Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s interest in writing A Midwife’s Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary, 1785-1812 was the result of a visit to the state library in Augusta, Maine, to look at two diaries she had seen in a bibliography of women’s history. Realizing the treasure trove that Martha Ballard’s extensive diary was, Ulrich began to work on Martha’s story. While the major focus of the book is on Martha Ballard’s work as a midwife, the work provides insight into the social history of the 1785-1812 era: medical practices—birth, delivery practices, obstetric mortality, diseases; the female economy; sexual and matrimonial mores; debtor prisons; class and generational conflicts. Because there are few women’s diaries for this period, Ulrich’s work is an important contribution to the understanding of the day-to-day life of a woman who was a working professional, a mother, and a wife.

Ulrich’s previous work on Good Wives: Image and Reality in the Lives of Women in Northern New England, 1650-1750 (1982) gave her the perfect background for understanding Martha’s diary, since it enabled her to see things in the diary entries that others might have missed. She supplemented the Ballard diary with an examination of the diaries of her contemporaries, Henry Sewall and William Howard, the wealthiest man in Hallowell, as well as court and other public records, medical treatises, novels, religious tracts, and records of Maine physicians. By using supplementary sources, Ulrich was able to flesh out the stories that Martha had recorded.

Martha’s diary describes the world of women, a world unmentioned in other sources for the history of this period. It exposes the importance of the female-managed economy for the sustenance of the community. With the aid of Ulrich, the reader can see that Martha’s work as a midwife involved a system of early health care, a mechanism of social control, a strategy for family support, and a deeply personal calling. In short, it opens a small and often cloudy window on women’s lives in late eighteenth and early nineteenth century America.

A Midwife's Tale Context

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Ulrich’s book, which won the prestigious Bancroft Prize in American history in 1991, constitutes an important addition to women’s history on several levels. It shows the importance of midwifery and women’s eventual replacement by male physicians; it gives detail on rape trials, illegitimacy, relationships between generations, imprisonment for debt, women’s economic contributions, and generational problems. Ulrich’s other works include Good Wives and “Of Pins and Needles: Sources in Early American Women’s History,” in the Journal of American History (1990).

A Midwife's Tale Bibliography

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Donegan, Jane B. Women and Men Midwives. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1978. Connects the rise of male-dominated obstetrics with the rise of middle-class morality, reform movements, and emerging feminism. Chapter 3, “‘Churgeons,’ Midwives and Physicians in English America,” provides good background for understanding Ballard’s role in Maine. Excellent bibliography and good illustrations.

Donnison, Jean. Midwives and Medical Men: A History of Inter-Professional Rivalries and Women’s Rights. New York: Schocken Books, 1977. Although primarily a book about English midwives, it has two good chapters that relate to midwives in the eighteenth century: “Office of Midwife” and “The Decline of the Midwife.” Donnison believes that the decline of midwives was related to three things: the continuing professionalization of medicine, the invention of midwife forceps in 1720, and the attempt of the middle class to imitate the upper class, who used doctors rather than midwives. Good bibliography, footnotes, and illustrations.

Litoff, Judy Barrett. American Midwives, 1860 to the Present. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1978. Chapter 1, “The Midwife Through-out History: A Brief Overview to 1860,” mentions Ballard and her diary. Excellent for tracing the fall of midwives and the rise of male doctors delivering babies. Excellent bibliography of primary and secondary sources, including theses and dissertations.

Towler, Jean, and Joan Bramall. Midwives in History and Society. London: Croom Helm, 1986. This history traces midwives from prehistoric times and includes the issue of witches and midwives. Good for English background on midwifery. Mentions three books on midwifery written by women in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Includes illustrations, footnotes, and suggestions for further reading.

Ulrich, Laurel Thatcher. “Document: Martha’s Diary and Mine.” Journal of Women’s History 4 (Fall, 1992): 157-160. Ulrich’s acceptance speech for the Bancroft Prize offers insights on how she was able to interpret and squeeze the most historical meaning out of Ballard’s diary.