In Praise of "A Midwife’s Tale"–The Documentary

Today I showed “A Midwife’s Tale” in my United States History before 1865 course.  As many of you know, this documentary is based on Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book A Midwife’s Tale; The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary, 1785-1812.

This film works on multiple levels.  First, it introduces general education students to the task of the historian.  Ulrich’s voice-overs and the scenes of her bringing order to the diary of Martha Ballard provide a wonderful window into the historian’s vocation.

Second, Ballard’s story introduces my students to the world of a rural woman living in late eighteenth and early nineteenth-century America.  It teaches them that there was more to the 1790s than Federalists and Republicans battling over national banks, reports on public credit, manufacturing, and the French Revolution.

Third, “A Midwife’s Tale” is excellent at portraying the past as a so-called “foreign country.”  Ulrich explains a host of early American customs that remind us that our world is quite different from the world of Martha Ballard.

Finally, I like the way the film indirectly teaches my students about calling and vocation.  Martha is an admirable figure to many of my students because of her steadfast commitment to her vocation as a midwife.  The film has proven to be very popular among nursing majors (both male and female) and those pursuing the health professions, but it also illustrates what a “calling” might look like in any vocational pursuit.

If you are not already using this film in your classes, I encourage you to consider it.

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