A Social Healer

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.

Image of Martha Ballard’s Diary

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”


A Woman in the Periphery

A Woman in the Periphery

Our Nig, Or, Sketches from the Life of A Free Black, In a Two-Story House, North Showing That Slavery’s Shadows Fall Even There. Harriet Wilson (1859).

Harriet Wilson begins her autobiography with a poem for her mother:

            Oh, Grief beyond all other griefs, when fate

First leaves the young hear lone and desolate

In the wide world, without that only tie

For which it loved to live or feared to die;

Lorn as the hung-up lute, that ne’er hath spoken

Since the sad day its master-chord was broken!

Moore. (page 1).

Typically, I would leave poems, or other headings out of a response, but this poem set the tone for the rest of the book. I was unsure what Our Nig was going to be like, I had read that it was a response to Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and that it compliments Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl well. There are parts to Wilson’s prose which bring to mind these other works, as well as the writings of Sojourner Truth and even seduction novels. Frado is the protagonist who is abandoned by her white mother and black step-father at the Bellmont estate at the age of seven.  The Bellmonts took Frado in as an indentured servant, and began to refer to her as “Nig”.  The story recounts the ways that Frado survived her time as the Bellmont’s servant, and the abuse that she received at their hands and the hands of northern antebellum society. Wilson emphasized the similarities between her treatment and the treatment of slaves, not just in physical labor and abuse but also in the restrictions on her behavior (not sitting down to eat) and her travels (restrictions on school or church attendance). Wilson successfully highlights the failures of indentured servitude in the U.S. After Frado turned 18 and was freed from her contract she became ill and had to rely on the community for support while she was ill and recovering. Seeking out the Bellmonts, who she believed owed her some assistance for her years of service, resulted in Frado being insulted and turned out.

Wilson’s story is a bit difficult to get through despite its brevity. The timeline is muddled, and there is no concrete way of knowing where Frado is living based on the evidence provided within the story. The only reason the audience understands that it takes place in the north is because Wilson puts it into the title. The account of Mag, Frado’s mother, is equally confusing. I thought that Mag was a free Black woman until she married Frado’s father and Wilson brought up how demeaning it was for a white woman to marry a free Black man. The book gained much more narrative power as I researched the life of Harriet Wilson. Wilson is credited as the first Black author to self-publish a book in the U.S., though this is a contentious claim. Wilson based Frado’s life on her own; Wilson’s mother was an Irish washerwoman and her father was a free Black man who worked as a Hooper. Wilson was also orphaned as a young child and forced to work as an indentured servant in a New England home. Wilson’s life was lived almost entirely in the periphery; she was a woman born of a mixed-race marriage, she was working in servitude in a time of slavery, and yet she never conformed to the expectations of her gender or race.

Statue of Harriet Wilson


Here is the transcript of an interview with Henry Louis Gates who rediscovered Our Nig in 1982 (interview was 2002): http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/entertainment-july-dec02-gates_07-23/

Here is a brief bio on Harriet Wilson (and the source for the image of her statue): http://www.harrietwilsonproject.net/harriet-wilson-.html

Here is the book electronically through the University of Virginia http://utc.iath.virginia.edu/africam/ournighp.html

Gender and Culture Shift in Native Life

Cherokee Women: Gender and Culture Change, 1700-1835.  Theda Perdue (1998)

Cherokee Women: Gender and Culture Change, 1700-1835 explores the ways that Cherokee culture changed as white Americans (colonists and later citizens) pushed westward through Cherokee country. Theda Perdue successfully proves her thesis; “in the eighteenth century women may have become more secure in some roles—as farmers and as socializers of children, for example—and in the nineteenth century, Cherokees incorporated aspects of Anglo-American culture into their lives without fundamentally altering values or totally restructuring gender (9).” To prove this, Perdue provides the reader with a foundational understanding of the way that Cherokees understood gender, and gender roles- as actions and fulfillment of social roles. By beginning the book with the tale of Selu and her role as corn-goddess, and earth mother, Perdue gives us a baseline for what we believe traditional gender roles and responsibilities would have been for Cherokee women. In following the changing economic and political world that the Cherokees found themselves immersed in at the end of the eighteenth century the audience can begin to fully grasp the breadth of changes that were beginning to occur in Cherokee lives.

Statue of Selu on The Corn Mother’s Temple


It is crucial to highlight that Perdue doesn’t claim that gender roles, or women, were unchanging over time; rather she emphasized the ways in which women adapted traditional gendered expectations to allow their culture to survive. Perhaps the most detrimental to female autonomy, because of the changing economic and political atmosphere, was the decline of the matrilineal clan as the center of Cherokee life. When life was centered around the clan, and family, women would have held significant power over resources, and relationships; as the focus of life began to shift towards an Anglo-American ideal of domesticity the Cherokee women began to lose their authority. In contrast, Cherokee men began to value individual wealth and property as part of the adoption of Anglo-American culture, which put them in a position of power over their children- something that Perdue argues they would have not had before this shift in economic power. I found it fascinating that Perdue provided examples of both how this was embraced by fathers, and how this acculturation was not universal as many maternal uncles or mothers continued to be the primary authority over the lives of children.


