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George Washington’s Midwives

The economics of childbirth under slavery.
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Compensating enslaved midwives reflected the unique and complex economic relationship between master and slave, particularly with regard to slave bodies. Masters considered enslaved people property that could increase their wealth. Enslaved women thus represented chattel property that could increase financial holdings through both productive labor as well as through the capacity for reproduction. Midwifery work promoted good care for enslaved mothers and infants at the same time that it expanded and reinforced slavery. Slave owners needed these practitioners to ensure the health of their reproducing enslaved women and the health of newborn infants, who expanded the labor force. Midwives were also expected to ensure that enslaved women returned to work in timely manner following childbirth.

Slave owners’ management of enslaved women in childbirth reflected their dual interest in the productive and reproductive abilities of their bodies. Washington, in fact, instructed his farm overseers to turn in a weekly report accounting for the labor performed on each of the five farms. At the end of each report, the overseer listed sick laborers and enslaved women in childbed, along with the accounting of stock. Reports indicated that most parturient women were given an average of four to six weeks off from field or domestic work. Between January 1797 and December 1798, the most consecutively documented farm reports, at least thirty-five women were pregnant across the estate. This means that for that two-year period, approximately 24 percent of the labor force was in childbed.

From Washington’s perspective, the time taken to birth and care for newborn infants directly amounted to labor lost for several enslaved women. The farm reports in April 1797 for Muddy Hole farm documented three women—Darcus, Letty, and Amie—in childbed. Washington calculated the worth of labor by multiplying the number of workers by the six days they were expected to work during the week. At Muddy Hole for the week of April 8, 1797, fourteen “hands” equaled eighty-four days of labor. Darcus, Letty, and Amie were listed as being in childbed for that entire week, which equated to eighteen days not working. To Washington, those three women in childbirth represented a 21 percent loss of labor for that single week. All three women remained in childbed for four successive weeks. They were constantly unable to work within his plantation economy.