A Midwife's Tale by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich Essay

A Midwife’s Tale by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich tells the story of Martha Ballard; a midwife, healer, wife, mother, and eighteenth-century woman. In this book, the reader learns of this hardworking woman, the social web she lived in, and the workings of her town through personal accounts from the diarist and the author’s thorough analysis of them. Martha is a diligent woman who makes good use of her connections with the rest of the female community. She keeps up-to-date accounts of how her patients are doing, even after treatment has stopped, showing her concern for others.

She seems to love interaction based on detail of visitors to see her or her to see them rather than detail of why the visits actually take place. She also isn’t the one to gossip given her lack of little to no scandal mentioned within her diary. As the title of the book implies, Martha was a midwife; attending 816 births in twenty-seven years. She was more than just that though. “In twentieth-century terms, she was simultaneously a midwife, nurse, physician, mortician, pharmacist, and attentive wife”(40); though in her time these distinctions in her services did not exist.

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As a healer, Martha used remedies that “obviously rested on a long accumulation of English experience”(50), It would seem she borrowed from medical books of the time despite the fact that the diary holds no evidence that she so much as read one. It did, however, take note on how she took care of her family’s ills such as “her own husband’s sore throat”(40), as well as her neighbors. Of course, not all remedies would work out and some of her patients did die and prepared a few of their bodies for burial, such as the three “between August 3 and 24, 1787”(40).

There were other healers such as Martha who “move in and out of sickrooms unannounced”(61), but unlike the doctors that appeared, the women had no specific title stowed upon them. They were not considered professionals and practiced what is labeled as social medicine. These social healers did not seek to be “distinguished from the community they served”(61) as professionals did and sought to develop close and personal affiliations with their patients and community, thus why they are a bit harder to find in ecords by historians. They also weren’t trained institutionally and were learned slowly with a “build up of seemingly casual experience”(62). They may start out as simply a servant or a helpful neighbor, but eventually they could become a recognized healer with enough practice, experience, and dedication. At home, other than making sure her family was well, she harvested flax, a fiber used to make linen, and made cloth with her daughters, nieces, and “a succession of hired helpers like Hannah Cool and Polly Savage.

She relied on married neighbors like Jane Welch or Hannah Hamlin to help her inexperienced girls warp the loom, the girls in turn weaving for other families in town”(71). This, along with the trading of materials for cloth, “wove a social web”(71) in the town of Hallowell. In the book, the author paints a picture of checkered linen of blue and white where squares would be either just white, blue, or a lighter mix. “Think of the white threads as women’s activities, the blue as men’s”(75), and the lighter combination as what brought the two sexes together.

Women maintained the home and had no political life, whereas men “[monopolized] public businesses” and “households were formally patriarchal”(76). However, there was a “social and economic exchange that engaged women beyond the household”(76). Women traded their skills between each other, paying one service given to them with a service in return and also “extended the skills of their female neighbors”(79). When someone needed to borrow something, it was lent by someone else whom may latter ask to borrow something that they themselves need.

It was a continuous network of giving and receiving that helped the women of the community get what they needed and train future generations. It is much like the exchange of favors and tasks within homes; for example, how Martha would “bake bread or mend packs for [her husband’s] surveying journeys” and in return “he was willing to sow flax and set up the loom for her”(80). “Martha’s midwifery practice accelerated…as her daughters began to weave”(80). This was because she no longer had to take care of all of their needs and she had a “secure supply of household help”(80).

And not only was it beneficial for her, but also for the girls who now had “skills to sustain their future families as well as ways to contribute to their own support in the present”(81) and weaving was perfect for their family as it was home-accomplished job, produced items for their future homes, and entered them into the world of exchange in Hallowell’s female community. Martha exchanged to girls to work for neighbors until they got old enough to offer their services themselves, “negotiating their own terms and collecting their own wages”(81).

This was part of the network of exchange that women had going on that exchanged either service for service, material that was needed, or money. There was even a “shuffling and reshuffling of workers”(82) within the community. If say a woman was ill and needed nursing, Martha may send a daughter to help and then when Martha needed assistance the woman would send someone to help her out. With this system of give and receive, women were able to get various different things that were not always directly related.

For example, Martha may have delivered a child, nursed someone ill, made cloth, or many various other things for other women, but then ask in return for kettles, pepper boxes, and dippers for her daughter Hannah or niece Parthenia as wedding gifts to them. Neighborly connections obtained in these exchanges also took part in actual wedding traditions, such as the “week of neighborly visiting following the wedding”(142) and making of quilts that was considered the matrimonial preparations” (143) and was “clearly associated with the transition from girlhood to marriage” (144).

These marriages were once part of another exchange network that families arranged and the sons and daughters had little to no say in. These “negotiations between families”(138) unified families for usually financial reasons rather than their children’s romantic interests. The late eighteenth century however, as some historians see it, was “a transitional time…when young people began to exercise greater freedom in choosing marriage partners”(138). This is not to say, of course, that their children did not make their own selections of spouses with economic purposes.

It was important to many “to find a hardworking and productive spouse capable of bearing his or her full share of the work of a farm or business”(146). But along with this, there was the reasoning of romantic and/or sexual attraction. Martha’s diary did not, however, give much evidence to romantic persuasion as the Ballard family weddings were “distinctly unglamorous affairs, almost nonevents”(138), but it does give indication of not only children’s freedom of spousal choice but also of marriage due to sexual interactions between two individuals prior to wedlock, such as her son Jonathon and the women he reluctantly married, Sally Pierce.

By the time her daughter Hannah and son Jonathon got married, marriages were regulated, in Massachusetts, according to ‘An Act for the Orderly Solemnization of Marriages’ where under the two parties to be wed must be part of the same town as the justice of the peace or minister that married them. They also had to have “a certificate signed by the town clerk indicating that their intent of marriage had been appropriately ‘published’ either at three ‘publick religious meetings, on different days, at three days distance exclusively’ or by posting for ‘the space of fourteen days, in some publick place’”(139).

Many intended to get married, but few actually went through. The ones that did had essentially private weddings with no grand gathering of friends of family and without the celebration that people imagine weddings with today. To further the vast difference of wedding then to now, the brides did not leave home right after to live with their husbands and went about doing their usual housework at their parents’ homes for about a month after they married, making neighborly visits for the first week, and spending the rest of their time making quilts at first with neighbors and then intensely by themselves.

A Midwife’s Tale, unlike from a more traditional account, captures the life of a woman with a vast amount of responsibilities along with a peak into the workings of communities of the time as a whole. Male perspectives have been known to leave out most if not all of the workings of the female community. If they even mentioned social medicine it would include vague details that wouldn’t paint a whole picture of what it was and we wouldn’t learn of the complex social web of the female community or how hard those women worked. Traditional accounts, which are usually written by men, venture more into the lives of men.

Politics and public business, which women usually were not part of, were what were usually the topics of such accounts. So as a text of this persuasion would discuss men subjects such as that, A Midwife’s Tale describes how women get the skills they have, how they get the materials they need, and how they stay connected with their community. And whereas a male doctor might not keep completely updated on his patients, Martha makes sure to keep informed of their well being even after she has finished nursing and treating them.

Martha is a concerned, hardworking healer, harvester, mother, and wife among other things. She has a vast social network to her community and loves interacting with others. She was able to advance in midwifery after successfully having her daughters learn weaving from both her and her connections along with what her daughter Hannah and niece Parthenia for their future lives with their husbands. A Midwife’s Tale balances diary excerpts and interpretation that wonderfully portrays the life, community, and system of give and receive in the world of Martha Ballard.


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