Friday, March 27, 2009

The Importance of Studying Ordinary Lives: An Interview with Laurel Thatcher Ulrich

The forthcoming issue of Historically Speaking (April 2009) includes an interview with Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, 300th Anniversary University Professor at Harvard University and president of the American Historical Association. Ulrich is the author of a number of influential books and essays on colonial history, material culture, social history, and women’s history. Her Well-Behaved Women Seldom Make History (Random House, 2007) examines the appeal of that phrase and describes the life and work of women who “turned to history as a way of making sense of their own lives.” The following is brief excerpt from the interview.

Randall Stephens: In Well-Behaved Women Seldom Make History you write: “History is a conversation and sometimes a shouting match between present and past, though often the voices we most want to hear are barely audible.” What have those barely audible voices said to us, and why do they matter?

Laurel Thatcher Ulrich: What does Martha Ballard’s diary tell us that the papers of George Washington don’t about the same historical period? In my view, plenty. For instance, Martha Ballard’s diary turns on its head the conventional narrative of the rise of modern medicine, which charts the progress from primitive lay healers to scientific healers, championing the superiority of the latter. But when you compare Martha Ballard’s diary with the records of 19th-century physicians, you get two different pictures of childbirth. The physicians’ account books reveal a succession of dangerous cases. Yet when I go to Martha Ballard’s diary, I realize that dangerous cases were rare. Doctors and their tools were making childbirth more dangerous, not less so.

Another example: economic history. The conventional narrative says that late 18th- and early 19th-century America was in the throes of a consumer revolution. And, indeed, storekeepers’ accounts from Martha Ballard’s time and place portray an economy in which local inhabitants exchanged lumber for the manufactured goods brought in on ships. But Martha’s diary reveals that she and others were constantly spinning and weaving, making their own clothes. According to storekeepers’ accounts, a consumer revolution wiped out local production. Yet an ordinary woman’s diary shows that local production was still very important, as well as interwoven with the commercial marketplace. By studying Martha Ballard’s diary, you can understand the difference between a calico dress, which Martha’s daughter had, and all the other clothing and bedding that was made at home.

One more example: If you studied that period through legal records, you would think that the society has gone from policing private behavior, à la Puritan New England, to dealing only with economic behavior. That is the classic picture we got from historians who worked on court records. But go through Martha Ballard’s diary and you’ll see in action the old 1680 law about the midwife taking testimony at the height of labor in order to hold someone accountable for paternity. So I don’t think anonymous people need to be included in the historical record just because of fairness or justice. Studying them carefully makes for more accurate history.


Jeffrey Vanke said...

I read the Ballard book, and I was unimpressed by the claim that physicians were always making a muck of deliveries. I'm sure some did, but I'm not prepared to take one experienced midwife's complaint as evidence for a national problem.

You don't have to look far in undeveloped regions of the world, for example, for strong and consistent -- and allegedly empirical -- evidence that modern medicine has an inferior record to local shamans. Martha Ballard was a good midwife, and maybe a better obstetrician than many a physician. But I think Ulrich could apply more source criticism to the source that made her career.

What about selection bias -- is it possible that physicians were often involved in only the more difficult cases? Is there a quantitative social history on econo-demographically similar areas, some with substantially more physician deliveries per pregnancy than others? Those are the sorts of the methodological tests needed for Ulrich's sorts of hypotheses.

If these questions have been asked and answered, I'll be glad to learn about it.

Randall said...

I don't recall that A Midwife's Tale was primarily about the claim that physicians were inferior to midwives.

Granted, I really don't know all that much about this period. But considering the wreck of medicine in that era, how could a midwife be worse than the typical physician? How was it that "heroic medicine"--bleeding, blistering, purging--was better than what most midwives did? Weren't the deaths of George Washington, W H Harrison, and Zachary Taylor hastened by the best in medical knowledge?

I like this motto from a 19th century doctor who David S. Reynolds quotes in Waking Giant: "bleed freely--vomit freely--and blister early."

Maybe obstetrics was isolated from heroic medicine, but it seems like a total system.