No Small Courage: A History of Women in the United States

By Nancy F. Cott | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 3
The Limits of
Independence
1760–1800

Marylynn Salmon

The two women walked slowly through the cornfields, heading toward the forest that surrounded the village compound. Following Seneca custom, the younger woman had prepared a place in the woods to give birth. Now that her time had come, she was going there with her mother, a village healer and midwife.

The older woman followed the younger, who moved steadily ahead despite the pains that came every few minutes. She was well prepared to give birth, for she was strong and healthy and, although this child would be her first, unafraid. Her mother had taught her the ways of women, and she knew that the pain of this birth, though strong, would last only a short while. She was confident she would bear her labor as a dignified Seneca woman should, without crying out. If she did give in to the pain, her people believed the child would suffer. Girls born of such mothers were known to be illnatured, and boys proved cowardly in warfare. If her husband heard of her weakness, he would be ashamed.

They turned toward the sound of the brook that ran past their village on the eastern side and stopped a few hundred yards into the woods. The spot was close to their fields yet private, shielded on two sides by young hemlocks and bounded on a third by the brook, where the child would be dipped soon after birth. The washing was meant not only to clean and stimulate the child, but also to harden it against the coming rigors of Indian life. The mother approved of her daughter’s choice and the way she had swept the earth and covered the ground with pine needles and hemlock boughs. On the ground, they laid the blankets they had brought. As night was approaching and the season was cold, the mother built a fire to warm them.

The midwife admired the endurance of her daughter, who laid down only between her pains, gathering herself for the effort to kneel through each contraction. The labor was long because it was her first. Despite the fact that she had remained in the village throughout the entire first day of her birth pains, working on her pelts, preparing food for her husband, and helping care for her sister’s children, the wait in the woods

-109-

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