Visit Your Local PBS Station PBS Home PBS Home Programs A-Z TV Schedules Watch Video Donate Shop PBS Search PBS
Rollover text informationAmerican Experience Logo
A Midwife's Tale












spacer above content
Behind the Scenes

%How the diaries survived
Well, I think the diaries went to the daughters. And they sort of surfaced again in the historical record in the 1870s when two of Martha's granddaughters give the diary to a descendent named Mary Hobart. And she thinks -- let me kind of say that more succinctly. The diaries pass sort of from mother to daughter until the late 19th century when Martha's great great granddaughter, Mary Hobart, who is a doctor, she's a physician at Boston Hospital for Women, receives the diaries. And she says, "I thought that I had inherited the mantle of my gifted ancestor." So this Dr. Hobart, who was a single woman, an early professional, an obstetrician working in an urban hospital, took care of those diaries until she became elderly. And in the 1930s, worried about the safety of the diaries in her wooden house and handed them onto the Maine State Library in Augusta.

Why Martha Ballard kept a diary
I think it probably started as a record of births, a part of her work, and then kind of grew from there. It might also have started as little notations in an almanac. And rural people did that a lot. I mean you need to remember when it froze last year, and when you planted, and just little things like that. The structure of the diaries suggests that it may have come from an almanac. But then I think the practice of writing transformed the diary and it became a way of sort of shaping an identity, a way of accounting for the worth of one's day, a way for jogging memory about important things. It really became a source of structure in a way in her life. We can tell from the diary that she went back and re-read parts. She occasionally refers to earlier events and there are some things, places where she added notes later in the diary. So she used it. It was an active work-a-day diary, to do with her work as a midwife, to do with her planting and weaving and other household activities. Then it became a kind of friend to her. And the diary changes. After her daughters leave home, it becomes a much more -- I don't think it ever becomes a real introspective diary, but after her daughters leave home it becomes a place where she can record feelings and not just what happened.

Women diarists in early America
Yes, there is a way of knowing. There are very few diaries left by women of her generation. And there are a lot of diaries starting just after the American Revolution, they tend to be kept by young girls. The education is improving for women. Very few diaries that are sustained over several decades, as hers is, and there's a good reason for that, because in Martha's generation, she's born 1735, you know, maybe only 30, 40 percent of rural women can sign their names, let alone keep a diary. Education is improving in her lifetime. It improves remarkably. But it's rare.

Martha Ballard's education
Martha doesn't tell us how she was educated, but she writes in a cursive hand and probably she learned in a country school. There was the beginning, in her generation, of an effort in some small towns to give a primary education to girls. But more important, I think, she comes from a family that values education. Her younger brother, Jonathan Moore, actually attended Harvard, became a minister, became a librarian, I think, for a time at the college, and then went on to be a minister in Rochester, Massachusetts. And it's possible that there was some kind of private tutoring in her family. Her mother isn't able to sign her name. In the few documents that she left, she signs with a mark. But Martha clearly is. And some scholars believe it's really Martha's generation when more and more women learn rudimentary writing. In the -- let me back up -- in the 17th and 18th century, girls were often taught to read, but not to write. So when we talk about literacy in that period, we're talking about something a little more complex than when we talk about it today. So children were taught often to read the Bible, but not to write. Writing is an active thing. And it's really associated with craft, with certain occupations, with the male role as head of the household, as owner of property. And the assumption was girls didn't need that skill. They were taught to sew.

Martha Ballard's midwifery skills
We don't know how Martha learned to be a midwife. And I can guess that on the basis of the diary, because the diary describes a world in which each birth was attended by a number of people, neighbors, relatives, friends. It's a world, I call it social childbirth. So she learned by doing, by observing, by participating. I have a hunch that it was probably a female member of her family that was a midwife. It could have been a mother, a grandmother. No records survived so we don't know about her. But her brother-in-law was a physician. She had an uncle who was a physician. And sometimes midwives appear in the same families as male doctors. But as they don't leave records, we don't know if they exist. We wouldn't know Martha was a midwife if she hadn't kept this diary.

The relationship between the midwife and the doctor
Well, from the vantage point of Martha's diary, the relationship between midwives and physicians is generally cordial. There's a real division of labor. Doctors are part-time. They have some kind of book learning. They come in in emergencies. They do things like draw blood or set bones. There's not a whole lot the physicians could do in this period, and the day-to-day sort of primary health care is really done at the household level and by village specialists of various kinds, often women. This changes in Martha's lifetime. In the late 18th, early 19th century, the beginnings of professionalization of medicine can be seen even in country towns. And the conflict that she has with Dr. Page is, in part, a consequence of the fact that he's a young kind of upstart who is not happy with this sort of part-time expert role, but wants to be a full-time practitioner and earn his living by medicine in a very good way to ensure continuous practices to deliver babies. So there is a shift in the nature of the profession that doesn't really threaten Martha a lot because she is so well established and so good at her work, but it's going to make it difficult in the early 19th century in towns like hers for younger women to enter the field.

