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Book Review: A Midwife's Tale

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message 1: by Brad (new)

Brad Hart A Midwife’s Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary, 1785-1812. By Laurel Ulrich. (New York: Random House Inc., 1990. Pp. 352.)

Laurel Ulrich’s A Midwife’s Tale is essentially the personal history of a typical New England woman, living and adapting to the inevitable changes brought on by the creation of the American republic. Martha Ballard’s story is then used by Ulrich to portray a larger history of the era. By an in-depth look into the diary of Martha Ballard (along with several other supporting documents), Laurel Ulrich is able to shed light on the day-to-day responsibilities of women, mothers, daughters, midwife’s, families, and communities that all coexisted in the years immediately following America’s war for independence.

As a work of micro history, Martha Ballard’s diary cannot, by itself, disclose all of the social and cultural traditions her day. This diary can, however, serve to augment other sources of historical significance, allowing us to come to a better understanding of this unique historical era. Laurel Ulrich’s ability to weave the diary of Martha Ballard with other historical documents, gives the modern reader a better understanding of how and why Martha Ballard’s story is relevant and worth learning.

Laurel Ulrich’s application of the diary of Martha Ballard is used to address a wide variety of topics that were prevalent in the early American republic. First off, Ulrich recounts the role of a midwife in eighteenth century America by discussing the types of medicines used, the variety of ailments that were common, and the medical prowess of the practitioners. Above all, Ulrich makes it clear that to care for the health of others was the duty of all women during this time. “It would be a serious misunderstanding to see Martha Ballard as a singular character, an unusual woman who somehow transcended the domestic sphere to become an acknowledged specialist” (62). Instead, Ulrich insists that Martha Ballard was representative of the majority of women in the early American republic. Martha Ballard was a midwife, but also a wife and mother, which meant she had her “womanly” duties to attend to as well.

Ulrich also uses Martha Ballard’s diary to shed light on the economic practices of this period. Martha Ballard’s diary was not only an account of the daily events that took place, but was also a way to record debts owed and payments received (85). In addition, Martha Ballard’s entries help to demonstrate just how intricate the neighborhood trade economy was in eighteenth century America. Ulrich mentions how Martha Ballard relied heavily on the labor of her children, neighbors, and hired hands. In fact, when the Ballard’s add improvements to their home, Ulrich explains that this was done because, “the house was every bit as much a workplace as the sawmill” (83).

One of the main issues addressed in A Midwife’s Tale deals with the sexual standards of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. As a midwife (and a mother), Martha Ballard regularly dealt with issues ranging from sexual promiscuity to rape. In fact, Ulrich devotes the majority of chapter three to the alleged rape of Rebecca Foster, and the convoluted court case that followed. Along with her involvement in “Mrs. Foster’s ravishment,” Martha Ballard was regularly involved in the births of children out of wedlock. Ulrich mentions that sexual activity outside of marriage not only carried a stiff social stigma, but also “accounted for more than a third of criminal actions” (148). Martha’s role in such cases was often to record the name of the father in her diary, essentially making it a legal record. Ulrich explains that it was common for midwife’s to ask for the name of the father during labor, believing that a woman would never lie “in the height of her travail” (149).

In terms of its historical value, Ulrich’s A Midwife’s Tale provides wonderful insight into what Martha Ballard might have called the mundane activities of everyday life. The combination of Martha Ballard’s diary with other historical sources can help us come to a better understanding of what life was like for a “common” wife, mother, and midwife. It also presents a personal description of the sexual practices, family relations, and economic issues that affected nearly every citizen during the early years of the American republic.




message 2: by [deleted user] (new)

This books sounds very interesting. I have just added it to my "to-read" list.


message 3: by Brad (new)

Brad Hart You won't go wrong. It's excellent!


message 4: by Lena (new)

Lena (Weathy) | 11 comments I have it on my bookshelf. I am looking forward to reading it. It gives a perspective on an important aspect of the American Revolution.


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