The English word midwife is at least 700 years old. It comes into Modern English from a compound word made up of two Old English terms: the preposition mid, with, in the presence of; and the noun wīf, woman, female, wife. So a very old and most basic and literal meaning of the term midwife is a woman who is “with a woman,” attending her birth, caring for her during labor and delivery.
But the existence of midwives is far older than that; it is no exaggeration to say that midwives are as old as the Bible. They are mentioned in the first two books of the Bible, the first reference (Genesis 35:17) being to the midwife caring for Rachel, who was giving birth to Benjamin, Jacob’s son. The Hebrew word translated “midwife” here may literally be translated “the childbirth assisting woman.” That was four thousand years ago, so midwives were on the scene at least as long ago as that.
Midwifery care was the norm for childbirth down through history and throughout the world until relatively recent times. Even in early 20th century America, most women delivered at home, attended by midwives.
As an illustration of this, consider our US presidents born in the 20th century. The first President to be born in a hospital was Jimmy Carter, in October of 1924. The previous four presidents born in the 20th century were all born at home, and the next two presidents that followed Carter in office were also born at home, including George H. W. Bush, born just a few months earlier than Carter (in June of 1924).
But what of midwives today? These contemporary counterparts to the ancient practitioners of midwifery care are members of a professionally regulated field of health care for women during normal pregnancies. Midwives train for years, their education including both academic information (the study of anatomy & physiology, etc.) and hands-on experience in an apprenticeship with a licensed midwife.
So, how do we tie all of this information together and answer the question “What is a midwife” in today’s society? She is an educated, trained professional, licensed and/or certified by state or international registries of midwives. She serves women with uncomplicated pregnancies during pregnancy, labor and delivery, and with postpartum care for mother and baby. She admirably brings together the ancient art and modern professionalism that is midwifery care.