A Midwife's Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary, 1785-1812 by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich.
Alfred A. Knopf: NY, 1990.
Received Pulitzer Prize and Bancroft Prize in 1991 for History

This book is one of the best biographies I've read and is dear to my heart. It has extra meaning for me, since we live within 45 minutes of Martha Ballard's home in a frontier town on the banks of the Kennebec River now known as Augusta, Maine. Even more so, because when I first read the book I had had a homebirth with midwives 1 to 2 years before. It was an incredibly awesome, life-changing event, and this was my 2nd child's birth.

There are several noteworthy aspects of this book. It is a well-written, exciting, and quite readable biography to start. Second, it has segments of Martha's diary in the book to compare and see where the biographer was getting her information. Because the Ballard family was important in the growth of this frontier town, we see not only Martha's reactions to events of the day, but also many of the activities that her family participated in regularly.

Martha was a frontier, homebirth midwife and natural healer, attending an average of 33 births per year (a total of 814 during the diary's span) and treating the townspeople (especially women and children) for their ailments and lending physical and emotional support. Her husband ran a lumber mill and was a surveyor for the region and was expected to participate in the militia. Martha and her daughters as well as the other women in the town wove their own cloth. Besides growing much of the family's food, Martha also grew the herbs she used to treat her patients. In her diary, she kept a record of the births and deaths-including those attended by others. She also noted transactions of family business.

Another fascinating aspect is that Martha practiced her profession at a time when doctors were starting to cut into the business of the midwives. Given my experiences, I wanted to know why anyone would choose a doctor for birth instead. A Midwife's Tale does partially address this question. Martha Ballard and Dr. Cony had very different practices. At the time, I believe the women preferred midwives. But the doctors actively (and sometimes aggressively) sought the business for themselves. They tended to have more education and were wealthy, respected, male citizens. They had greater influence with the men of the area, who were the ones to go for help at the time of the birth. In later years, they also campaigned against midwives. Migration also had an impact as women moved away from family and friends and lost the influence of the women's circle.

This is a more personal and detailed glimpse of history than we normally see. It is a fascinating read for anyone due to the historical content. But especially for women who have an interest in women's history.

A PBS documentary was made by American Experience (same title) in 1998. I did not see it, but may one day.

The book also notes that Martha Ballard was the sister of Clara Barton's grandmother, Dorothy Barton.

related-Martha Ballard, Hallowell and Augusta, Maine, Kennebec River Valley, social life and customs, midwives, frontier life 18th-19th century, Commonwealth of Massachusetts, women's history, labor/work of women in United States history, medical practices

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