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.