A Tale Worth Telling
by Jochen S. Arndt
A Midwife's Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary, 1785-1812 By Laurel Thatcher Ulrich
In her book A Midwife's Tale (1991), Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, a specialist in American women's and social history, invites readers to explore the life and world of Martha Moore Ballard, a midwife and healer in the community of Hallowell, Maine, at the turn of the nineteenth century. With the help of her subject's unpublished two-volume diary and an array of other source material, Ulrich skillfully recreates Martha's life for the twenty-seven year period covered by the diary. However, this is not simply the story of a woman's life, reconstructed through her diary, but rather a recreation of the larger world in which the character of this study lived. By using Martha's life as a touchstone, Ulrich paints a new picture of pre-industrial America. In particular, she highlights the long-term role of midwives in providing medical care and women's crucial contributions to the economic survival of families in early New England society. Moreover, with A Midwife's Tale, Ulrich compels readers to question traditional methods for historical reconstruction, potentially opening new venues for scholarly pursuits.
Martha Moore Ballard was not simply a woman; she was also a midwife, a healer, a mother of nine children, and a wife. Martha began her diary in 1785 when she was fifty years old. She made her last entry on May 7, 1812, three weeks before she died. For a 9,965-day period, Martha left a personal record of her daily activities and chores, her frustrations and blessings, in short, of her life and, indirectly, of the world that surrounded her.
A Midwife's Tale follows the chronology of Martha's diary. The book's ten chapters cover the years from 1785 to 1812 of Martha's work-filled life. Her daily chores - delivering babies, nursing the sick, helping neighbors, keeping house, raising children, supervising household servants, and gardening - are central to the story of the book. However, Ulrich skillfully uses the "repetitive dailiness" of Martha's diary entries as a point of departure for exploring broader themes in social history. These themes fall into the categories of labor and economy (e.g. neighborly cooperation), healthcare and medicine (e.g. the rivalry between midwifery and obstetrics), sexuality and marriage (e.g. premarital pregnancies), small-town politics and piety (e.g. religious change), as well as aging (e.g. passage of authority from one generation to the next).
In addition to these themes, Ulrich's chapters focus on important events that interrupted the steadiness of Martha's life and highlight the friction that accompanied social change in pre-industrial America. For example, Ulrich explores the scarlet fever epidemic which ravaged the Hallowell community in 1787, the alleged rape of a minister's wife by a prominent local citizen, the medical dissection of the corpse of a neighbor's son, the unruliness of household servants, the attack of Martha's husband by backwoods squatters, the inexplicable mass murder of a local family, and the confinement of her eighty-year-old husband in debtor's prison. Her choice of themes and events ties in nicely with well-known transformations in American society, such as the rise of obstetrics, the decline of family-based industries, economic upheavals, and the decline of patriarchal power, and thus provides readers with snapshots of that changing world.
In order to make the diary more accessible for the modern reader, Ulrich combines transcribed unabridged passages from Martha's diary with her own interpretation of the meaning of these entries in every chapter. This framework allows for a glimpse at Ulrich's methodology for historical reconstruction and her ability to deduce wider meaning from apparently mundane diary entries. This is an important accomplishment since earlier historians have seemingly failed to grasp the relevance of Martha's unpublished diary and classified much of her writing as "trivial and unimportant."
Ulrich's book disproves these assessments and forces us to reevaluate the historiographic paradigms for judging historical source material. She succeeds in dispelling the myth of irrelevance by casting a wider net for collecting her sources, asking new questions, and working with the diligence, tenacity, and patience of a historical detective. In fact, it is through the systematic analysis of the diary and consultation of non-mainstream sources, such as maps, wills and tax lists, deeds and court records, town-meeting minutes and medical treatises, as well as novels and religious tracts, that Ulrich penetrates the "repetitious dailiness" of Martha's diary (that had frustrated earlier historians) and reaches the subplots that relate to larger questions in social history. "…Read in the broader context of the diary and in relation to larger themes in eighteenth-century history," Ulrich suggests, "[the stories in the diary] can be extraordinarily revealing."