This new shift in cultural and economic power resulted in many Cherokee children being sent to missionary schools so that they would be able to succeed in this new society. In my undergraduate work, I read excerpts from Zitkála-Sa’s, American Indian Stories (1921), in which Zitkala-Sa describes the missionary school experience, and the struggle of living in two separate cultures simultaneously. When initially setting out to read Cherokee Women, I expected to see similarities between Perdue’s research and Zitkala-Sa’s anecdotal writing; however, Perdue’s discussion of cultural genocide which the Cherokee found themselves facing that made Zitkala-Sa’s writing, and Perdue’s, much more effective and powerful. I found Perdue’s exploration of the missionary school perhaps the most fascinating part of the book, likely because of my previous readings on it. I had not realized that the schools depended so heavily on parental cooperation for continuing operations—something that Zitkala-Sa does not go into. I would like to find some more readings that look at how the children managed to straddle the two distinct cultures- or even refused to submit to the missionary school’s codes of conduct.

Zitkala-Sa (Red Bird) was Lakota and wrote extensively in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Daniel Richter’s Facing East from Indian Country: A Native History of Early America (2001), is considered crucial to reexamining the history of the United States as Richter shifts the focus out towards the non-native world, from the Native “center” of the narrative. Perdue managed to do this before Richter through incorporating firsthand accounts by Native individuals, and weaving them in with Cherokee religion to build a tangible world in which the women she is studying lived in. In addition to shifting the focus of the narrative, Perdue created a piece of work that is crucial to any discussion of Cherokee life with her discussion of gender and social structure. While my counterparts each wrote about specific pieces of the book which they felt were most important to Perdue’s thesis, I think that it is her definition of gender in Cherokee life, and how it shifted along with internal and external forces that is the most important (and interesting) addition to the historiographic discussion of native life, and gender history.

Quick Read: The Handmaid’s Tale

The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood (1986)

Most of our blog posts and reading discussions focus on scholarly works, and books that relate directly to our research. This one however is a book that I read for fun (it can happen in Grad school). I am starting a new section on the blog, which hopefully we can update semi-regularly, called “Quick Read” that will feature books that we read outside of our usual workload. These books shouldn’t take too long to read, and we will give you our opinion on them with less in-depth analysis than our usual posts/discussions.

I picked up a copy o Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale through my Kindle Unlimited subscription (not an advertisement) because it offered free audio with it, and I was supposed to not read anything until I was cleared by my doctor after a major car accident. The story is set in a dystopian America, where women are essentially divided by class and procreative ability. Atwood successfully created a fictional, yet poignant exploration of female power and empowerment, through the account of “Offred” and her placement as a Handmaid- essentially a concubine- in the home of a prominent member of the ruling party. The Handmaid’s Tale is reminiscent of The Giver (Lois Lowry), 1984 (George Orwell), and Aeon Flux (Peter Chung). The protagonist, Offred, struggles to cope with the collapse of 1980s America, and her new position as a femme covert in the new theocracy. One cannot read this without thinking about how Atwood was influenced by Nazi Germany and the idea of an Aryan race. Perhaps most frighteningly is the relevance to modern discussions of separation of church and state, xenophobia, women’s rights, and religious freedom.

In a world where women must be covered head to toe in appropriate colors to display their rank and role in society; where women must act only to please God and the head of their household, Offred is able to find glimpses of happiness. This makes her question if her life as a femme covert is better than her life of “freedom”, responsibility, and worry that accompany modern life. I think that this is the most important part of the book for our purposes on this blog. Oftentimes as historians, or modern Americans, we look at societies that have cultural practices similar to those described in The Handmaid’s Tale and we wonder why women would stay in a world like that, a world where they cannot ow property, be allowed to read, and must by covered from the eyes of men. Atwood successfully, I think, examines some of the temptation to stay in a life like that. Though in the end Offred attempts to escape her life as Handmaid so that she can exercise control over her own body.

This was a quick (311 pages) and interesting read that I think helps expand our understanding of women’s rights and empowerment. It is no wonder that this book has resurfaced as a must-read.


