Friday, May 22, 2009

Book Review: A Midwife's Tale

***Since we have decided to broaden the scope of American Creation a bit to include other topics besides religion, I thought this might be an appropriate and interesting way to kick things off.***

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. And while this seemingly insignificant life story seems rather ordinary and irrelevant to the historical record, historian Laurel Ulrich effectively weaves in how the overall changes brought on by the American Revolution led to dramatic changes in the lives of the common person. In essence, Martha Ballard’s story becomes a case study of how ordinary Americans experienced and dealt with change. As a result, this in-depth look into the diary of Martha Ballard (along with several other supporting documents), lets us better understand 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 Laurel Ulrich’s ability to weave the diary of Martha Ballard with other historical documents, gives the modern reader a better understanding of how and why Martha Ballard’s story is relevant and worth learning.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). Yet despite these social stigmas, Ulrich does not fail to illustrate just how "mainstream" sexual promiscuity was in eighteenth-century America. As a midwife, Martha Ballard encountered the fruits of this promiscuity first-hand, and was regularly used as a witness in court proceedings in her and other neighboring towns. 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. As a work of micro history, Ulrich effectively demonstrates how seemingly irrelevant individual stories can and should be analyzed and compared with the larger, macro histories of a given era. With that said, it is still important for the reader to keep in mind that Martha Ballard's story, no matter how compelling and insightful, should not be accepted as a true representation of what all women thought and experienced during the late eighteenth century. After all, did Mrs. Ballard even care about or contemplate what it meant to be a woman in the eighteenth-century in the same way that author Laurel Ulrich does? Did Mrs. Ballard ponder the meaning of the revolution and its consequences as they related to her and her family? Maybe, maybe not. Either way the compelling factor of Ulrich's A Midwife's Tale is the fact that micro histories can and often do help shed light and perspective on a given historical topic. As a result, they are worth the time.

My overall grade of A Midwife's Tale: A-

4 comments:

Tom Van Dyke said...

Very interesting, Brad. This helps us get a "feel" for the time. You write:

With that said, it is still important for the reader to keep in mind that Martha Ballard's story, no matter how compelling and insightful, should not be accepted as a true representation of what all women thought and experienced during the late eighteenth century. After all, did Mrs. Ballard even care about or contemplate what it meant to be a woman in the eighteenth-century in the same way that author Laurel Ulrich does?

Well-observed, Brad, and a great caution for 21st centurians, those who would view and judge the people of another era by modern standards. Firstly, robbing oneself of fully appreciating and "feeling" what it was like to live in that era and losing all historical perspective, and secondly usually flattering themselves that had they grown up then, they personally would have become some sort of social visionaries, transcending the times.

[And I've noticed that it's a characteristic of those individuals history calls the visionaries of their times, those who were proved very right on a given issue, were quite wrong about many or most other things. It's often said about Winston Churchill, for instance...]

Brad Hart said...

Thanks, Tom. I've always found subaltern studies to be quite interesting, and the story of Martha Ballard certainly fits that mold.

I probably should have mentioned that this book also won the Pulitzer Prize...It's worth the time.

Pinky said...

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This interesting article points up the importance of an anthropological approach to our American history.
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Thanks for publishing it.

Pinky said...

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"...we have decided to broaden the scope of American Creation a bit to include other topics besides religion...".
Excellent!!.
If I can make a suggestion it is that some of the blog experts focus in on the debate regarding federalism when our republic was aborning.
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Today, there is much talk about the slippery slope of liberalism as though liberal thinking is somehow the problem with which our society is faced.

I'm sure Thomas Jefferson warned America about the problems with which we are now faced.

Federated power destroys the initiatives of localization and personal responsibilities.
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The ultimate federation is the corporatist system that has just about taken us over.
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Can we hear from the sycophants?
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