Sunday, October 4, 2009

A Midwife's Tale

A Midwife's Tale

Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, A Midwife's Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on the Diary, 1785-1812 (1990). This is a Pulitzer Prize winning history book--and it deserved it. Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, originally from Sugar City, Idaho, is one of the more highly respected senior scholars of American History. When mean, nasty people (including yours truly) attacked the integrity of Michael Bellesiles some years ago, the panel of outside experts that Emory University asked to clear up the controversy included Professor Ulrich. That panel's report ended Bellesiles' tenured position at Emory University, pointing to numerous serious problems that raised serious questions about Bellesiles' honesty, not just with respect to Arming America, but in how Bellesiles responded to the panel's questions.

Ulrich has take one of those remarkable documents of the early Republic period, Martha Ballard's diary from the years 1785-1812, and written a very interesting biography around it, focusing on Ballard's career as a midwife, delivering 998 babies over her career. Ulrich has dug through a variety of records of the time, as well as family history that was collected because of great-niece, Clara Barton, founder of the American Red Cross.

For those who think of doctors and midwives as enemies, this may be a rather surprising book. Ulrich shows how Ballard was quite prepared to call in a doctor on the rare occasions when a delivery was complex--and that doctors, instead of regarding midwives as a poor substitute, recognized that for most ordinary childbirths, this was a perfectly fine medical solution. In addition, Ballard took care of a great many minor medical maladies that today would be handled in some medical groups by a physician's assistant. From my other reading--and from reading a bit between the lines in Ulrich's book--the actual advantages that doctors enjoyed over midwives, for the vast majority of medical difficulties, were pretty small.

While the focus is midwifery, Ulrich also shows the complex nature of social relationships that expressed themselves through midwifery. In polemical hands, this could easily have turned into "Sisterhood sticks it to the patriarchy," but Ulrich manages to keep the focus on the fundamental gender split in Colonial society: men did politics and war; women were domestic, and helped each other out in one of the few tasks that intrinsically requires sex discrimination: giving birth. At the same, she points to the interrelationships that crossed gender boundaries--the neighborliness that was both part of a Christian society, and unavoidable on the frontier. It was a society that part of the larger market economy, but also still a society with significant communitarian sensibilities and traditions.

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