Updated: Jul 17, 2021
by Elin de Ruyter, Australia
We surely owe much to the memories of our midwife ancestors, who helped birth the people of our small nation of Iceland. These were women and men who placed much strain in their own lives in order to aid women in labour. This was a calling not for the faint of heart or weak of character. They were dedicated, passionate, self-sacrificing women and men who battled the wind and the rain, took on dangerous journeys on foot or by horse over mountains and heaths, or in a boat across turbulent seas. Many times was the exhausted midwife, often a mother to many children of her own, woken in the middle of the night having to leave behind her own household in whatever state it was to tend to the call of the midwife. She was a provider of comfort and relief to women traversing one of life’s rites of passage and miracles - childbirth.
It is with this in mind that I wanted to share the story of my own great-great-grandmother midwife, Guðrún Ljósmóðir 'Þórðardóttir, The First Registered Midwife of Súgandafjörður. She was described as a brown-eyed, rather dark-skinned, energetic woman and was known for her generosity and willingness to help those less fortunate than herself. Not only was she the first educated and registered midwife for the Suðureyrar district in Súgandafjörður in the remote Westfjords of Iceland. She also birthed fourteen of her own children and was a stepmother to an older daughter and son.
Guðrún lived in a time vastly different from our own today. These were the days of old in Iceland, a time when men followed the seasons, not the clock and a women’s sole role in life was to marry and bear her husband children. On average, she would have about eight to ten children in her lifetime. It was a time before electricity and telephones, before paved roads and bridges over fast flowing rivers. This was a time before epidurals and C-sections, a time when a woman couldn't be rushed to the nearest hospital if something wasn't going as planned. It was also a time when it was normal for a woman to give birth at home and her biggest comfort in this uncertain ordeal was her faith in God, her midwife and the natural workings of her own body. In her time, Guðrún would have been called the Icelandic word ‘Ýfirsetukona’, as the word ‘Ljósmóðir’ was not in fact used to describe a midwife until about 1924.
Guðrun Þórðardóttir was born 06 January 1860 at the farm Botn in Suðureyrarhreppur, Ísafjarðarsýsla. She was the eldest child of the local church ‘forsongvari‘ (lead singer), farmer and fisherman, Þórður Þórðarson and his wife Helga Sigurðardóttir. Guðrún was lucky in that she had a stable childhood and was able to grow up in her parents’ household, a turf cottage nestled deep in a windy, rocky valley called Vatnadalur (translated as Water Valley). Helga and Þórður had eight children but lost two sons shortly after their birth and one daughter at the age of two. Parish records for Staðarssókn show that Kristín Þórarinsdóttir was the name of the midwife who delivered Guðrún and all her siblings. She was in fact her father’s aunt, a strong woman who ran her own farm further down the valley where the district church was located at Staður.
I often wonder what Gudrun’s inspiration towards a career in midwifery was but I imagine her great aunt Kristín had a good deal of influence in Guðrún’s life. Kristín had raised Guðrún’s father, Þórður, from a young age and the farm they lived on at Ytri Vatnadalur also belonged to Kristín. She was a wealthy and well-respected woman of the district.
Kristín was an uneducated midwife, meaning that she did not undertake any formal studies to practice midwifery. Prior to 1880 in Súgandafjörður, midwifery skills were often passed down the generations through family or previous midwives. In the late 18th Century, it was traditionally the district priest that named or directed a woman to take on the role of district midwife. They chose women who they felt were sensible, rational, honest, “Þóttu skara fram úr” (Stood out from the rest) and had the most experience. Women who were well educated and trusted were chosen to be a midwife for their area.
Though literacy among Icelanders was high and all children were taught how to read, learning to write was less common and an undervalued skill in women. It was often thought a waste for girls, as was mentioned in the biography of the midwife, Petrea Guðny Gísladóttir, who said that if women took an interest and deemed to ask to learn to write they were given this mocking reply: “þú ert ekki orðin hreppsstjóri enn þá!“ translating as: “You are not a local council chairman yet!”
Coming from a working girl position and becoming a midwife was an attractive option. Midwives were the first women to receive an education and paid wages. It was an occupation that granted respectability and stature among the community. A midwife was paid 3 Krona for prenatal birth and antenatal care and could expect a yearly income of about 40 Krona. As a midwife of the district, she would be her own person/boss and provided housing. It wasn’t until 1911 that Icelandic women were allowed to become Doctors, so becoming a midwife was the closest they could get to this profession.
In 1875, there were new regulations around the education of midwives. It became a requirement that the length of study for midwives change from around six weeks to three months and taken under the supervision of a Landlæknir (Surgeon General) in Reykjavík or a Heraðslæknir (Country Doctor) in one of the following towns: Akureyri, Isafirði, Stykkishólmi or Eskifirði.
Records show that in the winter of 1880, my great-great-grandmother Guðrún went to Ísafjordur and studied midwifery under the Doctor Þorvaldur Jónsson for three months. She would most likely have lived with or near the Doctor’s house, in Ísafjörður during her studies. She sat her midwifery exam on 19 March 1880 at the age of twenty and by June that year, she took on the role of district midwife for the Suðureyri district in Sugandafjörður, her home district. There were thirteen farms in her district. Some farms were on the other side of the fjord, so travel may have been by boat. She most likely walked to and from her patients, as horses were less in these mountainous regions.