All My Babies: A Midwife’s Own Story. Directed by George C. Stoney. Washington, DC: The Association of Medical Colleges, 1952. 54 minutes.
Catching Babies: Celebrating the Power of Birth, Women and Midwives. Directed by Barni Axmed Qaasim, 2011. 60 minutes.
Created by the Georgia Department of Public Health to train the hundreds of “granny midwives” in the medical model of care, and centering on Mary Coley, All My Babies has been recognized for its cultural and historical significance by the Library of Congress. The film follows the midwife “Miss Mary,” who caught thousands of babies in rural Doughtery County, capturing the role of the midwife, traditional technologies used by midwives of her time, and how a midwife responds to the varied living conditions of African Americans in the 1950s. In one instance she sterilizes items over a fire in a chimney while catching a baby in a house with no electricity and cardboard for insulation.
While the film shows the skills of this elder midwife, it is done so through the gaze of the medical model, which sought to train midwives in practices related to sterilization, nutrition, and potential birth complications. And we might question how, at that time, the Black female body was exposed in ways that a White woman’s reproductive parts might not have been when the film depicts actual birth and the birth of the placenta, showing the vagina of a birthing African American poor woman—this before a male film crew.
The film stresses the collaboration between clinical staff and doctors and the thousands of midwives and the South. Useful questions in the classroom might include, Why did this collaborative relationship exist and how did it change over time, and what gazes shape this midwife’s story? One answer can be found at the Snagfilms website (www.snagfilms.com). In addition to allowing the general public to view the film for free, it includes a fourteen-minute video on the making of the film, A Reunion of All My Babies, which speaks to the impact of segregation on medical care, which ensured the continuation of homebirth midwifery care for people of color and low-income people, a type of care that has largely been reduced nationwide and no longer exists in Georgia. While the birthing women are mostly silent in the original film, their voices and birthing sounds edited out, in the reunion we hear the empowered voices of women who birthed with Miss Mary or were born into her care. A suggested companion film would be Miss Margaret: The Story of an Alabama Granny Midwife, since both explore different facets of the race, class, and gender in the history of midwifery in the American South.1
Also depicting the intersections of identity, geography, and reproductive health, Catching Babies follows student midwives at Maternidad de la Luz birth center at the U.S.-Mexico border. The birth center offers a one-year intensive certification in midwifery and serves many Mexican clients, and some of the documentary’s strongest moments emerge from the ceremonial knowledge of Indigenous Chicana midwives in El Paso, Texas. A silent text of the film is that the birthing center is a by-product of the social reality of direct-entry midwifery in the United States, which is a more formal program of care for pregnant women. Its practitioners are largely Euro-American women, as the move to “license” midwifery care often had the unexpected outcome of excluding granny midwives who could not participate, or did not feel comfortable participating, in the licensing structures. For instance, in Texas hundreds of Mexican-American midwives could no longer practice “lay midwifery,” and it became the domain of mostly White women who reclaimed midwifery in the 1970s. In some states, they pushed for certification and state-sanctioned legal permission to catch babies outside of the hospital. This move was a response to the delegitimization of homebirth midwifery as safe and appropriate by the U.S. medical establishment.
A small but growing number of women of color have begun re-staking their claim to midwifery, some reconnecting to their ancestral knowledge of birth, which is still robust in Mexico but also threatened by the overly medicalized model of birth. This hidden knowledge is depicted in a key filmatic moment when Sandra Iturbe, then a student midwife, is told by her father that her great grandmother was a midwife in Juarez, Mexico, and that her aunt is waiting to pass on midwifery knowledge to her, as well as when inter-generational ceremonial knowledge about birth is present in the pregnancy of Cemilli de Aztlan. Key scenes depict midwifery care and births, and the women’s birth stories that critique medicalized pregnancy and labor, showing how direct-entry midwifery may be dictated by medical/clinical standards of care. The ceremonial knowledge of the Mexican Indian sweatlodge and creation stories that provide teachings regarding birth ground the experiences of Cemilli de Aztlan and her midwife within the clinic. These two spaces of knowledge interact through the lives of these two Chicanas, yet appear quite distinct. An important discussion in the classroom could focus on the potential resources that Indigenous knowledges may bring to the birth experience, as well as what knowledge systems structure the birth experience and midwifery training.
1 Miss Margaret: The Story of an Alabama Granny Midwife, directed by Diana Paul (Watertown, MA: Documentary Educational Resources, 2008).