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A Midwife’s Tale

Laurel Thatcher Ulrich

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Laurel Thatcher Ulrich was born in 1938 and raised in Sugar City, Idaho. She received her B.A. from the University of Utah. Soon after, she moved to New England and received her Ph.D. from the University of New Hampshire. After graduating, she became a professor of American history at the same school, specializing in the histories of women in early America. During this time, she married fellow teacher Gael Ulrich and became the mother of three girls and two boys. Like the women whose lives she studied, Ulrich gained a firsthand experience of the struggles inherent in balancing the needs of a family with both at-home and office work. Despite this struggle, Ulrich remained dogged in her research, finding and bringing to light the lives of women who were so often ignored in the histories of men.

In 1982, Ulrich compiled these histories and used them as the material for her first book, Good Wives: Image and Reality in the Lives of Women in Early New England, 1650 –1750. Around this time, Ulrich was doing research in Augusta, Maine, and decided to look up two diaries she had seen in a bibliography of women’s history. Though the first was a disappointing ten-page typescript, the other diary belonged to a woman named Martha Ballard—two fat volumes bound in homemade linen covers. Because she had found so few documents written by women during her research for Good Wives, Ulrich was awed by the sheer bulk of it. The faded ink made reading difficult, but Ulrich transcribed several pages, planning to turn them into a grant application for a summer fellowship to study the historically vital book. Without documentation there is no history, and women in history had left very few documents behind. In the public histories and town records from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, women were either not mentioned at all or were mere names attached to the dealings of their husbands—and sometimes their names were not even correct. Other than Martha, few women had left private records of their lives, and none so faithfully kept as Martha’s had been.

Ulrich formed the idea for A Midwife’s Tale soon after she began her research. A mix of the journal itself and editorial commentary, the book would be written in a more accessible format than the original diary and would therefore reach a much wider audience. Though other historians had studied the diary, they had used only the more dramatic entries in their work and dismissed the bulk of the diary as pointless day-to-day trivia. This trivia, however, is what Ulrich found particularly gripping: only through these small details can the lives of women from the eighteenth century be fully revealed. Ulrich spent eight years transforming the life she discovered in the diary into A Midwife’s Tale, which wound up being almost three times the length she had originally planned it to be. In a speech that she later gave at Bancroft University, Ulrich talked about how working with Martha’s diary, begun when Martha was fifty years old, helped Ulrich comprehend ways in which the second half of a person’s life could be seen as a new beginning.

Published in 1990, A Midwife’s Tale debuted to highly positive critical response. Several critics commended it for the insight it offered into the lives of eighteenth-century women, and even more critics were impressed by the way it illuminated life in early New England as a whole. In the educational community, reaction to the book was even more effusive, and Ulrich earned the Bancroft Prize, the Joan Kelly and John H. Dunning prizes, and the Pulitzer Prize for History in 1991. Perhaps more important to Ulrich, the success of A Midwife’s Tale brought greater attention to the life and diary of Martha Ballard. In 1992, a complete transcription of the diary, written by Robert and Cynthia McCauseland, was finally published.

During her tenure as a MacArthur Fellow, Ulrich collaborated with filmmaker Laurie Kahn-Leavitt on a documentary based on the book that would air on the PBS series “The American Experience.” A simplification of A Midwife’s Tale, the documentary offers a clearer look at Martha Ballard’s life by suggesting many of its smaller moments and entirely omitting the bulk of the historical context. Several scenes were reenacted, bolstered by dialogue but narrated largely with voice-overs from the diary that occasionally were not included in Ulrich’s book. Ulrich herself narrated as well. In voiceovers and interviews, she described both Martha’s life and part of the process by which A Midwife’s Tale came into being. Not included in the book, this latter discussion gave audiences a glimpse into the life of a historian as well as that of a midwife. The documentary aired on PBS in 1997. Currently a Phillips Professor of Early American History at Harvard University, Ulrich continues to write books that bring the forgotten lives of early American women to light.

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