Semester’s End, Reflections and Anticipations

Well, my Women’s History compatriots, this semester is at an end.  I read through my entire blog this morning, from start to finish, and I’m wondering where the semester has gone.  It’s probably camping out with Virginia Dare.  In all seriousness, I was struck by how much I’ve learned this semester and how much history I have explored.  This will be my 23rd post of the semester.  That’s a lot of posting for 14 weeks.

Briefly, briefly, briefly, I would like to take a quick trip through five of my favorite posts of the semester (in publication order).  See if you catch a theme!

#1. A Midwife’s Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary, 1785-1812: I loved this book!  Reading Martha’s story and learning about midwifery has continued to crop up in the strangest places ever since I wrote this post.  I met a nurse who’s husband was a history buff, so I recommended the book as something they could read together.  I was in my church one Sunday talking about natural remedies that I learned from this book (onions, what?!).  I was in Short Story class comparing things that Martha did medically to some things that characters did in the stories.  Martha Ballard gave me a lot of knowledge that I have continued to use.  Also, Martha Ballard, Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, and my class discussion about this book all made me start questioning modern childbirth practices.  My mom has a couple of hospital horror stories from her pregnancies that I don’t want to have.  I don’t know if I’ll have kids yet or not, but if I do, I’m seriously considering the midwife route as opposed to the hospital environment.  How you have your children is a huge decision, and without Martha Ballard, I never would have considered the options.

#2. Dear Women, Please Vote This Year: I like this post because it’s funny!  Obviously, it would be impossible for Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucy Stone to have voted in the 2012 election; they have been dead for a century.  But the thought game involved in writing this post — ah, that was fun.  I also hope it was entertaining.  Plus, writing this post gave me a chance to really dig into Obama’s 2012 platform and compare it to my knowledge of suffrage as a movement.  For what specific reasons would the suffragists choose Obama?  Those kinds of questions helped me to probe into Obama’s plans for the next four years.  I’ve been an Obama supporter since 2007, but I was admittedly a little complacent this year in my politics-watching.  By really digging into the platforms to write this post, I reaffirmed my connection to the Democratic party and was able to make an informed voting decision this year.  I voted with the suffragists.

#3. “Can women have it all?” And other bull**** questions: My trip to the Connecticut Forum: Wow.  What a trip.  I think about what all of the panelists at the State of Women 2012 panel said frequently.  It mulls around in the back of my brain, Gloria Steinem pursuing emotional freedom for men and women, Michelle Bernard shouting about transvaginal probes, Connie Schultz laughing at Rush Limbaugh, Ashley Judd and the god of her understanding.  I said at the bottom of my event review that this trip to the Connecticut Forum felt like an inauguration.  Without any question, it was.  After the CT Forum, I began questioning and challenging everything in conversations with my friends and with others.  The day I met my boyfriend’s father, we delved into a massive conversation about women’s liberation and high heels.  He raised a valid question:  Why do women in positions of authority wear high heels if they are painful and detrimental to your feet?  In this conversation, I mentally tried to emulate Gloria Steinem and Ashley Judd at the Connecticut Forum.  I wanted to possess a shred of Steinem’s wisdom and Judd’s ambassadorial tone.  Finally, I thought, ah finally, I am a feminist.

#4. Sarah Hale, I Love You: I cannot possibly begin to describe how much I love Sarah Hale.  She’s wonderful.  She’s hilarious.  And I can’t use the word female at all without thinking of Sarah.  I specifically reword things to take female and male out of my conversations.  Isn’t that crazy?  I got so involved in the story of her campaign with Vassar that I saw all of the logic of her arguments and started to agree with her.  Sarah Hale has made me phenomenally more conscious of the language that I use, both in formal writing and in everyday speech.  That consciousness is important to develop, because if we continue to use inaccurate language to describe our problems, then we will never arrive at accurate solutions.  Also, even by fighting to equalize terminology, Sarah Hale was laying the groundwork for feminist literary criticism. Without Sarah Hale, there is no Luce Irigaray.  And since I love Irigaray, I love Hale.

#5. Full of Quivers After Reading Quiverfull: Quiverfull was a fascinating read.  It was wonderful and horrifying and brilliant all at the same time.  It felt like the capstone to my first semester pounding into women’s studies.  Mostly, Quiverfull made me feel indignant that such obvious harm is being done to women right now.  And in the Church.  Having grown up in the evangelical Protestant world, I would like to believe that the safest place for people to be people is within the arms of the Christian church.  But all too often, someone who runs to the church’s embrace soon finds themselves suffocating from its death squeeze grip of hierarchical terror.  Say it with me now, what?  In no way does that make sense to me, and yet for so many people, it is the reality.  The churches presented in this book do harmful things to humanity, and it makes me angry.  Reading Quiverfull was at times like a call to action.  I live, function and operate within this world that so desperately needs feminism, and now I know, it is my duty and obligation to future generations to fight to make my world a safer place for humanity.  That’s my quiverfull.

Farewell to you all, all of my lovely followers!  Thank you for joining me in this four-month endeavor to learn some things about women in the U.S. throughout history.  If you are interested in something different, come back next semester for my second women’s history experiment:  Women in Christian History with Dr. Amy Davis Abdallah.  Until then, this has been Women in American History with Professor Bethany Johnson, as retold by Maggie Felisberto.  Hope you’ve enjoyed the ride!

