Back when I was an undergraduate at UCA, one of my history professor’s required us to read the Pulitzer Prize winning book, A Midwife’s Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard Based on Her Diary 1785-182. The book later inspired a PBS series of the same name. Published in 1990 by historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, the book is based on the writings of a midwife in Maine who kept detailed accounts of her work, and, to a lesser degree, her personal life.
Even with the rise of the modern midwife movement, we tend to associate family medical care with men. But during Martha’s time it was primarily women who attended the births and were called out on house calls for ill community members. Martha had a family, but routinely left to care for those who needed her. This was her occupation and she was respected as a healer within her community. Over the course of her career she attended 814 deliveries, and in between her discussions of houses visited and payments received, her diary sheds light on the changing nature of politics in post revolutionary America, the beginnings of what would soon become a male dominated profession, and offers us a glimpse into the martial and sexual world of the time, which wasn’t quite as puritanical as our cultural myths might have us believe.
This book was fundamental in helping me rethink that huge umbrella we often call women’s history, and I return to the book often to remind myself of how much we can learn—how we much we must learn—from the records of everyday people. Rarely are women’s’ lives studied in history classes, even today. And while we focus on the ins and outs of historical wars or elections, we miss huge gaps in our understanding of the past when we overlook the lives of people who tended to the day-to-day interactions of humans—the births, the deaths, the raising of new generations.
And far too often when we talk about women’s history we’re referring to white women’s history, specifically upper class white women whose names sometimes made it into political or economic documents of the time. But we’re a diverse nation and always have been, and how often do we get to read about black women’s history, Latino women’s history or the histories of low-income white women? What about the histories of Cherokee women, from which many of us in this region are descended? What A Midwife’s Tale reminds us is that these histories of everyday people haven’t all disappeared, though they may take work to uncover. And this is where each of us can come in.
If you’re a regular reader of this column, you know I often talk about the importance of sharing stories and oral histories. They’re not just important for families—although that is certainly important on its own. They’re also important for our larger culture and collective history. Much of women’s history, and even men’s history, is passed down through oral histories, kept alive in families by word of mouth or documented in the front covers of family religious texts or handwritten journals. Sadly much of this information is forgotten when families members pass on.
If you’re with family this holiday weekend, consider taking the time to sit down with older family members and record or write out these stories of everyday life. Ask the female elders in your family how their children were born, where their people came from, what jobs they worked and where they made their homes. Ask them how they cooked dinner, and how they tended to illness, how they celebrated the birth of a new family member. Keep this information and actively pass it down to the next generation. You might even consider submitting it to an archive or you can contact us at the McElroy House: Organization for Cultural Resources and Community Action. We’d be glad to help. These stories matter. Let’s not forget them. Thanks so much for reading!
National Day of Listening: The National Day of Listening is a day to honor a loved one through listening. It’s the least expensive but most meaningful gift you can give this holiday season. You can choose to record a story with anyone you know.
Circle of Stories: Information on preserving family histories for educators
Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage Interviewing Guide
The Seed and the Story is a partnership with theCourier and Post Dispatch newspapers in Pope and Yell County, Arkansas. This weekly column explores folklife, oral history, and community in central Arkansas, particularly the Yell County area where the column originates. Columns are often written in partnership with the McElroy House: Organization for Folklife, Oral History, and Community Action and humbly attempt to bridge intergenerational themes in the region.