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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.

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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.

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The Historical Journal
  • ISSN: 0018-246X
  • EISSN: 1469-5103
  • URL: /core/journals/historical-journal
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