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Joseph Kaminski

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November 23, 2017

A Midwife’s Tale: The Story of Individualism in an Institutionalized History


Martha Ballard was an American midwife and medicinal healer who has, in the two hundred years succeeding her death, allowed historians to better understand colonial history through an individualistic and more feminine perspective. Most aspects of domestic life from Martha’s world was recorded and transcribed through the economic records of men and the period transcripts that saw life through a more omnipresent political and/or religious point of view; and because of this, many personal stories and thoughts have been lost through the ‘trivia’ of historical documentation. For twenty-seven years, nearly three full decades, Martha Ballard wrote thousands of diary entries which today serve as a gateway into understanding the period through an important missing link: that of the ‘average woman’s’ perspective.

History is not the accumulation of three hundred and some odd ‘great men’ that are oftentimes cited in many lower leveled history textbooks, nor is history the subject of faux-purified whitewashing. It is not the ‘great men’ or some falsified ‘great race’ that should have a grasp on historical accuracy, but rather the accumulation of sources pried from the individuals – no matter how obscure or ‘unimportant’ – that lived, breathed, and died within the actual history itself. With documentation provided by women being ‘scarce’, especially throughout early American history, Ballard’s writing has allowed historians to understand the aspects of living in ways they haven’t been and wouldn’t be able to without. As Laurel Ulrich stated in the film adaption of her research, “before she was a voice, she was a mark on a page.”[1] It is through the series of over ten thousand entries that Ulrich used to connect with a woman who had died over a century prior.

Martha Ballard's Diary; A Midwife

These diary entries, although a fantastic collection of primary sources, proved to be challenging to understand at first. It can be very difficult for historians to step into a world that they have never been able to understand on such an individualized level, and Laurel Ulrich found herself in a symbolic “room [with] a bunch of people”[2] that she had never seen or heard of before. She had to get to know these people on a historical level to piece together the collection of facts within Ballard’s writing. The field of history heavily relies on documents, and in order to understand the in-depth details left behind by Martha Ballard, Ulrich needed to use external documents to piece everything together. Her method of evaluating sources through cross-checking references through external primary sources and secondary historical works did wonders for her research.

It is through these external documents that Ulrich could begin to understand the people and places that Martha Ballard’s life contained. According to her statement in the film, she was able to map the midwife’s movement throughout the town through the works of cartographers that were from the same decade; and since Ballard’s job was technically within the medical field of the time, Ulrich was able to trace the spread of disease alongside the daily life of this ‘average’ woman. By doing this, she was able to cross-check her sources throughout the documented remains of the long-gone community that Ballard was a part of. This essentially ‘opened’ Ulrich’s eyes to the contextual ‘trivia’ that Ballard left behind.

During the eight years of research that it took to create A Midwife’s Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, she fought against notions presented by other historians that simply labeled the book as “interesting, but filled with trivia”[3]. Prior to Ulrich’s study, historians seemed to have dismissed the midwife’s diary on the grounds that it was nothing more than trivial observations and too ordinary for scholars to care about. Her research, book, and film seemed to have opened the floodgates for the argument that it is the ‘trivia’ that serves as the glue within our history books. Through analyzing and comparing the diary with other primary sources of the time period, Ulrich evaluated her sources on an academic level, and it is also how she managed to contribute to the field of modern history.

It is not the great men, the great race, or the great facts that keep our history together – but rather the individuals that recorded the world around them through their own unique perspective. It is through Ulrich’s research that we can begin to see previously dismissed or undocumented cases as history take the center-stage. The book and film adaption that relied heavily on Ulrich’s research revolve around the life of a woman in the late 18th century; and it can be disturbing to realize that before Ulrich, the themes of women’s work in both a domesticated and communal sense were malnourished within scholarly research. With this, her contribution is that she gave the world an insight into an otherwise well-known historical timeframe through a more individualistic approach.

[1] YouTube. June 08, 2017. Accessed September 17, 2017. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SwAW5MngbNo. 4:44

[2] YouTube. June 08, 2017. Accessed September 17, 2017. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SwAW5MngbNo. 9:26

[3] YouTube. June 08, 2017. Accessed September 17, 2017. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SwAW5MngbNo. 7:20.

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