A Midwife’s Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary, 1785-1812. Laurel Thatcher Ulrich (1990).
A Midwife’s Tale is divided up into ten chapters, each focused on a specific aspect of Martha Ballard’s life, and the corresponding diary entries. Ballard’s accounts are so rich in material that “the problem is not that the diary is trivial but that it introduces more stories than can easily be recovered and absorbed” (25). So much of Thatcher Ulrich’s writing seems to connect to other readings that we have done as part of our blog; it is easy to make connections to Home and Work, to Good Wives, Nasty Wenches, and Anxious Patriarchs, to Revolutionary Backlash, to Damned Women, and especially Revolutionary Conceptions.
Several aspects of Martha Ballard’s diary stand out to me, but I am afraid I can only address a couple of them. In the first chapter, Thatcher Ulrich sets out to define the circles that a midwife would have fit into; something that became increasingly important as professionalization of medicine began to gain momentum in the early nineteenth century. Labeling Martha Ballard and her sister midwives as “social healers” Thatcher Ulrich takes the concepts which we have seen used to define early American economy and community by authors such as Boydston, and applies that to the craft of the midwife. It is important to define the place in the community that a midwife would have held, as Martha Ballard and Thatcher Ulrich make clear her only job was not to deliver babies; a midwife was expected to treat the ill, provide herbal medications, ensure safe delivery of children, help prepare the bodies of the dead, observe autopsies, and of course maintain her own home and garden. These expectations of the midwife would not have been fruitful if there wasn’t a social support system in place to assist her; hired helpers, daughters, nieces, neighbors, and even occasionally husbands or other men from the community would be called upon for assistance to ensure the success of the midwife. Thatcher Ulrich stresses that Martha Ballard’s experiences were not exceptional and that she was, “one among many women with acknowledged medical skills. Furthermore, her strengths were sustained by a much larger group of casual helpers” (62). This revelation (perhaps too strong a word) gives much more importance to the practice of calling on neighbors; in order to maintain the social network and bonds that were needed to keep her successful, a midwife (or really any woman during that time) would have had to maintain her relationships with as many of her neighbors as she could so that she would be confident in her ability to call on them for help. As I was reading this I kept thinking back to the ways that these social calls were portrayed in period dramas, Anne of Green Gables (1985) stood out to me. Rachel Lynde is the pesky neighbor who is always seen calling on Marilla Cuthbert in the 1985 version, and Rachel is portrayed as a bit of an overbearing, nosey neighbor who is determined to interfere in the Cuthbert’s affairs. The 2017 version of Anne of Green Gables however shows a more realistic relationship between Marilla and Rachel; Rachel comes to help Marilla with canning, and the share a friendship that works to highlight both the solitude of housekeeping in the late 18th and early 19th century, but also the important bonds that women shared through helping each other with larger tasks. This is the invisible work that Boydston argued allowed for the survival and success of the community.
The other aspect that I would like to focus on is the breadth of sources that Thatcher Ulrich pulled from to create this book. She clearly spent a lot of time working on reading and transcribing parts of Martha Ballard’s diary, but she also used the diaries of several men from the town, court documents, county and state census data, store ledgers, and personal correspondence when she could find it to pull Martha Ballard’s life from the shelf and give her story to the world. I readily admit that I am jealous of how many sources Thatcher Ulrich was able to compile for this project, as I continue to struggle to find personal letters and diaries of the women who I would like to write about. I would be curious to know how much time she spent on her research before she was able to piece together a firs
t draft. However jealous I am of her source material, I do recognize that it is Thatcher Ulrich’s ability to weave it together in a compelling narrative that not only made this such a powerful book for me to read, but won her the Pulitzer.
Thatcher Ulrich closes the book with Martha Ballard’s death in 1812 at the age of 77 by saying this:
Her restraint in recording the sins of her neighbors, her humility in acknowledging her own, her charitableness, even her martyrdom and self-pity, were molded by this ethic of caring. But unlike the thousands of midwives and ordinary Christians who have always lived by these standards, Martha Ballard ensured that she would not be forgotten… To celebrate such a life is to acknowledge the power—and poverty—of written records (342-343).
I am so happy that I read this book, not just because of the wealth of information that it provided me, but also for the insight into the life of eighteenth century women. I do not think this level of insight would have been possible without having her own words available to us.
It might be clear that I really liked the newer deeper version of the tale of Anne Shirley, here is a link to the trailer:
Trailer for Anne of Green Gables on Netflix: http://www.slate.com/blogs/browbeat/2017/04/04/trailer_for_netflix_s_anne_of_green_gables_series_from_moira_walley_beckett.html
This is an excellent documentary from the BBC on British homes. The documentaries demonstrate exactly how much work was put into “everyday” tasks such as cooking and cleaning. No wonder Martha Ballard would rather have the girls do the washing!
Lucy Worsley If Walls Could Talk “bedrooms”