A Midwife’s Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary, 1785-1812. By Laurel Ulrich. (New York: Random House Inc., 1990. Pp. 352.)
Laurel Ulrich’s A Midwife’s Tale is essentially the personal history of a typical New England woman, living and adapting to the inevitable changes brought on by the creation of the American republic. Martha Ballard’s story is then used by Ulrich to portray a larger history of the era. By an in-depth look into the diary of Martha Ballard (along with several other supporting documents), Laurel Ulrich is able to shed light on the day-to-day responsibilities of women, mothers, daughters, midwife’s, families, and communities that all coexisted in the years immediately following America’s war for independence.
As a work of micro history, Martha Ballard’s diary cannot, by itself, disclose all of the social and cultural traditions her day. This diary can, however, serve to augment other sources of historical significance, allowing us to come to a better understanding of this unique historical era. Laurel Ulrich’s ability to weave the diary of Martha Ballard with other historical documents, gives the modern reader a better understanding of how and why Martha Ballard’s story is relevant and worth learning.
Laurel Ulrich’s application of the diary of Martha Ballard is used to address a wide variety of topics that were prevalent in the early American republic. First off, Ulrich recounts the role of a midwife in eighteenth century America by discussing the types of medicines used, the variety of ailments that were common, and the medical prowess of the practitioners. Above all, Ulrich makes it clear that to care for the health of others was the duty of all women during this time. “It would be a serious misunderstanding to see Martha Ballard as a singular character, an unusual woman who somehow transcended the domestic sphere to become an acknowledged specialist” (62). Instead, Ulrich insists that Martha Ballard was...