She argues convincingly that a systematic dissection of Martha's diary forces us to reassess some commonly held beliefs about women's roles in society. Specifically, Ulrich urges the reader to consider two revisionist conclusions: First, while conventional historical sources suggest that the obstetrical revolution was complete in New England by 1787, Martha's diary entries indicate that midwives were the key providers of medical care as well as being the principal resource when it came to childbirth. Secondly, while most sources suggest that women's economic role was limited to their own households, the diary reveals how women and men cooperated to ensure the economic well-being of their community. In addition, Ulrich argues that Martha's diary, unlike those of her male counterparts of the period, gives us new insights into women's lives by highlighting the issues that dominated their existence, such as marriage, sexuality, childbirth, work, illness, aging, and death. Finally, she urges us to use A Midwife's Tale as a starting point to reassess the social history of the period. "[Martha's] story," Ulrich claims, "allows us to see what was lost, as well as what was gained, in the political, economic, and social transformations of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries."
Ulrich's conclusions are thought-provoking and fit in nicely with what has been called "new women's history" (the attempt to re-examine the social relations of the sexes, to question historical generalizations, and to reconfigure the historical narrative). However, the narrow foundation that a single, personal account provides may not be adequate to support some of the broader conclusions Ulrich makes. In fact, in order to move beyond Ulrich's micro-history, we need more studies like A Midwife's Tale. For the period between 1780 and 1830, there exist more than eighty known women's diaries for the New England region alone (see the bibliography of Nancy F. Cott, The Bonds of Womanhood, 1977). Thus, Martha's diary may not be as rare as the author suggests, and historians should have plenty of starting points for similar studies.
Nevertheless, Ulrich's arguments are compelling and presented in an engaging narrative that should appeal to both general and specialist readers. Her written prose kindles the imagination, allowing us to envision Martha as "she crossed the river" then "pushed through ice" and "mounted a horse" in order to reach a woman in travail. At other times, Ulrich's narrative provides powerful metaphors for life near the advancing frontier: "Ephraim's mill was a ram against the wilderness, an engine for transforming woods into towns." Yet, Ulrich acknowledges the centrality of Martha's words by quoting frequently from the diary. This gives Ulrich's narrative authenticity and immediacy, and lends credibility to her conclusions. Readers who are interested in a visual interpretation of Martha Ballard's life may want to watch the 1997 PBS documentary American Experience: A Midwife's Tale. Director Richard P. Rogers used Ulrich's book as the blueprint for this documentary and included interviews with the author to explore her methodology for reconstructing Martha's life and the world around her.
In A Midwife's Tale, Ulrich presents revisionist and compelling arguments in an engaging style. Yet, Ulrich does more than that. She provides an important historiographic message: although historical archives tend to focus on men rather than women, on the extraordinary rather than the ordinary, historians should think critically and creatively when engaging in historical reconstruction. She encourages us to uncover the invisible. How can this be done? Ulrich's work suggests that we need to ask new questions (Who is invisible in a society and why?); we need to cast our net wider when looking for relevant historical sources (and consult non-mainstream sources such as wills, tax lists, deeds, court records, and town-meeting minutes); we need to be diligent, systematic, and patient with our sources (it took Ulrich eight years to research and write the book); and we need to question the conclusions of our predecessors in the historical profession, in order to move forward our understanding of the past. A Midwife's Tale succeeds on all these levels and should serve as a benchmark for future work in women's and social history.
Cott, Nancy F. The Bonds of Womanhood, "Women's Sphere" in New England, 1780- 1835. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1977.
Kerber, Linda K., and Jane Sherron De Hart, eds. Women's America: Refocusing the Past. 3rd Ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991.
Ulrich, Laurel Thatcher. A Midwife's Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary, 1785-1812. New York: Vintage Books, 1991.
Other Works Consulted:
Heidler, David S. and Jeanne T. Daily Life in the Early American Republic, 1790-1820. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1994.
James, Janet Wilson. Changing Ideas about Women in the United States, 1776-1825. New York: Garland Publishing, 1981.