The Diary of a Midwife: Recognizing an Invisible Woman of the Past

I’ve been wanting to read Pulitzer Prize–winning book A Midwife’s Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary 1785-1812 (1990) by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich for years.  Ulrich has been a sort of role model/celebrity to me because of her achievements with this book, but also for her life.  She is a member of my church, so I know she comes from the same frame of reference that I do, which brings with it a lot of complex cultural and religious ideologies that I will skip outlining for you today.  She’s also a feminist and the mother of five children (I believe), whom she raised while working on her Ph.D.  She spent the first decade of her career teaching at a university in New Hampshire.  Then she won the Pulitzer Prize.  Now she’s a professor of history at Harvard.  Not too shabby.

She’s also known for the phrase, “Well behaved women seldom make history,” which came from an essay she wrote about Puritan women’s funeral rites.  The line has since become so popular that you’ve probably seen it on bumper stickers.  It is also the title of a book she wrote a few years ago, which I read and loved.

a midwife's tale coverI finally did read A Midwife’s Tale, and not only did I love every minute of it, but it gave me some new ideas for research in my field and in my area of interest.  I’ve spent the last year looking at women’s contributions to my field (professional communication) and trying to understand how they create professional identities.  I’ve done this by examining mom blogs, by interviewing mom bloggers, by looking at marriage/maternity policies at IBM from the 1930s to the 1960s, and by examining the communicative barriers to the adoption of the dishwasher (which was invented by a woman).  As I’ve worked on these projects, I’ve discovered that I love looking at historical records and examining historical problems.  I already knew that I enjoyed reading about, discovering, and researching women’s issues.

So A Midwife’s Tale proved to be a book that I appreciated and a book that has inspired a possible new line of research.  Now I want to look at diaries, and I have been.  The archive at my university happens to have all of the diaries and letters of a local woman who never married and worked as a schoolteacher.  As I read her diaries this summer, I’m looking for her sense of a professional identity.  I’m also asking what it was like to be a professional woman during the time of her writings (1930s), and I would like to make the case that diaries are technical documents.  We will see how it goes.  I’m not sure where this project will take me.  I may also look at diaries as a genre, and if I see potential there, it may be worth tracing this genre through the decades, right back to what they’ve become: mom blogs!

Anyway, there are a lot of possibilities with my research, but I wanted to share with you some of the fun(ny) information from the diaries I’ve been reading.

The author was fastidious about listing the menus of every party she attended, and she attended one almost every other day!  My, she was social.  One of the menu items is green jello with tomatoes, cucumbers, and chicken.  Yuck!

She also described a diet she tried.  It was bananas and milk, every day.  That’s it.  She lists how many bananas she had eaten and how many glasses of milk she drank.  After a few days of this, she writes something about having a stomach ache and deciding to eat a “light” dinner.

It is entertaining.  But that’s not how Ulrich’s book about Martha Ballard’s diary goes.  Ulrich examines the diary in the context of social and economic issues of the time.  Martha was a midwife in colonial Maine, and her diary recounts her work, her payments received, her household affairs, and her children.  It also tells of the town’s happenings, of which there are many.

One of the most shocking is the case of Captain Purrington, who killed his entire family, including the many young children, and himself.  It was unclear exactly why he acted this way, but it seemed to be the result of either madness or melancholy.  The town is shaken up by it, yet many strange and outrageous things happen among the inhabitants.  In this, I was surprised.  I guess I sometimes romanticize the past and assume that life then was somehow less tumultuous than ours.  I assume that they had to work to survive and that such a hard life would leave no time for leisure or gossip or the actions that lead to gossip.  Instead, Martha’s diary is full of such accounts.  She describes a thriving economy and a nuanced and complex society.

An interesting facet of this society is Martha’s place as a midwife.  She and some other women of the time serve the laboring women of the community, without reprimand or shame or sideways glances.  Midwives were part of the social fabric.  Ulrich explains thus, “The technological simplicity of early medicine meant that male doctors offered little that wasn’t also available to female practitioners” (p. 54).  As the diary progresses, we see that some doctors come to town, and for a while, the female midwives and male doctors work alongside each other, in seeming harmony, referring patients to each other and working for the good of childbearing women.  But again, time passes and the rise of the medicalization of childbirth and male doctors creates some tension and loss of clients for the midwives.  It is a slow but perceptible portrait of changes in the way women were attended at birth.

Ulrich’s interpretations of the diary are what make this book a good read.  Of course, it is fascinating to see what life was like in the United States just after the Revolutionary War, but putting it all into context is what makes the diary’s contents meaningful to us today.  Ulrich explores female roles and the web of social interactions.  She wrote, “Economic and social differences might divide a community; the unseen acts of women wove it together” (p. 96).  In this, we see Ulrich’s feminist purposes in recognizing women’s contributions, especially historically.  She recognizes the invisibility of women in many histories and in public life, but because of Martha’s diary, which miraculously survived so many years, we can give credit to her achievements as a wife, mother, midwife, and citizen, and we get a picture of what life was like for many of her neighbors and friends, also forgotten women, of the time.  Ulrich noted, “Women’s invisibility in town records reflected the patriarchal organization of society as well as the perishable and invisible nature of their work” (p. 100).  I love this because much of my  research rests on the premise that what women do (at home) is work and that the workplace of the home is just as valid a site of research and recognition as a public workplace.

