By age 50, most women during the post-Revolutionary era had five children still living at home, ranging in age from 7-31 years. The maintenance of a household required the hard work of each member. Men worked mainly outside the home: hunting, planting, and earning a living; while women ran the residence and took care of the children. Children contributed to the wealth of the household by producing goods used for sale and barter. Girls helped with indoor chores and boys worked outside farming and hunting. However, while the contributions of men are well documented, the history of women goes largely untold. If not for a carefully kept diary, the life of Martha Ballard would also have faded into the past. At first glance, Martha’s tale may seem atypical, however, she and women like her formed the backbone of frontier life.
Martha Ballard was a wife, a mother of six, and caretaker of a smoothly running household. She provided a home for her niece and a refuge for those in need. As if this weren’t enough to keep a woman busy Martha also had a career. The area’s foremost midwife, Martha held the highest paying job a woman of her day could pursue. Before being launched into their own households of their own, Martha’s girls and niece helped with weaving, sewing, cooking, and washing; enabling Martha to pursue midwifery. Martha received payment for her services in the form of cash, goods, and return services since the community functioned on a barter basis. The arrival of prominent physician, Daniel Cony, diminishes the presence of midwives as early as 1787; just nine years after Martha Ballard took residence in Hallowell. Since we know that she attended hundreds of births over her twenty-plus years in the town, this is obviously a false perspective. We learn from Laurel Thatcher Ulrich that “since [Cony’s] brief paper makes no mention of a midwife, or of any woman other than the patient, it might seem that the obstetrical revolution was complete in Hallowell by that date, that doctors had supplanted midwives.” She goes on to note that:
“Martha’s diary confirms that Cony delivered at least one woman
in 1787-his own wife-but it reduces his obstetrical career to its
proper place in the medical history of the town. Several doctors,
including some from neighboring towns, occasionally attended
births in Hallowell, but their work was supplementary to that of
the midwives. Martha herself attended 60 percent of the births
in Hallowell in the year Cony presented his paper to the
Massachusetts Medical Society, and she was not the only female practitioner active at the time. Martha and her peers were not
only handling most of the deliveries, they were providing much of
the medical care as well. In Martha’s diary, it is doctors, not
midwives, who seem marginal.”
This evidence raises questions regarding the extent to which womens’ roles have been diminished by history. How many stories of exceptional women have gone untold?
So who was Martha Ballard? Her diary, which started out as a daily record, gradually became subtly infused with her personality. It is obvious that she was a good neighbor and a strong woman. Martha seemed to take the pressure of caring for others in stride; was able to travel at all hours of the day and night to care for her patients. At times, Martha was forced to travel through bleak Maine winters on horseback, over rivers, and through thunder and rain. Even the most dreadful weather could not keep Martha from tending to her ailing neighbors. Surviving the loss of three of her own children, she continued her career with professionalism and compassion. This is evident in the August 13, 1787 entry of her diary involving the scarlet fever epidemic: “William mc Masters Expired at 3 O Clock ys morn. mrs Patin & I laid out the Child. poor mother, how distress[d] her Case.” During over 1,000 births, Martha lost no mothers, and very few babies. She was still working at 60 years of age, though her business had declined after she and Mr. Ballard finally moved to their own cleared land.
Frontier life in Maine during the post-Revolutionary era consisted of hard work, long winters, and a barter-based economy. The new American monetary system was struggling to become widely used; settlers continued to use British currency, and the barter system dominated. In such a small community, neighbors helped each other when needed, not necessarily expecting immediate payment in return. Temperamental rivers such as the Kennebec opened and closed without warning, making water travel difficult at best. New Americans sustained a strong relationship with God, relying on faith for comfort and guidance. Church was a big part of life, making decisions on behalf of the people and the state. Children were expected to behave Christian-like and to attend church. A new social and political order dominated after the Revolution; with more emphasis on personal freedom. Laurel Thatcher Ulrich describes this period as “not only an era of political revolution but of medical, economic, and sexual transformation. Not surprisingly, it was also a time when a new ideology of womanhood self-consciously connected domestic virtue to the survival of the state.”
During this time, not only did the settlers have to contend with political, religious, and socio-economical unrest; they also battled scarlet fever and diphtheria epidemics that decimated much of the town. Martha Ballard cared for numerous patients with her usual care and compassion. It seems that among her many roles were that of healer, physician, pharmacist, and nurse in addition to midwife. All of this might lead one to believe that Martha Ballard was a superwoman; however, she struggled with her faith like anyone else. After attending to Rebecca Foster, who was pregnant as a result of a rape committed by the town Judge who was eventually acquitted of the crime, Martha began to distance herself from the church. She stopped attending for a time, while dealing with uncertainties about her own faith. Though Martha was obviously an exceptional woman, she was also simply a human being.
Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s film, book, and website offer great insight not only to the historical profession of midwifery and Martha Ballard, but also into the life of women of the time. Martha’s diary had been overlooked as a piece of historical significance until Ulrich unearthed it, studied it, and deciphered it. She took great care in the preservation of the work, and really came to care about Martha Ballard in the process. This tedious undertaking involved much more than simply reading the diary and recording its data. Ulrich states: “The diary does not stand alone. A serious reader requires research in a wide range of sources, from Sewall’s diary to Ephriam Ballard’s maps. Wills, tax lists, deeds, court records, and town-meeting minutes provide additional documentation, as do medical treatises, novels, religious tracts, and the fragmentary papers of Maine physicians. The film and book create an interesting and effective history, leading one to wonder about the parts of Martha’s life not included in her diary. For example, what we do not know is how did Martha feel about her husband? What was her childhood like? Who would she be if she were alive today? But what we do know is, “It is not as easy as it once was to dismiss domestic concerns as trivia.” And that is a contribution Martha would have been glad to make.