Q: At fashion shows, one who sews is invariably referred to as a “seamstress,” though men sometimes do the job. Similarly, one who helps a woman in childbirth is a “midwife” (feminine as in the French sage-femme), though some are men. Any thoughts?
A: The original term for someone who sews was “seamster” (spelled sæmestre, seamystre, semestr, etc., in Old English), and it referred to men as well as women for hundreds of years—until “seamstress” appeared in the 17th century.
As for “midwife,” it’s not a gendered term (unlike its French counterpart, sage-femme). When midwif appeared in Middle English, mid meant “with” and wif meant woman, as we note in a 2016 post. So etymologically “midwife” refers to someone (usually a woman, but not always) who is “with” a woman giving birth. We’ll have more to say about “midwife” later, but first a look at “seamstress.”
The Oxford English Dictionary describes “seamster” as “originally a designation of a woman, but in Old English already applicable to a man.” The earliest OED example, which we’ve expanded, is from a will, dated around 995, in which a woman named Wynflæd beqeathes two female slaves to her granddaughter Eadgyfe:
“Hio becweđ Eadgyfe ane crencestræn and ane semestran” (“She bequeathes to Eadgyfe a weaver and a seamster”). From Codex Diplomaticus Aevi Saxonici (1839-48), edited by John Mitchell Kemble. The term semestran is the accusative (direct object) of seamystre, and crencestræn is the accusative of crencestre.
The first OED citation for “seamstress,” which we’ve expanded, is from a 1643 treatise about the early days of the English Civil War of 1642-51: “a great masse of money and plate, was brought into the Guild-Hall, the Semstresse brought in her silver Thimble, the Chamber maid her Bodkin, the Cook his Spoones” (Twelve Several Treatises, 1661, by James Howell, a supporter of Charles I and Charles II).
Several gender-free nouns have shown up over the years for someone who sews, including “tailor” (1297), “sewer” (1399), “needleworker” (1611), and “sewist” (1867). The dates are the first appearances in the OED.
“Tailor” and “needleworker” refer to someone who sews for business, while “sewist” usually means someone who sews as a hobby. We’ve seen “sewer” used both ways, though some people are reluctant to use it because it’s spelled the same as the conduit for sewage. We wrote a post a few years ago on “sewer” versus “sewist.”
The two of us generally use gender-free occupational nouns (“actor,” “author,” “editor,” etc.) for men and women. But the goal of language is communicating. And we’re willing to make exceptions if the people we’re communicating with expect a gendered term.
So in discussing the winner of the Academy Award for Best Actress, we’d use “actress,” and in talking about a female sewer (pronounced SOH-er) for a fashion show, we’d use “seamstress,” the usual term for a woman who sews professionally.
However, language changes, and these usages may soon go the way of “authoress” and “editrix.” We wrote a post in 2018 about the history of “stewardess” and other “-ess” words.
As for “midwife,” the noun first appeared around 1300 in Middle English as a compound of the Old English mid and wif. The earliest citation in the OED is from a Middle English life, or story, of St. Edmund the Confessor:
“Þe mide-wyues him wolden habbe i-bured, ac þe moder seide euere nay” (“The midwives would have buried him, but the mother said ever nay”). From The Early South-English Legendary (1887), edited by Carl Horstmann, a collection of the lives of saints and other church figures.
Although a “midwife” is usually a woman who helps women give birth, the term has also been used since at least the 17th century in reference to men. The OED says the men were originally referred to as “man-midwives” and “were called on to help female midwives only in cases of difficult births.”
The man-midwives were barber-surgeons who used surgical instruments like forceps “in a desperate attempt to save the life of the birthing woman,” Deanna Pilkenton and Mavis N. Schornon write in “Midwifery: A Career for Men in Nursing,” a February 2008 article on the website of the Vanderbilt University School of Nursing.
The first OED citation for the term is from a play, The Whore of Babylon (1607), by the Elizabethan dramatist Thomas Dekker: “Why they are certaine men-midwiues, that neuer bring people to bed, but when they are sore in labour, that no body els can deliuer them.”
And here’s a description of a difficult 17th-century birth that we’ve found in Aristotle’s Masterpiece: Or, the Secrets of Generation, an anonymous 1694 sex manual:
“In case of Extremity, greater regard must be had than at other times; and first of all, the Situation of the Womb, and her posture of lying, must be cross the Bed, being held by such as have the strength to prevent her from slipping down, or moving her self in the operation of the Man-Midwife, or the Chyrurgeon [surgeon].”
The man-midwife of the 17th century, sometimes referred to as a “forceps man,” was “the predecessor of the obstetrician,” according to Pilkenton and Schornon:
“Female childbirth attendants, largely excluded from educational institutions (and thereby prohibited from using surgical instruments), would remain practicing empirical midwifery. Hence, midwifery and obstetrics would be divided along gender and philosophical lines for many years to come.”
Today, “women have overcome many barriers to practicing medicine and now make up a large proportion of obstetricians,” the authors say, but men now comprise only “a minuscule number” of midwives.