Black midwives working in England – our history and our future

By Felitta Burney-Nicol, senior midwife and midwifery researcher on 20 June 2023 RCM UK Midwifery Equality and Diversity Research England Employment

“Life can only be understood by looking backward; but it must be lived looking forward” - Soren Kierkegaard (1813–1855).

Researcher Felitta Burney-Nicol is conducting an important study to ensure Black midwifery voices are captured, especially Black midwifery leaders, to show Black contribution to the history of the NHS for the next generation. But she needs your help.

Speak to any Black midwife and you will hear about the challenges they have faced. That's certainly been my experience, but I want to understand why - and in particular the complexities of the careers of Black midwives in the NHS, as well as the institutional challenges and enablers that promote or inhibit Black leadership. There are certainly a number of themes I found in the review of the history of Black midwives working in England.

I am a senior midwife currently completing my doctoral research, focusing on the experience of Black midwife leaders working in the NHS. The idea came not only because of my observation of insidious discrimination still present in the workplace but also informed by the evidence suggesting that there is a lack of Black leaders in the NHS at Band 8d and above (Muhaso and Olekanma, 2022; Saifeldeen, 2020; NHS Digital, 2020).

Despite the long history of women working within healthcare in England, the history of Black midwifery is not well documented, and there is often no acknowledgement of the role of British colonial history in the NHS (Muhaso and Olekanma, 2022). My research has been challenging (and painful) as I have found that the writing of the history of Black midwives in England is sparse and, in many areas, we are missing from view.

Indeed, this lack of representation can be attributed to how Black people were viewed and valued at different historical moments. Moreover, as most Black midwives are women, they have often faced a ‘double jeopardy’ of experiencing racial disadvantage through colonialism and experiencing gender segregation and exclusion in medicine (Muhaso and Olekanma, 2022).

Due to the lack of representation of the history of Black midwifery, I have had to borrow from the history and representations of the few Black nurses who are occasionally acknowledged within the history books to learn about their positions in society and the NHS.

Our voices should not be missing from history. We must not allow this to be repeated in the twenty-first century. This is particularly pertinent in 2023 as we celebrate the 75th anniversaries of both the NHS and the arrival of the HMT Windrush to the UK. As Black midwifery leaders, we must take the driving seat in ensuring that we tell our story and record our contribution to the history of the NHS. Now is our opportunity; we must use it for the next generation of Black midwives working in the NHS.

As Maya Angelou said, “You can’t really know where you are going until you know where you have been.” Using our past to inform the present is one of the reasons for conducting this research study, to mark twenty-first-century midwife leaders and their contributions to the NHS in improving our nation’s health. If you are reading this and are a Black senior leader in midwifery (Band 8 and above), I would like to hear about your experiences working in the NHS.

Take part in the study here