A Midwife’s Tale, by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, is a historical monograph that follows the life of Martha Ballard based on her diary entries from 1785 to 1812. Martha was a midwife, who resided in Hallowell, Maine, and delivered 816 babies during her practice, from 1785 to 1812, which averaged forty births a year. Her diary opens for historians an unparalleled glimpse into the past in which they can relate its context to the larger themes occurring during the eighteenth-century.
“Through the daily entries of the diary, we can see the eighteenth-century was a time not only of political revolution but also of medical, economic, and sexual transformation. “1 “It was also an era where a new ideology of womanhood connected domestic virtue to the survival of the state. “2 Martha’s diary reveals what was lost and what was gained during the transformation of the eighteenth-century into the nineteenth-century. She illustrates the communion between women and men in the economy and the complimentary roles they played in order to sustain the town.
Laurel Thatcher Ulrich interprets Martha’s diary by researching a wide range of sources and puts it into a format in which we can easily read. Such sources used to reconstruct and support the events described in the historical monograph include, Sewall’s diary, Ephraim Ballard’s maps, wills, tax lists, deeds, court records, town-meeting minutes, medical treatises, novels, religious tracts, and fragmentary papers of Maine physicians. 3 Ulrich organizes the book in a unique pattern. At the beginning of each
chapter, she puts ten of Martha’s dated entries and then proceeds to explain what they mean, why they are significant, and how they tie together with the values/themes of the era. “In the dairy entries, the author did not change the spelling; however, she did add periods and capitals in order to structure the sentences, and kept the diary entries numbered the way Martha had in order to preserve the flavor of it. “4 She also included maps of Hallowell, a picture of the diary, and graphs, in table format, for important statistics.
In order for the reader to understand the importance of the entries, the author explains the situation that Martha was writing about and the surrounding factors of the era, which make the entry important for historians. Between the different explanations of the events, the author examines the historical debate on the different beliefs held during the eighteenth-century. The statistics on birth rates and survival rates for both infants and mothers compare different records of midwives, and reinforce Martha’s mastery at her craft.
Yet, the greatest source is Martha’s daily diary. The dairy is important because unlike most literature about midwifes and daily life, it is a record kept by a female and ties birth with ordinary life. Martha’s diary tames midwife stereotypes held by male ideology during the eighteenth-century and gives the reader a first hand look into the duties performed by a midwife. Through Martha’s diary, the social construction of childbirth in every day life is shown. Her entries show the importance of a midwife and the significance of childbirth for women.
Childbirth was more of a social event for women to get together in order to discuss their experiences and show respect. In modern times, it could be compared to a Tupperware party in respect to the atmosphere. Some pregnant women stayed to entertain their guests, mainly female neighbors and relatives, as long as they could and when it was time to deliver, the men usually left the room and let the midwife do her work. “Her diary also gives great insight into the nature of aging in the pre-industrial world, and shows the pull of traditional values in an ear of economic and social turmoil.
“5 One example of this pull is the replacement of midwifes with doctors. Doctors, in the eighteenth century, were called only for an emergency, or came later for a brief moment to check up on the new mother. It was the midwife, up until the nineteenth century, that people relied on for maternity care, birth, and postnatal care, along with any other illness the family my have. By the end of the historical monograph, Ulrich states, “female physicians comprised about 5 percent of the profession in the late nineteenth century, a figure that changed little until the 1960s.
” This statement reflects the shift of birthing into a male profession in which the midwife was primarily obsolete The historical monograph is very insightful but at times difficult to read until around the third chapter when the reader adapts to her format. One example of how the book flowed together while dividing into interchangeable paragraphs is in the first chapter on page forty. The first paragraph briefly examines Martha’s duties as a midwife between August 3 and 24, 1787. She acted as not only a midwife, but also as a nurse, physician, mortician, and pharmacist while still being a devoted wife/mother.
The second brief paragraph explains the importance of the entry. It reveals her connection of birth and death to ordinary life. In addition, it questions the value of the other medical records kept during the era, which have conflicting accounts. The final paragraph on the page explains the event that compelled the entries. Many children were getting sick and some died from the “canker rash”. “Canker rash”, which is referred today as “strep throat”, may have turned into scarlet fever causing some children to die.