Sisters on a Journey,
Portraits of American Midwives
By Penfield Chester
Photographs by Sara Chester McKusick
Rutgers University Press, 1997
From: LEAVEN, Vol. 35 No. 5, October-November 1999, p. 109
Reviewed by Beth Moscov
Santa Barbara, CA, USA
One of the most rewarding things about being involved with La Leche League is knowing so many wonderful women, women who have stood by their choice to breastfeed and to parent in a way that is not always accepted by the rest of society. LLL is filled with women who constantly put people before things in a culture that is materially minded. Women come to meetings for help with breastfeeding, but they stay for the community, for the support of like-minded women.
Sisters on a Journey is about 27 powerful women. Much like La Leche League Leaders, each found her own way to be true to herself and her life goals. All of these women represent the ideal of natural childbirth.
Their bond is their shared profession. They are all midwives. They were interviewed by Penfield Chester. Her sister, Sara Chester McKusick, did the wonderful portrait photography of each woman that accompanies her story.
Throughout time, midwifery has stood for women helping women to have as natural a birth as possible in the safest conditions possible. Even so, midwifery in the United States was all but eradicated during the medicalization of birth in the early parts of this century. Today, this form of woman-to-woman support is coming back, as more hospitals allow midwives privileges and more women are hearing about the safety statistics of midwives.
Included in Sisters are many of the midwives known for their outspokenness during times of non-acceptance. Ina May Gaskin, author of Spiritual Midwifery, is here. She began her career in a caravan of buses traveling across the USA to their new home in Tennessee. Doctors wouldn't see these women without prenatal care so Ina May learned how to do it herself. Gladys Milton is here, too. Gladys began her midwifery career at age eight or ten by helping her mother's sister, a lay midwife in the South. She received her license in 1959. She became famous later when Florida attempted to take her license away, claiming she was practicing medicine without a license. Gladys won that case and in 1976 received the Sage Femme Award. In 1992 she received the Woman of the Year Award. Helen Varney Burst tells how she learned her art and then went on to write the first midwifery textbook and teach at Yale University. Other midwives are not as well known. Some are anonymous, as in the case of a lay midwife practicing in an area not friendly to midwifery. As we read these women's stories, we get a true sense of what lies underneath all this diversity - a belief in the normal course of labor and the power of women's bodies to give birth naturally.
Through these stories we learn of the great diversity in midwifery options. There are Certified Nurse Midwives who must have a registered nursing license as well as special training in midwifery. There are Direct Entry Midwives, some of whom have been certified by a National Board. And there are the Granny Midwives, those who were practicing in the days before there was any such thing as licensing. These women were grandmothered into their profession in a variety of ways such as taking a few special courses or taking a short exam or by completing a hands-on supervised training period.
This book is very compelling. You may find yourself unable to put it down. This is a book that I would keep close to my heart in my own home. It would not be out of place in a Group Library that already has many other books on childbirth. When considering this book for your LLL Group Library, it is important to note that, as these are the stories of individual women, not all reflect LLLI philosophy. Some women made choices that included early mother/baby separation or even weaning. Others describe being active La Leche League members at times in their lives.
The power behind these women and the interviewer's ability to draw each woman out creates an incredible drama in every life story. These women have battled and fought for their cause and many have won in their own way. Others are still battling. La Leche League Leaders can find inspiration to fight for our own cause - breastfeeding. Leaders can learn a lot about the history, struggles and victories that women have made in the field of birth. Ultimately, these women show a dedication to women and babies that is sensitive and inspiring. It is a powerful, appealing book that can help women to better understand their choices in birth attendants.