A Midwife's Tale by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich

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A Midwife’s Tale by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich tells the story of Martha Ballard; a midwife, healer, wife, mother, and eighteenth-century woman. In this book, the reader learns of this hardworking woman, the social web she lived in, and the workings of her town through personal accounts from the diarist and the author’s thorough analysis of them.

Martha is a diligent woman who makes good use of her connections with the rest of the female community. She keeps up-to-date accounts of how her patients are doing, even after treatment has stopped, showing her concern for others. She seems to love interaction based on detail of visitors to see her or her to see them rather than detail of why the visits actually take place. She also isn’t the one to gossip given her lack of little to no scandal mentioned within her diary. As the title of the book implies, Martha was a midwife; attending 816 births in twenty-seven years. She was more than just that though. “In twentieth-century terms, she was simultaneously a midwife, nurse, physician, mortician, pharmacist, and attentive wife”(40); though in her time these distinctions in her services did not exist.

As a healer, Martha used remedies that “obviously rested on a long accumulation of English experience”(50), It would seem she borrowed from medical books of the time despite the fact that the diary holds no evidence that she so much as read one. It did, however, take note on how she took care of her family’s ills such as “her own husband’s sore throat”(40), as well as her neighbors. Of course, not all remedies would work out and some of her patients did die and prepared a few of their bodies for burial, such as the three “between August 3 and 24, 1787”(40).

There were other healers such as Martha who “move in and out of sickrooms unannounced”(61), but unlike the doctors that appeared, the women had no specific title stowed upon them. They were not considered professionals and practiced what is labeled as social medicine. These social healers did not seek to be “distinguished from the community they served”(61) as professionals did and sought to develop close and personal affiliations with their patients and community, thus why they are a bit harder to find in records by historians. They also weren’t trained institutionally and were learned slowly with a “build up of seemingly casual experience”(62). They may start out as simply a servant or a helpful neighbor, but eventually they could become a recognized healer with enough practice, experience, and dedication.

At home, other than making sure her family was well, she harvested flax, a fiber used to make linen, and made cloth with her daughters, nieces, and “a succession of hired helpers like Hannah Cool and Polly Savage. She relied on married neighbors like Jane Welch or Hannah Hamlin to help her inexperienced girls warp the loom, the girls in turn weaving for other families in town”(71). This, along with the trading of materials for cloth, “wove a social web”(71) in the town of Hallowell.

In the book, the author paints a picture of checkered linen of blue and white where squares would be either just white, blue, or a lighter mix. “Think of the white threads as women’s activities, the blue as men’s”(75), and the lighter combination as what brought the two sexes together. Women maintained the home and had no political life, whereas men “[monopolized] public businesses” and “households were formally patriarchal”(76). However, there was a “social and economic exchange that engaged women beyond the household”(76).

Women traded their skills between each other, paying one service given to them with a service in return and also “extended the skills of their female neighbors”(79). When someone needed to borrow something, it was lent by someone else whom may latter ask to borrow something that they themselves need. It was a continuous network of giving and receiving that helped the women of the community get what they needed and...
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