A Midwife's Tale Critical Essays

Laurel Thatcher


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Ulrich’s organization of the material provides an introduction to the work followed by ten chapters in chronological order. Each chapter is introduced by a short passage from Martha’s diary, and is followed by Ulrich’s narrative essay, which expands on the diary entries. At times, the reader can become lost in the plethora of names that are mentioned and that do not often seem to be closely enough related to the main theme to require their identification.

In chapters 1 and 5, Ulrich deals with Martha’s work as a midwife, which included being a nurse, physician, mortician, and pharmacist. Her diary also made her a chronicler of the medical history of the area. Martha’s chief concern was to give her patients what she called “ease.” Although Martha at times worked under the direction of a doctor, she most often worked alone. In the eighteenth century, the work of doctors was beginning to include delivering babies. Working with other women, Martha cared not only for the pregnant and newly delivered but also for those who had had accidents or who were suffering from a multitude of diseases. In chapter 5, Ulrich records that by 1793 Martha was experiencing more competition from physician Benjamin Page, who seemed bent on making midwifery a part of his full-time practice. Martha was not reticent in reporting Page’s errors in the Sally Cock case, whereby Sally was delivered of a dead daughter with dislocated legs. Despite his inexperience but because of his gender, Dr. Page was paid $6.00 for a delivery; Martha was paid $2.00. Despite this competition, by the end of the century, Martha was delivering two-thirds of the babies born in Hallowell. During the second stage of labor, other women were called in to witness the birth. This was important both to certify that the midwife did all that was possible to ensure a safe delivery and to take testimony in the case of illegitimacy. Although midwifery paid well for females, it was an arduous occupation, as Martha’s many trips across the Kennebec River in all sorts of weather proved.

Chapter 2 centers on the female-managed economy and the importance of weaving, which was both a family and a community activity. From this chapter, it becomes obvious that in the Ballard household there were two family economies: one managed by Martha’s husband Ephraim and one managed by Martha herself. Part of Martha’s economy was the money she made from her midwifery work.

Martha was not one to record scandals, but there is enough in the diary for Ulrich to find the rest of the story in other records. In chapter 3, it is the rape of the fired minister’s wife, Rebecca Foster. Here Martha’s diary provides some insight into the sexual mores of the era. The Reverend Mr. Isaac Foster was dismissed because he was too liberal in his theology...

(The entire section is 1149 words.)