A MIDWIFE'S TALE: THE LIFE OF MARTHA BALLARD BASED ON HER DIARY, 1785-1812 by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 480 pp., $24.95 LATE 18th-century Maine might be the last place you would expect to bump into feminist history. So it is a pleasant surprise to find behind the unassuming diary of an 18th-century Augusta midwife a tribute to the fairer (but hardly weaker) sex, and a glimpse of a community and economy unrecorded by most chroniclers of the period.
Martha Ballard was a Massachusetts native who moved in 1777 to what is now Augusta, Maine, with her husband, Ephraim - a miller, surveyor, and loyal Tory. The mother of nine children (six of whom survived), Ballard reported delivering 814 babies in her 27-year diary. Between frequent, and often perilous, midwifery missions, Ballard washed, cooked, churned butter, made cheese, candles, and soap, grew her own vegetables and medicinal herbs, and oversaw a significant home weaving operation.
It comes as little surprise that this hardy woman was great aunt to another New Englander famous for her resolve - Clara Barton, founder of the American Red Cross.
Several historians have deemed Ballard's diary too mundane, too full of ``trivia about domestic chores and pastimes'' to be worthy of serious study. But author Laurel Thatcher Ulrich argues, rightly, that something far more important than household hints lurks behind Ballard's laborious entries, namely ``a lost substructure of 18th-century life'' - a decidedly female one.
Though she followed patriarchal custom in referring to houses, wives, and children by the men they belonged to, Ballard and husband Ephraim were really something of an early two-career couple. While Ephraim and sons contributed to the local economy with a family-operated sawmill and gristmill, Martha and daughters participated in a separate - but equally significant - economy run exclusively by women.
The women of Hallowell (as Augusta was then called) traded cloth, cabbage, butter, pork, and spices among themselves, employed their own and their neighbors' daughters, and settled accounts independently of their husbands. In addition, midwife Ballard was paid for each child she delivered, some 30 births a year.
Actually, this female economy, given little attention by official records of the day, was just one element of a larger hidden society of women, which Ballard describes in detail with her own distinctively dry humor.
Ballard's female neighbors rallied to help each other in times of adversity. As many as 10 women regularly turned out to sit with a friend through the early stages of childbirth, often remaining for a celebratory dinner afterward. Ballard herself was one of several local midwives who also served as healers. She routinely braved ice jams, flooding rivers, rearing horses, and nasty falls to tend to her patients. For one December birth, Ulrich explains, Ballard walked across an icy Kennebec ``almost reaching shore before breaking through to her waist.... She dragged herself out, mounted a neighbor's horse, and rode dripping to the delivery.''
And like many of her contemporaries, Ballard suffered loneliness and financial uncertainty in later life while her husband spent more than a year in debtors' prison.
Yet, for all of her trials, this plucky midwife rarely complained, requesting only additional strength from ``the Great parent'' to endure her often difficult lot.
Along with its depictions of a strong and generous feminine society, Ballard's diary offers none of the stereotypical notions of female gatherings. It is devoid of cattiness or gossip. Indeed, Ballard, whose position often provided her with inside information on the most sensational events of Hallowell - including one mass murder and a local judge accused of rape - remained supremely discreet, often to the frustration of a curious reader.
Fortunately, Ulrich uses only snippets of Ballard's diary to illustrate her point, rather than reprinting long passages from the often tedious journal, which is difficult to read, thanks to the midwife's creative spelling and haphazard punctuation. Unfortunately, Ulrich herself is no Michener, with academic analysis that borders at times on the lifeless.
But ultimately it is Ballard's matter-of-fact voice the reader is left with - sharing a tale of spirit and community, a testament to the perspicacity and resilience of women.