My biographical essay, “Jane Wright: A Newly Certified Midwife in London (ca. 1798),” now appears in Midwifery Today 124 (Winter 2017): 24-26.
In 1798, the same year that renowned English Romantic poets William Wordsworth and Samuel Coleridge published their Lyrical Ballads, Jane Wright published her own unique and valuable work: “An essay to instruct women how to protect themselves in a state of pregnancy from the disorders incident to that period or how to cure them. Also some observations on the treatment of children which, if attended to, may ward off dangerous diseases and prevent future evils” (London, 1798). As her title suggests, Wright wanted to empower women to prevent or treat their diseases themselves when needed in pregnancy, and she wanted to teach them to better care well for their children when those children were ill …
In the fifth section of her “Essay,” Wright includes her thoughts on the essential equality of men and women in their social roles. In so doing, she adds, “Authors of the most eminent abilities, after a comparative review of both sexes, have candidly declared, upon the whole, we [women] are by no means inferior or rather we are superior in acting our parts in all the concerns of life” (31). Wright appears to be thinking of one author in particular here: Mary Wollstonecraft, author of A Vindication of the Right of Woman, which was published just six years earlier in 1792.
Wright’s thoughts on the education of women bear a striking resemblance to those of Mary Wollstonecraft expressed in the Vindication. Although Wright appreciates accomplished young ladies who can sing and dance and who inevitably have good fashion sense, she says:
“I am sometimes sorry to find that these accomplished young ladies are ignorant of the grammar of their own language, they are deficient in understanding the first principles of virtue, and that they have no instruction on the holy Scriptures …If I dared, as a female writer, I would venture to recommend to young ladies of fashion some attention to history, geography, botany, natural history, moral and natural philosophy, etc..” (33)
The benefits of such learning to young women would include mental occupation, agreeable conversations on any subject, the admiration of their acquaintances, and the adoration of their husbands as well as more graceful actions, pleasing beauty and rational religion because it would open their eyes “to the power and goodness of the Almighty in all his works” (33). So Wright’s “Essay,” written to help pregnant women ease their discomforts and find a good midwife, ends with a somewhat surprising emphasis on the importance of a broad general education for all women.
In addition to her familiarity with Wollstonecraft’s argument in her Vindication, Wright later may have become aware of Wollstonecraft’s personal obstetrical history as well. For interestingly, Wright’s predecessor in the position of matron at the Westminster Lying-In Hospital, Mrs. Blenkinsop, had been a midwife-caregiver who made several prenatal visits to Wollstonecraft during her pregnancy with her second daughter, Mary Shelley, the famous author of the novel Frankenstein and the wife of Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. Mrs. Blenkinsop and Dr. Poignand cared for Wollstonecraft in the postpartum period when she suffered a retained placenta after the birth her daughter. The necessary manual extraction led to hemorrhage and infection, and Wollstonecraft died in 1797, just eleven days after giving birth (Badger 91-92n).
Mary Wollstonecraft’s ideas, however, did not die, but apparently lived on in the midwife Jane Wright, who subsequently encouraged the holistic education of women as part of her midwifery practice.