Searching for Domesticity in Whaling New England

Captain Ahab Had A Wife: New England Women and the Whalefishery, 1720-1870. Lisa Norling (2000)

In her lengthy examination of New England women and their lives in the whaling community, Lisa Norling argues that these women thrived within the whaling world by embracing the Victorian ideals of female domesticity.  Norling is faced with a difficult task, attempting to find a path to understanding women in a historically “man’s world”.  To rise to the challenge, Norling utilizes diaries, correspondence, and ledgers to find the women who inhabited this world. The problem with this approach, and one which I struggle with in much of my research, is that the historical records only allow us to examine women through the men to whom they were attached. I cannot claim to have an alternative approach to studying women during this period, but I do think that it is important to acknowledge this shortfall in the historical record within the analysis of the materials. Indeed, this approach further limited Norling’s study to “prominent” Quaker and then New England families, a group more likely than poor families to want to project the ideals of Domesticity.

Wrestling with the ways that Victoria domesticity could work within a whaling community results in Norling tracing the New England whaling economy nearly from inception on colonial Nantucket through the 19th century. I thought that the organization of the book, while important to laying the foundation for an understanding of New England Whaling practices and economy that shaped the world in which these women lived was separate from the main argument about domesticity. In fact, this exposition shifts the focus of much of the book onto the practice of Paternalism within New England and Fishing communities in the 18th and 19th centuries. Understanding that women, and communities, depended on paternalism to survive when such a large part of the population was gone for increasing lengths of time is crucial to understanding the roles that women had to step into, but almost half of each chapter is devoted to reviewing the state of paternalism at that point in time. The relevance to Norling’s overarching argument that Victorian ideals of domesticity were successful, are confused by the extensive discussion of paternalism and its intricacies. As Norling’s study goes further into the 19th century and the paternalism system continues to break down, women were forced to expand their roles as substitute husbands and breadwinners, at a time when Victorian Domesticity were at an all time high. The new ideals of femininity and masculinity become subverted according to Norling during this time:

For centuries a supply of firewood had been a basic necessity of life, one of the essentials granted by New England towns to their indigent and often specified as part of widows’ portions. Henry Beetle’s inability to provide his wife [who was according to her letters chopping wood herself] and child with the means to acquire wood seemed to stand for his failure as his family’s sole support and thereby, with the new definition of masculinity and femininity, challenged his very manhood. The image of Eliza outside, swinging an ax and hewing wood, seems to have upset Henry’s notions of female delicacy and dependence. (Norling 163)

This raises the question, should we emphasis that Domesticity was an ideal, and not a reality for most women during the 19th century?

Norling’s argument continues to become muddied with her consideration of the many ways that women were forced to find employment or income during the absences of their men. Norling suggests that this is offset by the romantic symbolism and epistolary writings found in the correspondence between whaling men and their wives. Norling’s use of select letters, I believe, romanticizes the relationships of these individuals. I appreciated her inclusion of letters from women detailing their struggles, and their frustrations with being left ashore with families to care and provide for, but would have liked to hear more about how frequently these letters are found in the trove of letters that Norling has explored. This frustration seems to provide a more realistic glimpse of Victorian life (as a mother today I could relate), but I think she could have used more analysis on them to reveal the reality of the world of a Whaling Wife, rather than reinforcing the Victorian idea that women wanted to be perceived as the center of romance and the home.

I don’t want to deter from the overall importance of Norling’s work. I think it is a crucial book and a fascinating read. My task for this post was to look at the success of Norling’s argument, and I am unsure that I can answer definitively that it was a successful argument. I keep returning to questions posed on Amber and Michelle’s posts for Captain Ahab Had A Wife,  How does this reliance on domesticity and separate sphere hamper Norling’s argument, and Does reading backwards preordain the conclusion? I think that Norling utilized the ideal of separate spheres for men and women, and domesticity to propel her historical narrative, but the reliance on these two (now) shaky foundational ideas of 18th and 19th century life reveal a conclusion that I don’t think fully can withstand further research or analysis.

Postscript: This is the first analysis (and even extensive writing) that I have done since I sustained a mild brain injury ending my semester early and unexpectedly. I will be posting several more posts in the next few weeks as I attempt to finish my semester work.

Summer Reading List!

Summer is upon us, and that means fun in the sun and a summer reading list!

Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, A Midwife’s Tale (Sarah)

Martha Hodes, A Sea Captain’s Wife (Amber)

Lori Ginzberg, Untidy Origins (Michelle)

Harriet Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (Amber)

Jean Fagan Yellin, Harriet Jacobs: A Life (Michelle)

Harriet E. Wilson, Our Nig (Sarah)

Frederick Douglass’s three autobiographies: Narratives in the Life of Frederick Douglass (1845), The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (1881), and My Bondage and my Freedom (1855)

All three of us will be reading:

Bonnie Laughlin Schultz, The Tie that Bound Us: The Women of John Brown’s Family

Leigh Fought, Women in the World of Frederick Douglass

Be on the lookout for our reviews and possibly a discussion or two soon.

We would love more reading recommendations, so feel free to leave a comment or send us an email.

