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Author Interview "Jenny M. Luke"

Jenny is a British-trained nurse-midwife. Her interest in the history of midwifery was piqued many years ago when she arrived in the U.S. and discovered a great difference in the perception of midwifery between Britons and Americans; however, it was as a student of American history and the impact of race, gender, and class on maternity care that she became fascinated by the subject.

Jenny M. Luke lives with her husband in North Texas. They have two grown children.

Exclusive Interview with Author, Jenny Luke

“Catchin Babies” was only one aspect of the role of African American midwives in the twentieth-century South. “Delivered by Midwives: African American Midwifery in the Twentieth Century South” by Jenny Luke uses evidence from nursing, medical and public health journals of the era: primary sources from state and county departments of health and personal accounts from practitioners to provide a new perspective on the childbirth experience of African American Women and their maternity care providers.

Is this your first book?

Yes. It was never my intention to write a book, but as I progressed in my graduate school research it became clear that there was little written about black midwives and an avenue opened up towards publication.

Tell me a bit about your background.

Born and raised in Great Britain, I trained as a nurse-midwife in Manchester and London and came to America aged 25 to work as a Registered Nurse at Parkland Hospital in Dallas, Texas. I fully intended returning home after the experience of working, living, and traveling in a different country, but in fact, I married an American and stayed. After having children, I did not go back to nursing but began taking classes towards a Bachelor’s degree, and eventually a Masters in history earned in 2013.

What was your inspiration for writing the book?

My interest in the subject was piqued 30 years ago when I arrived in the United States and noticed a great difference in the way Britons and Americans viewed my work as a nurse-midwife. However, it was as a student of American history, in particular the history of the South, that I discovered the legacy of African American midwifery and I became fascinated by the impact of race on the evolution of the role in America.

But it was the black midwives themselves who were the true inspiration. As a historian, I am very proud to have my peer-reviewed research published by an academic press, and I fully expected to be entirely satisfied with that. However, I am not ready to leave the midwives yet. As one of the midwives exclaimed towards the end of her life in 1989,” I got so much experience in here I just want to explode….I want somebody to realize what I am!” It seems that most people are unaware of the remarkable work performed by Onnie Lee Logan and women like her. Their dignity, their commitment, their stories inspired me to write their history, and now inspires me to reach beyond academia and into a wider audience.

What do you think are some of the biggest misconceptions about midwives in the U.S.?

Generally speaking, I think it is difficult for Americans to visualize “a midwife” because there are several types of midwife, each requiring a different educational background and certification, each state governing the role and regulations independently. In my opinion one of the biggest misconceptions about midwives today is that they function outside of mainstream health care, unregulated and poorly trained. In fact, most midwives in the U.S. are certified nurse-midwives with advanced degrees, and almost 95% of midwife attended births occur in hospitals; they are a valuable, albeit small, segment of maternity care providers. Midwives do not merely attend births, but are of crucial importance in pre-natal care. They excel at building relationships with women, developing trust, and continuing care beyond pregnancy. The word midwife means “with women” and the practice of American nurse-midwives extends to complete well-woman care, from puberty onwards. I write as a historian and not a nurse-midwife, but it seems to me that in the 30 years I have been in the U.S. nurse-midwifery has gained significant traction in creating a professional space in which to practice.

What would you like readers to take away from reading the book?

I would like readers to get to know the midwives I write about, to understand the obstacles they encountered in the face of overwhelming poverty and systemic racial discrimination, and their remarkable efforts to overcome them as they became incorporated in to a state maternity care system. Although some midwives were eventually honored for their dedication, they really hoped to be recognized for their midwifery skills and their ability to effectively interact with local physicians and county health departments. Given the constraints of the Jim Crow South, the fact that a group of African American women, most with a minimal education, were able to negotiate outside their immediate realm of influence in this way was an admirable and unusual feat.

I would like readers to learn how midwives with extremely limited access to modern facilities, sterilized their equipment and executed hygienic childbirth in homes without power or running water; how they demanded medical backup from local physicians; how they ensured that women saw a doctor during pregnancy; how they organized public health campaigns; how midwives in Mississippi averted a diphtheria outbreak by promoting vaccination. I want readers to know that the midwives earned the respect of the doctors and nurses who supervised them, and many aspects of the work they did are now being re-introduced into modern maternity care.

Like Onnie Lee Logan, I want to everyone to realize what exceptional women they were.

What surprised you the most as you researched this story?

As I researched this story I was truly surprised that no one had looked more closely at the actual role and experiences of the midwives. Prior to my book the general theme was that black midwives were replaced by white physicians. That is a true statement, but it glosses over a 50-year period of transition, roughly from 1920-1970. Moreover, I was surprised that such a remarkable group of women, who in the face of little alternative fulfilled a vital role for their communities, and also became the “face” of local and state health agencies, had not been properly acknowledged in the historical record.

Do you have any other book projects you are working on?

My main focus at the moment is telling the story of the midwives. However, I came across some interesting characters during my research that deserve a closer look, maybe a biography.

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