The Historical Significance of A Midwife’s Tale:A look at 18th century culture and society The book A Midwife’s Tale by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich is a complex historical work that brings together the research of the author and the real-life diaries of a woman who lived in Maine in the 18th century. This woman, Martha Ballard, was a midwife who through the years delivered hundreds, perhaps even a thousand, babies and wrote every minute detail about her life into a journal during a time when few women were literate.
Her diary includes many facts about 18th century America and the status of women in that world, all through the eyes of a woman. The book itself is simply a deeper look into the diary that was left behind by Ballard: who she lived near, the babies she delivered into the world, the religious atmosphere, and the types of social problems that existed, everything from being imprisoned for debt to domestic violence and ravaging disease.
The prevailing views of what was right and what was wrong following the creation of the Declaration of Independence This book is one of the most historically significant in the study of women in post-Revolutionary war America because it gives us a fascinating picture of life during a time when the literature is dominated by men and their perspective.During this period the idea of “all men are created equal” was extremely relevant to the colonists and early Americans who had fought to gain their independence from Great Britain and the British Crown.
What was forgotten, however, is that the Declaration of Independence, like all things, is a product of the time and the people who wrote it, and within the context of early-America equality was meant only for white men, not African-Americans, nor Native Americans, and certainly not women. The interesting aspect of A Midwife’s Tale is that life in the Kennebec Valley fits the mold of post-revolutionary war America in that the roles of men and women are dictated and yet, some things show that some women could have even personal, quiet power, such as Martha Ballard, who dedicated her life to being a midwife. In a world that did not allow women to have careers or expect them to excel, Ballard was able to do both through her love of helping women bring children into the world. To the rest of the United States “all men are created equal” had become the call of all Americans, but in the Kennebec Valley, while there seems to have been similar views of life and gender roles and who truly benefits from equality, there is also the aspect that the area is remote and far-removed from the Philadelphia’s and Virginia’s of the new nation.
It’s own system of equality developed, and through the eyes of Martha Ballard we are able to truly see the differences between men and women, and how this contributed to the way that people in the Kennebec Valley lived, worked, and viewed themselves, as well as each other.A Midwife’s Tale is extremely significant because it is a full and complete diary that spans the life of a woman in late-18th century America, giving the reader details to life in the small town of Hallowell, Maine during this time. The characters come to life through the diarist’s descriptions in a book that was never meant for anyone but herself to read. The reader gets to see the stark reality of life for a woman like Martha Ballard and the other people that inhabited her town.
It’s also a fascinating study of how women during this period delivered babies and what the process of birth was like. The author of the book writes about Ballard’s dedication to her profession, saying, “Her own descriptions demonstrate that her most immediate concern was to make patients feel better” (Ulrich 53). For a work to be historically significant it must first give us insight into an aspect of history and this book definitely does this, showing us a world we are not familiar with through the eyes of someone who knew it and lived it. Greater still is the fact that, as a diary, the words are uninhibited because Ballard was not intending for it to be read by others so the end result is something that is a true account of a woman’s life, unhindered by the bias of men who may have viewed the roles of women differently.
This book is also important because of the details it gives the reader about the social and cultural history of American after the Revolutionary War. Martha Ballard is a woman who was involved in many private aspects of society that were not always written down for the world to see. She writes of unwed mothers having children in the Kennebec Valley and the social stigma that did, or did not, exist about those types of situations. She writes about the various aspects of life amongst women, how they occupied their time and what types of relationships they had between each other.
Laurel Thatcher Ulrich writes about this phenomenon, saying, “Spinning, like nursing, was a universal female occupation, a ‘domestic duty’, integrated into a complex system of neighborly exchange” (Ulrich 77). We also see the inner workings of relationships between the sexes through the eyes of Martha Ballard, with “Martha’s diary supporting the notion that children chose their own spouses; there is no evidence of parental negotiation, and little hint of parental supervision in any of the courtships she describes” (Ulrich 139). A Midwife’s Tale takes the reader into the innermost parts of this society, sharing the secrets of Martha Ballard and the people that she knew.The diary of Martha Ballard is a fascinating look at a world that is as distant from our own as two worlds can be, separated by time and culture; yet, A Midwife’s Tale is able to transcend the span of time and bring to light a story that is historically significant.
Without primary sources like this diary the world would not know about the small details of 18th century American society, which would mean we weren’t getting a full picture of our own history. The details about the culture, society, and people that filled the pages of this book are priceless to the study of American history, especially the history of women.Works CitedUlrich, Laurel Thatcher. A Midwife’s Tale: the Life of Martha Ballard.
NY: Vintage, 1991.;
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