avail themselves of translations of ancient Greek writers or read contemporary works by men who had little or no practical experience. One of the most popular books on the subject at the time was Directory for Midwives. It was written by Nicholas Culpepper who, by his own admission, had never actually attended a birth!
In her book, Jane describes midwifery as: “Doubtless one of the most useful and necessary of all Arts for the being and well-being of Mankind”. She radiates a genuine zeal for the welfare of women and children. Throughout its pages, she references the medical and scientific texts of the era but also discusses ideas and detailed advice based on her vast practical experience of midwifery.
The book was divided into six different sections. These covered topics such as male and female reproductive anatomy, conception, the problems which can be experienced when trying to conceive, the development of the foetus, childbirth and the complications that can occur during labour. It also offered advice with regards to caring for the new infant during the months following birth. Jane advised new mothers on breastfeeding and nutrition, and also provided them with details of common childhood ailments and the appropriate treatments.
In addition to its practical information and guidance, Jane also appears to have used her book as a vehicle to discuss pro-women and proto-feminist themes. She condemned the system which prevented midwives from gaining a greater knowledge of subjects such as anatomy and science. She expressed her frustration at the inadequacies of female education, pointing out that, unlike their male counterparts, midwives were not able to attend university or access the specialist texts vital to their work which were only written only in Latin or Greek.
Jane also argued that midwifery is a profession that should be reserved solely for women. Male midwives were becoming more prevalent at the time but Jane vociferously opposed their tenure. She felt that, whilst their university education might be held in much higher esteem, it was no substitute for the understanding and practical experience of women. She also encouraged female midwives to learn about medicines and surgical techniques themselves instead of having to rely on male physicians in the event of emergencies or complications during a birth.
Perhaps rather unexpectedly for a work dating from the 17th Century, Jane’s book contained a vivid portrayal of female sexuality. She emphasised the significance of clitoral stimulation, believing that the female climax was an important aspect of conception. Unlike her male contemporaries who wrote about female anatomy in a very negative and derisory way, depicting women’s bodies as inferior to men’s, Jane celebrated the marvels of the female body. She wondered at the ability of the vagina and cervix to open, close or expand as necessary and extolled it as “The works of the Lord”.
Jane placed great emphasis on the comfort and wellbeing of the mother during childbirth. While male writers on this subject tended to prescribe one specific position as appropriate for birth, Jane advised that women should be able to move freely around the room if they wished and decide for themselves in which position they favoured giving birth. She placed importance on women resting and taking a little nourishment if they wished and she counselled against any attempts to rush the birth.
Furthermore, Jane wrote about caring for a new mother in the immediate postnatal period, highlighting the need to tend to her physiological and physical health. “Then comfort the woman… put the woman to as little trouble as you can, for she hath endured pain enough already.”
Jane’s book was extremely popular, sold exceptionally well and remained an important source of information and advice for decades following its initial publication. It marked a change in the role and perception of midwives from layperson to skilled professional, and put an end to the male-domination of publishing in this sphere.
Whether she intended it or not, both Jane and her book were pioneering.