A Midwife’s Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary, 1785-1812

In A Midwife’s Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary, 1785-1812, Laurel Thatcher Ulrich transports readers across time to a moment when Maine was still the frontier and midwives were still major providers of medical care. Ulrich carefully weaves information from Martha Ballard’s diary together with other diaries from the same time, legal records, local histories and even comparative fiction to tell the story of Martha’s life in a fast-paced and readable format. The book sets events into a rough chronological order, but within chapters Ulrich moves freely within the diary to recreate the atmosphere of Martha’s work and family. The result is a quaint and curious book about a midwife who delivered over eight hundred babies in the course of her career.

Ulrich frequently pulls material from other diaries and legal records that either cross-reference or fact-check the information from Martha’s diary; she is constantly bringing up external sources to flesh out Martha’s narrative. These extra sources vary from chapter to chapter. Ulrich uses the novel The Country of Pointed Firs by Sarah Orne Jewett in the first chapter as a focal point for midwives in New England society, especially the tense relationships between herbalist midwives and academic doctors. The novel’s interpretation of New England midwifery, through the character Mrs. Todd, is firmly entrenched in a mystic tradition, but Ulrich tears the mysticism out of midwifery with Martha and her humanity. This comparison, as well as those later in the book to eighteenth century seduction novels, adds to Martha’s story by showing the fantasized version of the eighteenth century and breaking it down. Martha is a real woman, and her midwife practice, as well as other aspects of eighteenth century medicine, are described in detail. Some of these scenes are graphic, including childbirth details and a mass murder.

Apart from some disturbing moments, A Midwife’s Tale is a readable book. Ulrich uses the English language not only as a means to convey plot and dialogue, but also as a tool to show how Martha grows and develops over time. Martha’s original spelling and grammar is a fun puzzle to decipher, and though Ulrich provides the reader with enough tools to understand Martha’s English, she rarely translates the language into modern English. The haphazard linguistics of Martha’s diary entries become entertaining as Ulrich’s writing constantly reaches high quality standards. Because Ulrich pulls not only from Martha’s diary, but from several other diaries and legal papers, there is a wide variety of diction in this book. The variety adds to the entertainment value, though a less-secure reader might feel threatened by the different and notably strange spellings found in the diaries.

Martha Ballard lived an exciting and exhausting life as a midwife, and her character grows through different trials in her life. Not only does Martha form an integral part of the Hallowell community due to her calling as a midwife, but she is a pillar in the female community both economically and socially. She struggles for attention from her husband and children, fights with her son and trains her daughters, niece and a series of hired helpers how to be good housekeepers. She becomes the main witness in a publicized rape trial and is one of the first responders on the scene of a mass murder. Martha delivers her last baby shortly before her death at the age of seventy-seven, leaving behind a legacy of medicine and maternal love.

Perhaps the most remarkable feat that Ulrich accomplished in A Midwife’s Tale is her ability to create a working narrative out of the chronological happenings in the life of one woman. Ulrich digs to the heart of each epoch in Martha’s life and distills them into plot progression, character development and story. As Martha ages, she becomes freer in her journaling, allowing herself emotional exclamations of weariness or joy; Ulrich uses the shifts in Martha’s tone over time to her advantage. By focusing on one aspect of Martha’s life for each chapter, as they occur in chronological order, Ulrich maintains Martha’s timeline and reveals her character growth in progressive stages.

“Well behaved women seldom make history”

There are only two issues with A Midwife’s Tale. The first problem is the amount of text actually available from Martha’s diary. Each chapter begins with two to three weeks’ worth of diary entries, but each entry ranges from roughly two to twelve sentences, so the sum total of diary entries at the beginning of each chapter hold the length of about three pages. Though there are a considerable number of other entries sprinkled heavily throughout the bulk of each paragraph, a decided majority of the text is Ulrich’s retelling of Martha’s life as opposed to Martha’s telling of her life. Ulrich’s text is solid and thorough, but sometimes the book wanted for lack of Martha’s original work. An extra page of original material per chapter would have helped to balance the dichotomy of the original diary and Ulrich’s narrative.

The second difficulty with this book is its graphic content. As a midwife, Martha is constantly exposed to the workings of life and death. During her career, Martha observes four autopsies, two of which are described, one in extensive detail. Ulrich explains some aspects of Martha’s medical career, including treating patients by bleeding and puking, in vivid detail, providing supplementary medical records from the time period that promote the same practices. Martha regularly treats patients with intestinal worms, and in some places gives account to how many worms a patient vomits up. On top of the medical content, Martha is one of the first responders at the scene of the Purrinton (also spelled Purington or Purrington) murders near her home. Though Martha’s own description of the scene is characteristically terse, Ulrich includes and analyzes the newspaper stories of the same event. The other sources provide graphic detail about the manner of killing and the state of bodies.

A Midwife’s Tale by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich is a fascinating book that will enchant several different audiences from the casual reader to the professional historian. Martha herself is enchanting with her meticulous record of daily life. There are some graphic explanations of Martha’s midwifery practice, and the murder scene receives heavy treatment that may cause discomfort for some readers, but even a squeamish reader will be entranced by Martha’s world.