book review, historical fiction, history

Review: A Midwife’s Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary, 1785-1812


A Midwife’s Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary, 1785-1812 by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich

Amazon blurb:

Drawing on the diaries of a midwife and healer in eighteenth-century Maine, this intimate history illuminates the medical practices, household economies, religious rivalries, and sexual mores of the New England frontier.

I love reading old diaries, as they are perhaps one of the best primary sources that can be gathered in research, whether you are a historian (hobby or academic) and/or a historical fiction author. I came across Ulrich’s Midwife’s Tale searching for womens’ diaries from the American Revolution. While Martha Ballard’s diary ranges from 1785-1812, I still read it to get a sense of the general time period, customs, social norms, etc. As in the other 18th century womens’ diaries I’ve read, there is a lot of tarrying, tea-drinking, and visiting with friends. Sometimes these diaries can be hit or miss as far as how much the women actually say, and the manner in which they say it. Some women are more emotional and detailed in their accounts of the day (see Grace Barclay’s diary), however most are more fact-based, to the point, and merely served as record of family goings-on, transactions, business, etc. City or rural, people of the time thrived on community and communal sharing/exchanges. I don’t even think we, today, visit with friends as much as those of the 18th century did–perhaps mostly because we needn’t visit our friend’s home to trade for some bread or milk when we can just go to the store.
What sets Martha Ballard’s diary apart from the others, however, is that she was a midwife. What’s more, she was a midwife in a rural area right up until she died at the age of 77! (of course she wasn’t delivering as many children as she did when she was younger). What I found extraordinary about Martha Ballard, which was really just commonplace for her and many other women of the time, was her industrious and fearless nature, as well as the authority she wielded as a midwife. Year after year, Martha daily sacrificed her own comfort and sleep to traverse frozen rivers and muddy wilderness, sometimes alone, to deliver a child.
The late 18th century, early 19th century marked a change in the world of medicine. The power of and respect for midwives seemed to wane closer to the early 19th century, while the power of doctors and physicians rose. Martha’s diary gives clues suggesting power struggles between her and male doctors, who often looked down upon/were annoyed with midwives, viewing them as unnecessary with their herbal remedies and bevy of women crowding the birth room. Still, Martha was permitted to assist and observe in a few autopsies, which is amazing given that only a short time later women would not be allowed to be party to that sort of thing.
One of the most eye-opening portions of Martha’s diary was the light she shed on sexual health and social customs surrounding love, sex, and marriage. I was taken aback to find that pre-marital sex and pregnancy out of wedlock was actually quite common. What’s more, women (in Massachusetts territory, anyway) actually had the power to take a man to court to receive child support. Today, we tend to think of the 18th century as a prudish time in which taboos were abundant, and thinking was less progressive–but Martha’s diary and Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s analyzation of it denote quite the contrary. These details in themselves are valuable not just for social historians, but also for historical fiction authors wishing to cull through stereotypes and misconceptions about a certain time period.

And some fun facts about Laurel Thatcher Ulrich: She was the person we have to thank for that great “well-behaved women seldom make history”phrase, she has written other interesting women’s history books, and she identifies as a Mormon Feminist!

Be warned that if you aren’t one for slightly academic-leaning texts, this book may not be for you. That being said, I felt that Ulrich’s writing style was engaging and easy to understand even for the amateur historian.

Grade: A