In honour of Women’s History Month and International Women’s day on the 8th March, this month’s blog post covers the life and work of midwife and women’s rights campaigner Rosalind Paget. The post also provides a glimpse into Paget’s papers from the archives of the Royal College of Midwives.
Nurse, midwife and tireless campaigner for the Royal College of Midwives, Dame Rosalind Paget was born on 4th January 1855 at Greenbank, Liverpool. Paget entered the Westminster Hospital at the age of twenty to train as a nurse and there, under the disciple of Florence Nightingale, she obtained her nursing qualification. She went later to work at the London Hospital (1882–1884), before training as a midwife at Endell Street Lying-in Hospital and gaining the diploma of the London Obstetrical Society in January 1885.
Although Rosalind Paget returned to the London Hospital, where she worked for some years, her main interest lay in the reform of midwifery. In 1886 she was taken by Miss Freeman, matron at the British Lying-in Hospital, to her first meeting of the Matron’s Aid Society, soon to be renamed the Midwives’ Institute (now known as the Royal College of Midwives). She agreed to join only if there was a ‘Midwives Club and lectures and a library … Next day I was asked to help them organise one’.
From then on Rosalind Paget’s energetic leadership helped to turn a small society with limited aims into a centre of midwifery reform. At that time the word ‘midwife’ was hardly mentioned in polite society and the majority of midwives received little or no training. Rosalind, and the other leaders of the institute, helped to give respectability to midwifery on a national level and sought to obtain better education and training for them. Together they fought to raise the status of midwifery as an area of women’s work, to instil a sense of professionalism, pride and public service into midwives, and at the same time to improve the conditions under which women gave birth.
Paget held the post of Honorary Treasurer of the Midwives Institute from 1890 to 1930. There she used her wide circle of social and professional connections to push forward the cause of midwifery reform and to give financial support to the institute. She also took rooms so that the institute would have a permanent headquarters (for meetings, a club, and a library, just as she had wanted) and she organised lectures on midwifery by some of the most prestigious medical names of the day. In 1887 she was instrumental in founding the Midwives Institute’s journal Nursing Notes, (later Midwives’ Chronicle), and, with Emma Brierly, edited it for many decades. She was also one of the founders of what later became the Chartered Society of Physiotherapy.
During the 1890s Paget, along with her friend and RCM President Edith Pye, played an active role in the campaign for midwife registration, giving evidence in 1892 to the select committee on midwifery. A bill for the registration of midwives was introduced into the House of Commons in 1890, but although England in this respect lagged behind most other European countries, the measure was continually rejected, mainly because it was considered an unnecessary restriction of individual liberty.
In some quarters the advent of trained midwives was felt to be an encroachment not only upon the friendly services of neighbours but also upon the medical profession. Rosalind Paget knew that poor women could not in any case afford medical attention and insisted that it was wholly advantageous for the midwife to be trained and supervised.
Finally in 1902 the Midwives Act provided for the registration of midwives, made it an offence for anyone not properly certificated to describe herself, or practise, as a midwife, and established the Central Midwives’ Board.
Paget was a member of the board from 1902 to 1924 as a representative of The Queen Victoria Jubilee Institute for Nurses, which had been established to promote district nursing and midwifery services throughout the country. She had a long association with the institute; in 1890 she was appointed as its first chief officer and, although she resigned from this position in 1891, she continued as a member of the council, with special responsibility for midwifery.
The Midwives Act, coupled with a growing interest by policy makers in the health and welfare of babies, meant an increased workload for Paget. She frequently represented the institute at official enquiries and conferences and acted as an effective lobbyist on behalf of midwives whenever proposals for legislation (such as the 1911 National Insurance Act) appeared to affect their position. She also sought to maintain the importance of the independent midwife, although this became increasingly difficult in the inter-war years, when midwives’ earnings were too low to attract well-qualified recruits.
Paget always had a close personal and intellectual relationship with the contemporary women’s movement and helped to maintain links between the Midwives Institute and groups such as the Women’s Liberal Federation and the National Union of Women Workers, often giving papers at their conferences. She was a strong supporter of women’s suffrage and urged all members of the institute to take part in suffrage demonstrations; in July 1908 she led twenty members in a suffrage procession under the banner of Florence Nightingale.
Paget believed that women’s lack of a vote meant that they were unable to influence policy making and saw the suffrage as the first step in enabling women to ‘help forward social, moral and economic reforms’, in particular those relating to ‘the healthy upbringing and proper education of the children whose care is admittedly their special sphere’ (Nursing Notes, July 1908 issue).
Despite all this, Rosalind Paget refused all recognition of her services until 1935 when she was appointed a DBE (Dame Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire). She died at the age of ninety-three at her home in Bolney, Sussex on 19th August 1948.
(Text adapted from the catalogue of the Archives of the Royal College of Midwives)