Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s “A Midwife’s Tale”


“A Midwife’s Tale” is a novel by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, centered on a personal diary of the life of Martha Ballard, a midwife who lived in the early years of New England. The mentioned book was published in 1990. Later, in 1997, it was aired on the PBS series in a more simplified version, “The American Experience.” Thatcher was born in Idaho Sugar City, in 1938. She pursued a degree at the University of Utah and received a B.A. Later, she attended the University of Hampshire and received a Ph.D. After graduating, she became a professor of American history at the same university, where she specialized in the histories of women.

Being a working family woman, she acknowledged the struggles of the women she studied. Moreover, she was able to bring to the limelight the lives of women who were adversely ignored in history, unlike their male counterparts. In 1982 during her study, Thatcher came across the diary of Martha Ballard and decided to analyze it. The ink of the journal had faded, made reading almost impossible, but Thatcher made an effort to transcribe several pages and arranging them into a more accessible and sensible format which a wider audience could use. Laurel ensured this work, which was dismissed as trivia, was transformed into “A Midwife’s Tale”.

Martha Ballard’s journal is perhaps the most enthralling contributor in the historical book that gives us some insights on how women participated in the making of early New England. Martha Ballard’s diary is essential in portraying that women were engaged in other activities except the household chores. Therefore, despite the general outlook of women in history as inessential and underrepresented, the Martha’s journal confirms that they were both educated and engaged in society just like their male counterparts.[1] Laurel’s book was mainly aimed at bringing into the limelight the contributions of women in early American history. However, from a critical view, other hidden perspectives, arguments, and purposes led to the publishing of this novel. First, she wanted to summarize gender roles and relationships in Martha’s time and contrast them with the recent years that were dominated by discrimination. She also attempted to show how commoners made a living in New England after the revolution. In addition, she tackles the issue of literacy among women at such a time when there was no need to read and write. Consequently, her novel translates Martha’s symbolic acts and meaning to the people in her community.

Gender roles and relationships in Martha’s time portray that the husband-wife relationship was founded on mutual sharing of responsibilities. Her book avers the idea that post-revolutionary America was dominated by male patriarchy, where women undertook only the household duties. Martha and her husband Ephraim managed their family economies together, considering that their house. It is worth noting that Martha did not only undertake midwifery activities but also assisted in other routine activities like washing clothes, weaving, entertaining guests, and visiting neighbors.[2] In the perspective of education and literacy, Ulrich suggests that someone in Oxford, MA was interested in educating women. Moreover, because of the educated men in Martha’s life she was given a rare opportunity to write in cursive.

By reconstructing the diary of Martha, Ulrich did a commendable job of constructing a more legitimized picture of America’s post-revolutionary society. Ulrich brought to light the fear people had about the fire because of its destructive force in the early days. Moreover, Martha’s diary exposed the hardships that people of Hallowell experienced during her period. She recounts the hardships by giving a series of accounts of her personal experiences and those around her. Thus, explaining that each day brought obstacles which the entire Hallowell community had to overcome.[3] Therefore, Ulrich’s novel has managed to appreciate the lives of the minorities and week gender in the history of America. Consequently, Thatcher’s book eliminates the antique pattern of approving only influential and powerful white men who had received attention throughout history.

In the twenty-seven years which Martha Ballard recorded her diary; she covered a transition period in America’s history. During this period, the Americans managed to rise and change amid struggles to survive despite being separately identified from their mother country England. During this time, the American society transitioned on several levels, including religion, medicine, and family life. However, the most prominent issue that Laurel covered was the growth in the medical sector, especially in childbirth.[4] In the mid-eighteenth century, the midwifery sector transitioned from the invention of university training and scientific knowledge, which concurrently superseded the “folk medicine.”

In her recount, Martha wrote of the horrors that she witnessed from interference in the natural childbirth method. However, this perception is viewed as a feminist way of bias in a bid to underestimate the transformation of natural processes into significant medical events. Concisely, in her comparisons of mortality rates, Ulrich tends to agree that Martha’s patients survived more than the modern childbirth methods. However, on a more critical approach, the survival of her patients could be attested to her vast experience in delivering healthy babies and mothers.[5] Nonetheless, this argument is weakened by the fact that in difficult cases, the hand of a medical doctor was eventually needed.

Notably, Ulrich manages to bring out Martha’s midwifery skills that were valuable to the society, a situation that allowed her to relate to people of different social classes. In her journal, Martha celebrates the fact that in spite of modernization in the medical field and male doctors attending childbirths, women of all societal standards still opted for a midwife during delivery. She also recorded her penetration in society, from delivering the children of the rich to the poor in ram shackles too. Moreover, her contributions to society made her a member of good status, which allowed her to arbitrate and sometimes resolve matters concerning marriages, debts, religious tensions, rape, and family violence. Besides, her testimony in resolving cases concerning illegitimate children was also among her many legal responsibilities.[6] In addition, by law, Martha Ballard was recognized as a confidential informant on issues that never got into public records.

As is evident from the above analysis, “A Midwives Tale” impacts knowledge to readers of different interests ranging from professional historians to casual readers. However, Ulrich’s ability to interpret the original diary into a flowing critical work with careful documentation is supposed to be regarded with much appreciation. In fact, Laurel Thatcher proves that she has extensive as well as insightful skills to interpret a historical document like that of Martha. Ulrich interpretation dexterously weaves the life of Martha as hardworking, honest, and an individual who served her family and the Hallowell community, not just as a midwife but also as a helpmate, neighbor, and friend.[7] In essence, Martha Ballard’s diary is the most essential literally journal that proves the point that there is so much history of women in the past that has not been discovered. Unfortunately, they might never be published because some have been lost forever.



Ulrich, Laurel Thatcher. A midwife’s tale the life of Martha Ballard, based on her diary, 1785-1812. New York: Vintage Books, 1991.

[1] Laurel, Thatcher Ulrich, A midwife’s tale the life of Martha Ballard, based on her diary,1785-1812. (New York: Vintage Books, 1991), 79

[2] Laurel, Thatcher Ulrich, A midwife’s tale the life of Martha Ballard, based on her diary,1785-1812. (New York: Vintage Books, 1991), 129

[3] Laurel, Thatcher Ulrich, A midwife’s tale the life of Martha Ballard, based on her diary,1785-1812. (New York: Vintage Books, 1991), 207  

[4] Laurel, Thatcher Ulrich, A midwife’s tale the life of Martha Ballard, based on her diary,1785-1812. (New York: Vintage Books, 1991), 52

[5] Laurel, Thatcher Ulrich, A midwife’s tale the life of Martha Ballard, based on her diary,1785-1812. (New York: Vintage Books, 1991), 131

[6] Laurel, Thatcher Ulrich, A midwife’s tale the life of Martha Ballard, based on her diary,1785-1812. (New York: Vintage Books, 1991), 145  

[7] Laurel, Thatcher Ulrich, A midwife’s tale the life of Martha Ballard, based on her diary,1785-1812. (New York: Vintage Books, 1991), 113

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