Brazen Woman 2004: Elizabeth Davis
Elizabeth Davis had her first child in 1972, during “the dark ages if childbirth.” She had recently witnessed her first homebirth in rural Oregon, that of a friend who birthed by herself (as there were no midwives in the area), and afterwards “did what many women did at that time” and asked this friend to be her midwife. But Elizabeth’s labor began a month early and her friend was not in town, so she ended up going to the hospital. Her husband was not allowed in the delivery room so she birthed alone, strapped down with her hands tied to the delivery table. Despite this treatment and the damaging effect it had on her self-esteem, she still managed to breastfeed and bond strongly with her son, Orion. A few years later, she had a magnificent homebirth with her daughter, Celeste. The years have come full circle, as Celeste just had her own first baby at home in a lovely waterbirth, with Elizabeth catching.
Elizabeth says that she knew before her first child was born that she wanted to be a midwife. The one homebirth she had witnessed clarified that goal. But reluctance to leave her young children and unwillingness to follow the nursing route led her to take her time in pursuing the profession.
Since becoming active in the midwifery community, Elizabeth has contributed greatly to CAM and to midwifery nationwide. Her well-known Heart & Hands course has been the starting point for many of California’s midwives, and her book by the same name is a classic, about to be reprinted in its fourth edition.
Elizabeth’s first major contribution to CAM was the initiation of the CAM certification process. In 1983-85 she was Pacific regional representative to MANA. Other MANA board members prompted her to initiate a certification process, insisting that if California midwives did not take certification into their own hands, the state would come up with something much less desirable. She says she was overwhelmed at this idea, but inspired to look into other progressive licensing processes, and to create something as inclusive as possible so that all kinds of midwives would be interested in participating.
She brought the certification idea to the Bay Area Guild of Midwives, a local sub-group of CAM. Together, they broke the process up into sections such as standards, guidelines of practice, essential skills, and testing. They introduced drafts to each region of CAM for feedback and modification, and the midwives of California approved the process in 1986. That same year, her son John was born.
Another important contribution that Elizabeth made was as consultant for the Alternative Birthing Methods study, legislatively mandated with the intention of laying the ground for legalization of midwifery. Together with the CNM consultant, she demonstrated that direct-entry midwives had clinical experience and study hours equal to or greater than most nurse-midwives in California.
In 1985, Elizabeth was chairwoman of the MANA conference in San Francisco. One of the attendees was MANA’s lawyer, Linda Irenegreene, who had extensive knowledge of both midwifery legislation across the nation and California law. She assisted Elizabeth and others in drafting licensing legislation that would incorporate CAM certification and so represent the values and practices of independent midwives. A bill was created, and Elizabeth and Janice Kalman became co-negotiators at numerous legislative hearings in Sacramento. Together, they were active in amending the hostile “medical board version” of the bill (which was the nurse-midwifery practice act with the word “nurse” taken out) to make it as close as possible to CAM’s original intent. The challenge process is one example of the critical amendments Elizabeth and Janice made.
By 1993, as the idea of national certification became politically viable, Elizabeth called the first national planning and development meeting with the help of NARM. Midwives who were instrumental in passing legislation or certification in their own states joined together in a collaborative process reminiscent of the CAM certification development years before. Midwives around the nation saw CAM’s certification as an outstanding model, and it was used extensively in formulating the CPM process.
By that time Elizabeth was also president of MEAC, which she had co-founded with other members of the National Coalition of Midwifery Educators. “We saw the need for an accrediting body for direct-entry midwifery education,” she said, “so we created one.”
Through this all, Elizabeth continued to teach the Heart & Hands course, now celebrating its 22nd year. She began the series at the request of a group of doulas interested in gaining skills and becoming midwives. Student interest has only grown over the years, and in 1996, she and Shannon Anton founded the Midwifery Institute of California (now the National Midwifery Institute, Inc.), dedicated to preserving the apprenticeship model of education and incorporating the Heart & Hands course. NMI was approved by the CA medical board as a route to licensure in 2003.
Her role as educator has expanded over the years from lecturing at national conferences to international appearances. One example of her international work can be found in Hungary, which just reinstated midwifery into its national health care policy. She is honored to have been named Academic Director of their first direct-entry midwifery school, which has modeled its program after NMI. Elizabeth says that the more she travels, the more she sees that, “ California is at the leading edge of an international midwifery movement…What we create at this time in history will make or break the midwifery model. It is not enough just to have schools; it is about the kind of students that emerge from these schools. Will they be midwives or technicians?
Elizabeth sees her midwifery teaching as “…part of a broader objective: a desire for social change, for re-establishing the central role of the family and women’s leadership in every aspect of our culture, for deepening our connection to nature and the cycles of life.” She says she loves teaching because she loves getting women excited about the power of their bodies and watching them become aware of how culture and politics have suppressed this power.
Elizabeth is very grateful to be named a Brazen Woman. She says that it “means so much to be recognized by all of my sisters here where it all began. Once upon a time in 1978, I was an illegal midwife in San Francisco, scared to death but determined, and completely dependent upon the identity I received from CAM, the sense that women through out the state were doing the same.”
CAM celebrates the hard work and dedication of the awardee in midwifery activism. In no way should this award be construed as a determination of the midwife's skill nor as a recommendation to use her services.