Skip to main content



Twenty years after its initial publication, Laurel Thatcher Ulrich's Pulitzer Prize winning monograph A midwife's tale: the life of Martha Ballard based on her diary, 1785–1812 (1990) still serves as a major benchmark in women's labour/economic history mainly because it provides scholars with a window into the life of a turn-of-the-nineteenth-century lay American rural healer not through the comments of an outsider, but through the words of the healer herself. While, on the surface, Ballard's encoded, repetitive, and quotidian diary may seem trivial and irrelevant to historians, as Ulrich notes, ‘it is in the very dailiness, the exhaustive, repetitious dailiness, that the real power of Martha Ballard's book lies … For her, living was to be measured in doing’ (p. 9). By piecing together ‘ordinary’ primary source material to form a meaningful, extraordinary socio-cultural narrative, Ulrich elucidates how American midwives, such as Martha Ballard, functioned within the interstices of the private and public spheres. A midwife's tale is thus not only methodologically significant, but also theoretically important: by illustrating the economic contributions that midwives made to their households and local communities, and positioning the organizational skill of multitasking as a source of female empowerment, it revises our understanding of prescribed gender roles during the early American Republic (1783–1848). Even though A midwife's tale is clearly limited in terms of time (turn-of-the-nineteenth century) and place (rural Maine), it deserves the renewed attention of historians – especially those interested in gender relations and wage-earning, the economic value of domestic labour, and women's work before industrialization.

Hide All

1 Jeanne Boydston, ‘The woman who wasn't there: women's market labor and the transition to capitalism in the United States’, in Paul. A. Gilje, ed., Wages of independence (Madison, WI, 1997), p. 23.

2 Carol Groneman and Mary Beth Norton, ‘To toil the livelong day’, in Carol Groneman and Mary Beth Norton, eds., America's women at work, 1780–1980 (Ithaca, NY, 1987), p. 10.

3 William Ray Arney, Power and the profession of obstetrics (Chicago, IL, 1982), p. 40.

4 Ibid., p. 41.

5 Boydston, ‘The woman who wasn't there’, p. 27.

6 Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, A midwife's tale: the life of Martha Ballard, based on her diary, 1785–1812 (New York, NY, 1990), p. 33.

7 Ibid., p. 199.

8 Ibid., p. 197.

9 Ibid., p. 198.

10 Ibid., p. 40.

11 Boydston, ‘The woman who wasn't there’, p. 31.

12 Ulrich, A midwife's tale, p. 29.

13 Ibid., pp. 79–80, 140–3.

14 As quoted in Boydston, ‘The woman who wasn't there’, p. 27.

15 Ulrich, A midwife's tale, p. 10.

16 Ibid., p. 199.

17 Boydston, ‘The woman who wasn't there’, p. 35.

18 Ulrich, A midwife's tale, p. 28.

19 Ibid., p. 255.

20 Ibid., p. 247.

21 Ibid., p. 178.

22 Ibid., p. 179.

Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

The Historical Journal
  • ISSN: 0018-246X
  • EISSN: 1469-5103
  • URL: /core/journals/historical-journal
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *


Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 8
Total number of PDF views: 44 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 314 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between September 2016 - 19th November 2017. This data will be updated every 24 hours.