Even Martha recognized this in her diary.  She writes about her day, saying, “11 hour Evening.  I have been picking wool till then.  A womans [sic] work is never Done as the Song says and happy shee whos strength holds out to the End of the rais.  It is now near the middle of the night” (p. 210).  I love that Ulrich, in sharing excerpts of the diary, preserved the spelling, but this passage shows just how much work Martha did, both at home in service of her family and as a midwife busy helping other households increase and flourish.

The diary is held in the Maine State Library.  It was handed down through the family, and finally, in 1884, landed in the hands of medical doctor Mary Hobart, who likely possessed some of her ancestor’s skill in the medical field.  Ulrich said, “That Martha Ballard kept her diary is one small miracle; that her descendants saved it is another” (p. 346).  Mary donated it to the state library, which promised to give her a typed copy of the diary, but never did.  One scholar wrote a history of Augusta, Maine, including some of the diary’s information, but censored much of it.  Ulrich then read it and wrote her book, which ends with: “Martha Ballard’s diary rests safe in a vault at the Maine State Library, a monument to a remarkable life and a testimony to the fragile web that connects one generation with another” (p. 352).

Overall, this book is a gripping interpretation of a diary, but it is also full of interesting historical information about families, economies, medicine, gardening, marriage, land, courts, social relations, neighbors, children, quarrels, scandals, and work.  There are many layers of meaning and purpose to the book.  I appreciated it for the feminist ideas, the historical interpretations, and the rich description.  For my own research interests, it gave me an idea of how to recognize and write about female practitioners (in this case, of medicine) and professionalism.


29 thoughts on “The Diary of a Midwife: Recognizing an Invisible Woman of the Past

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  1. I’m fascinated by your review, and I would love to read this. (I’m definitely familiar with the expression “Well behaved women seldom make history” and did not realize the connection!)

    I’m also very interested in your research. Do you know Kate Hopper by any chance? I took writing with her and she’s done quite a bit of work in trying to professionalize and legitimize the words and stories of mothers. I wonder if she would be helpful for your research.

    I’ve kept journals since childhood and I would really like to pass my writing on to my son. Unfortunately in my family the stories don’t really get passed down…I think there’s that feeling of not wanting to talk about the past. For all the ups and downs in my family, I would love to have more insight into my parents’ lives…I think it would at least make me understand them and my heritage better.

    1. Sounds like you have a real passion here . . a very important and interesting one to share. Keeping a journal is a really great thing. Are best told by the ones they touch.

      1. Thanks, artourway! Of course, I’m a bit nervous about the idea of sharing some of my teen diaries (they’re too painful and embarrassing even for me to read) so maybe what I need to do is write my own memoir to pass down in my family 😉 I also blog so they’ll have that too. An elderly friend of mine once showed me the book that his late father had written late in his life. It was his autobiography and he had typed it up and gotten it bound, probably at Kinko’s or something. I thought it was a wonderful idea.

    2. I am not familiar with Kate Hopper’s work, but now I want to be! Thank you for sharing the link. It sounds like her work could be of great help to me. I’m so excited!

      I hear you on family history and stories. My maternal grandmother has told me many many stories of her childhood that are delightful. My dad recently went to Las Vegas with me (he grew up there) and driving around with him to see his old neighborhoods resulted in a lot of story telling, which I loved. It is important to pass those on, but yes, I, too, have family members who are unwilling to talk. Sometimes those conversations can be uncomfortable.

      1. Hi Emily, I’m so glad you are interested in Kate! Yes, she’s wonderful and she has been so supportive of me even years after I finished her class.

        I think that is great that you got to hear stories straight from your grandmother and dad. Maybe you could record an oral history?

        1. Good idea! I have actually written down my grandmother’s stories from recording her, but I took some fictional liberties… I do love history, especially when it is personal. That is why these diaries appeal so much to me.

  2. I will move this one up the TBR pile. My husband read it for a history class and recommended it. Thanks for the review!

  3. Of course women’s work at home is important! Without it, families, communities, great enterprises and countries would collapse.
    A closer look at daily life at that time through a woman’s eyes sounds fascinating.
    And I’m definitely one to mourn the over-medicalization of the childbirth experience. I had my three children at home – with a midwife. 🙂

    1. Very cool! I, unfortunately, went the medical route with my two girls, and now that I know more about it, I wish I had AT LEAST tried to go without an epidural. Kudos to you! And yes, women and their work are important! 🙂

  4. This one sounds fascinating and will enter my list near the top. I’m intrigued by diaries and I write a journal, myself. My grandmother also writes a journal and in reading a few entries of hers in comparison to my own, vast changes in the way women see themselves have happened in just 2 generations in my family. I’m not trying to speed my grandma’s passing, but I hope to acquire and read the whole of her diaries when she passes away. My family doesn’t really talk much either and often questions are frowned upon or dismissed so it’s not easy to know our own history. I’ll love the historical context of A MIdwife’s Tale, as well.

    1. Definitely put it near the top! I am glad I finally got to it, but I wish I had read it sooner. It sounds like you have a neat relationship with family history and diaries. It will be fascinating to read your grandmother’s words after she is gone, and hopefully comforting. You’ve also given me the idea to make sure I look at how women’s attitudes toward their own lives and professionalism changes over time.

  5. Loved your latest review and good luck with the research. Sounds fascinating. Oh…and another book i’ll add to my ‘want to read’ list. ;o)

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