Diary of Althea Simms

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Clips from an interview with Elizabeth Austin, midwife

women in the community

Althea Simms (1898-1992) from Fogo Island recorded the life cycle of her community in her daily diary, tallying up the numbers of births, deaths and marriages when she came to the end of each year. It is not surprising that Althea might reflect on arrivals, departures and rites of passage as the old year came to a close. It was the women of the community who mobilized after the death of a neighbour; prepared a home at the onset of labour; and scrubbed the church before the wedding took place.

Women very often took on the role of health care provider, whether they worked as nurses in institutions within the community or independently as a midwife. In communities with no doctor, the midwife's role grew to include administering all forms of health care.

A flurry of baking and food preparation preceded each event—the kitchen and cooking being the woman's domain. In addition to the major life occasions, there were community-wide social happenings throughout the calendar year. Some celebrations took place annually, like parades, and religious observations while other gatherings, like nightly card games, were more spontaneous.


The church was the cornerstone of community life in coastal towns and most of the large social gatherings took place within its walls and grounds. Before and after all of this activity the church would need to be cleaned, and this duty also fell to the women of the community. The women who belonged to the congregation of a particular church would keep it dusted and mopped weekly, with at least one thorough cleaning a year. There were volunteer groups associated with each denomination and women were expected to participate in member activities.

making hayChristmas was a particularly busy time of year both in the home and church. The house needed to be cleaned and ready for unexpected visitors—mostly mummers dropping by in costume, expecting a bite to eat and a mug of tea. There were also family dinners and church events to prepare for which meant long hours spent baking in the kitchen. And, of course, the women were not excluded from the mumming, so it was important to keep her evenings free so that she might don a costume and join her family in their tour around the community.

Whether it was a wedding, funeral, parade or picnic, the women were the keepers of the social calendar.