Hope you have a safe and wonderful summer!

Sex Sells: Then as Now

The Murder of Helen Jewett Patricia Cline Cohen (1998)

In her book, The Murder of HIMG_1077elen Jewett, Patricia Cline Cohen reexamined the sensational murder of a young woman, Helen Jewett, in a New York brothel in 1836. Cohen skillfully incorporated the evidence of the murder, evidence not included in the trial, and her experience as a historian of Antebellum America. The Murder of Helen Jewett is a crossroads for the new American experience in the post-revolutionary world; the growth of urbanization, the new “sporting male” culture, and the ideal of the respectable middle class white woman all intersect in the case of Helen Jewett in a manner that makes this book a fascinating microhistory of New York City in the 1830s. Once again, we divided up our reading by section. I will be responding to the last third of the book (chapters 13-Epilogue), which deals primarily with the trial of Richard Robinson, and correspondence from Robinson that was left out of the trial.

Unlike our last reading, Strangers and Pilgrims, Cohen’s narrative is not easy to separate from itself due largely to the fact that the historical characters are well developed and Cohen’s examination of them reveals motivations for their behavior to the reader. In chapter thirteen, “Blowing Up”, Cohen examines letters between Jewett and her suspected murderer, Richard Robinson. With her close analysis of the writing, Cohen attempts to prove that Robinson was in fact the culprit in Jewett’s murder by emphasizing the volatile personal relationship between the two. This is evidenced when speculating about Robinson’s premediated crime “… these last two [letters] sound like the prologue to the weekend of April 9, when Helen Jewett was murdered. The sweet and all-consuming love of 1835 had degenerated into mutual threats and recriminations in 1836” (286). Cohen’s examination of their correspondence forces her audience to question if the letters had been admitted as evidence in the trial, would Robinson have been convicted of the murder? This is a question that I am not sure of, because of the way the defense used the importance of respectability in Antebellum society both to tear down Jewett’s status in society, and to reinforce the probability of Robinson’s innocence.

In modern trials, particularly ones in which the victim may not have the purest life possible, often the victim is blamed in part for the actions taken against them. By putting the victim on trial the defense can move the blame from the accused to the deceased, which is what is seen in the trial of Richard Robinson. “And how many beds do you have in your room? A defense attorney asked [Rosina Townsend] at the trial; ‘But one,’ she replied. In such small ways,” Cohen argues “the lawyers managed to hint at a brothel’s true business without raising indelicate questions about sexual services” (293). This tactic reinforced the ideal of white female purity, and emphasized Jewett’s lack of, while also including the jury in the “respectable” tier of society which Robinson belonged to. This respectable tier of society would not have discussed sexual services; Cohen describes this social group as conservative, and perhaps prudish is one looks at her discussion of the Female Moral Reform Society. No matter their actual acceptance into respectable society, having the defense connect them to those ideal meant that the jury would empathize more with Robinson. This is proved further when Judge Edwards instructed the jury to “weigh the character of the witnesses—and then he told them how much those characters weighed” as Cohen writes, emphasizing the weight to be given to the testimony of a member of a respectable family such as Robinson’s outweighed the testimony of prostitutes who associated with Jewett (360).

The Murder of Helen Jewett is not just about Helen Jewett or the trial of Richard Robinson. Cohen rests a good deal of the narrative on newspaper editor Bennett, and the media circus that followed the story from the discovery of Jewett’s body to the acquittal of Robinson. The media coverage allows Cohen to delve into the world of sporting male culture, rogues and dandies, and the Magdalen Society and Female Moral Reform Society which appeared to be at odds with each other in New York City during the period. “Curiously, the Female Moral Reformers made no original contribution to the debate over the murder of Helen Jewett. They publicized the crime, naturally, since the murder of a prostitute so perfectly fulfilled their warnings about the wages of sin” (312). I found the exploration of the media particularly intriguing given my readings last semester of The Flash Press: Sporting Male Weeklies in 1840 New York (2008) written by Patricia Cline Cohen, Timothy J. Gilfoyle, and Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz. The Flash Press contains weekly newspaper issues geared towards young men who were flocking to cities in the 1830s and 1840s because of urban growth, and the decline of family farms/property; which nearly perfectly de2302980-_uy400_ss400_scribes Robinson and his fellow clerks. This added

dimension to the narrative makes, in my mind, The Murder of Helen Jewett more than a social history or a microhistory, but makes it an important piece of gender history.

I think all three of us were in agreement that this was a quick read because it was written so well, and the topic was so very interesting. I read a New York Times review that compared this case to the OJ Simpson case, and it drove home the point that sex sells, then as now.

In case you missed it, we added a new page to our site! It is home to our podcasts (we have one on Helen Jewett) https://astudyofamericanwomen.wordpress.com/podcasts/ Please give us a listen when you can.