Posted by: emilysuzanneclark | August 16, 2013

Books I love: Laurel Ulrich’s A Midwife’s Tale

A Midwife'sTaleThere are books in American religious history that I love. Laurel Thatcher Ulrich‘s A Midwife’s Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary, 1785-1812 is one of them. In fact, it might be my favorite book in the study of American religions. It would not be a stretch to say that I want to be like Ulrich when I grow up, academically speaking. A Midwife’s Tale is masterful storytelling and good history. It was lived religion before lived religion was a thing that was cool. And it was lived religion that gave careful attention to the historical frame of the story.

Closely reading the diary of midwife Martha Ballard, combined with other primary source documents, such as other contemporary diaries and maps, Ulrich reconstructs life in late-eighteenth/early-nineteenth Hallowell in full technicolor. Ulrich weaves the social history of the area with gender history, religious history, cultural history and presents a complex and detailed micro-history of Ballard’s life and context. The time period that Ballard’s diary covers is a contentious time of change in the early republic (“an era of profound change” according to Ulrich), and yet Ballard’s diary does not directly reflect upon the changing social and political climate of the era. However, with historical investigation, the diary sheds light upon elements of Hallowell life noticeably missing from the diaries of male leaders of the area.

The website that accompanies A Midwife’s Tale further demonstrates the book’s major contribution to the field. The site,, allows readers to follow Ulrich in the recreation of Hallowell. Described as “a site that show you how to piece together the past from fragments that have survived,” the website complements what I love most about the book. While American history and American religious history need grand narratives, I’ve always been more interested in the lives, practices, and beliefs of people. Examining how people in history lived their lives is what got me interested in American religious history. One of my main goals in my research and teaching is to situate people’s lives in multiple layers of culture and in relation to other people and to do so well. Ulrich’s work is a great model of this.

Ballard’s diary—and Ulrich’s expansion upon the excerpts—depict a world where the male and female spheres were separate and run by their respective genders but also overlapped. Ballard and her husband maintained separate gendered family economies, yet they help one another. Ballard collects her payment from male members of the families she attends to, demonstrating how men and women often did business together. Martha also illustrates how not all women of the early republic symbolized the ideal republican motherhood lauded by male writers. Though her male neighbor and contemporary Henry Sewall elevated women to this motherly ideal, Ballard’s toughness and endurance reflect a colonial tenacity less concerned with cultivating future political leaders. The image of “social medicine” Ulrich creates is illuminating for it shows the interconnected medical networks of doctors and midwives. Furthermore, when David Hall notes how Samuel Sewall called for a minister and a midwife in Worlds of Wonder, Hall also notes how midwives were approached with some trepidation, Anne Hutchinson’s religious dissent being an obvious reason for suspicion. Ulrich’s description of “social medicine” continues to reflect the complex overlapping world of religion and

Using Ballard’s diary, Ulrich is also able to explore New England premarital sex and marriage norms. Weddings were not celebratory affairs, and the Ballards even missed some of their own children’s weddings. Premarital sex and children born out of wedlock were normal and everyday in colonial and early republic New England, disputing the common depiction of Puritan sexual coldness and speaking to the seduction anxieties of the early republic tracked by Julia Stern’s The Plight of Feeling. The rape accusations of Mary Foster against Hallowell men, including a local judge, emerges as a good case study for examining the differences between Ballard’s diary and that of H. Sewall’s. Sewall disagreed with the religious views Rev. Foster sermonized from the pulpit; Sewall found them heretical and “Arminian.” Foster sued Sewall more than once for spreading lies about him further complicating their relationship. When Mary Foster filed charges, Sewall is not sympathetic. Ballard on the other hand is and supports Foster’s claim of being terrorized by men in the area around the time of the claimed rape. As part of the social web of women in the area, Ballard visited her neighbors and received visitors frequently. In these social visits, Foster told her of the threats she received, including men trying to enter her house while her husband was away. Based on Ballard’s reflection of Foster’s stories, it would indeed have been a terrifying experience. Ballard’s narration of the events surrounding the Foster/North trial give another side of the story, a more human side.

Ballard’s diary regularly reports “births, the weather, and her own whereabouts.” In detailing her own movements and whereabouts, Ballard’s diary pays attention to environment and space. The conditions of the Kennebec River dictate the ease of her travel to other homes, and the weather influences her work at home. The domestic space of the home is a primary place of women’s lives, and a central location of Martha’s gendered family economy. However, Ballard’s travels throughout the area indicate the constant movement of women of her era, particularly midwives. Her work and extensive time spent outside her own home complicate the binary male/female, public/private sphere divide.

No book is perfect, and A Midwife’s Tale does give me pause in one main regard. Ulrich views Ballard as a historical heroine. She lauds Ballard for her positive traits—her “toughness,” her “tenderness,” her endurance, her knowledge, her medical leadership, and her midwifery skill. This is the danger of such a project. At what point does Ulrich’s contextualization of Ballard’s life end and Ulrich’s interpretation of Ballard’s life begin? Ulrich has and should continue to be praised for A Midwife’s Tale, as the product is a historical feat. However, if ethnography and the Writing Culture project have taught historians anything, it is to pay particular attention to the separate voices of ourselves and our subjects. But this is a small criticism.



  1. […] medicine is, in some ways, a false distinction. I started thinking about this when I read A Midwife’s Tale, Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s incredible analysis of the diary of Martha Ballard, and 18th […]

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