Why Martha Ballard's family relocated to Maine
I think that Martha and Ephram moved to Maine for the reasons that New Englanders had been moving in every generation since the initial settlement, and that is there's land. You've got lots of kids; how are you going to set them up? There were opportunities opening up. And because Ephram Ballard was a surveyor, he had done some surveying in Maine. He had seen some of that land. He saw possibilities there and hoped to provide new opportunities for his sons especially.

The relationship between the scholar and the filmmaker
Well, I learned about that motto of the history police. I learned that the professional crew on the film feared the presence of a scholar because often scholars -- we're very picky. We're very nitpicky. We want everything to be documented. And there's a whole lot of stuff that we don't know that we have to -- and when we don't know things, we don't like to guess. And so it probably just absolutely drives people crazy. You have to make a decision on the spot and make something happen to have somebody say, "Well, it might be this. It might be this. I've got to go read ten books and figure out that." And it's another world. I mean the world of teaching and scholarship, it can be a world of exploration of ideas. But the world of film is about telling a story and doing it in a vivid and concise way. I love interdisciplinary work. I really felt like the process of making the film was an encounter with another view of the world, another kind of language, another take on the material that I loved. So I wasn't -- I actually welcomed the differences between filmmaking and history writing. What was very tense for me was being in the film because I was in the film and also a consultant to the film. So I felt like in some way my presence in the film made me responsible for what was on the screen. And that was uncomfortable: A) because it wasn't always my approach, you know, it was someone else's project, not mine; and B) because there was a lot I didn't know. So that was resolved I think in a really wonderful way for me by the whole concept of the film. For me to be able to say I'm, you know, right there with Martha Ballard, big as life on the screen, I don't know what Martha Ballard looks like, helped me to establish a distance between what I can do as a scholar and what the filmmaker was doing. And I think that was an important part of the message of the film that history is a reconstruction and that we can have areas of things we don't know and that we don't have this magic time machine that can take us into the past, that we have to earn the right to not only to write the things we do about the past, but to present things in a documentary about the past. And I loved that about the film. It was hard. There were lots of disagreements and arguments and struggles. But I think that's how creative work is done.

The reaction of colleagues to the film
When I'm asked what I think about the film, I always begin by expressing my admiration for the filmmakers. And I really do think it's a beautiful film and I like it a whole lot. I also think it's not the same story as the written -- the book version of "A Midwife's Tale," that it's a different story. And I think that's valid and important. If I were to comment on, from my point of view as an author, the difference between the film and the book, I think the film is a little darker. And I think it's darker because a film is inherently dramatic. And so the filmmakers really had to go for episodes that told stories. In the book, I had the freedom to be more analytic. And the kind of up part of the book that many people appreciate is the story of a rural society in which women worked and produced and made a difference through barter and trade and household production and health care. And it's kind of hard to convey those things dramatically. And it was very difficult in the film. And I think probably Laurie and Dick would agree that there's a lot missing in the film. It's hard to convey a community in the film when you have a limited budget and only so many stories you can tell and only so many characters you can introduce. What I tried to convey in the book was the complexity of a community. That's probably not totally in the film. It's suggested in the film. The other thing that I think isn't in the -- is in the film, the other thing that I think is in the film and wonderfully and that I'm very excited about is the -- that isn't in the book, and can't be in the book, is the encounter with the primary document itself, the diary. There can be a photograph of the diary in the book, but the film conveys the physicality of the diary, the process of diary writing, and you actually see the texture of the paper and the ink and it's not fake paper, it's the real paper, it's the diary. And that, to me, is really exciting and almost worth doing the film, just to feel that people could see that document and to have some sense of it and what it meant to keep a record day after day for 27 years.

Interview with producer Laurie Kahn-Leavitt



Site Navigation

Special Features: Online Poll | Behind the Scenes | After the Revolution | Frontier Communities | Public and Private Piety | Diaries and History

A Midwife's Tale Home | The Film & More | Special Features | Timeline | Gallery | Teacher's Guide

The American Experience | Feedback | Search & Site Map | Shop | Subscribe | Web Credits

© New content 1999-2000 PBS Online / WGBH



Exclusive Corporate Funding is provided by: