Essay: Women in American History

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Women in American History

In 1785, Martha Ballard began the diary that she would keep for the next 27 years, until her death. At a time when fewer than half the women in America were literate, Ballard faithfully recorded the weather, her daily household tasks, her midwifery duties (she delivered close to a thousand babies), her medical practice, and countless incidents that reveal the turmoil of a new nation -- dizzying social change, intense religious conflict, economic boom and bust -- as well as the grim realities of disease, domestic violence, and debtor's prison. (PBS)

That Martha Ballard kept her diary is one small miracle; that her descendants saved it is another. When her great-great-granddaughter Mary Hobart inherited it in 1884, it was "a hopeless pile of loose unconsecutive[sic] pages" -- but it was all there. The diary had remained in Augusta for more than sixty years, probably in the family of Dolly Lambard, who seems to have assumed custody of her mother's papers along with the rented cow. (Ulrich)

The Smithsonian Institution's American History Timeline places the United States' Colonial Era from 1607-1783 -- from the establishment of the Jamestown, Virginia colony to the end of the Revolutionary War. It was in this era that Martha Moore was born in Oxford, Massachusetts in 1735, and the era in which she lived almost fifty years of her life. In these years, Martha would marry Ephraim Ballard, bear nine children, and watch three of them die.

She concluded her now famous diary three days before her death in 1812. Her last entry spoke of the weather: (Ulrich)

Clear most of the day & very Cold & windy. Daughter Ballard and a Number of her Children here. Mrs. Partridge

Smith allso[sic] Revered Mr. Tappin Came and Converst

Swetly[sic] and mad[sic] a prayer adapted to my Case."

It is known that a little more than a month before her death at 77, she attended Sally Foy's delivery on April 18, and, though she suffered "two ague fits" the next day, went in a rainstorm to deliver William Saunders's wife of her third daughter and fourth child. "I laid down & slept some," she wrote, then took breakfast with the Saunders, stopped to see another patient, and came home, and "did my ironing and some mending but feel feeble." (Ulrich) Only a few days later, she was called to see a Mrs. Heath on April 24, stayed with her all day and night and into the next day: "We have slept a little. I have had ague fitts[sic] yesterday & to day[sic]."

Author's Note: "ague" is a disease characterized by recurring sweats, fever and chills) have been very ill," Martha wrote the next day -- and the next. (Ulrich)

Is it any wonder? Speculation says that she probably lived another three weeks or so. But, what a statement of her life. Perhaps this one small peek at Martha Ballard says everything about her loving spirit, unlimited energy, empathy for others, hard work, and dedication to making her world and everyone else's a better place -- characteristics not uncommon in women of the colonial and republic eras. Life was hard, but Martha Ballard chose to make the best of it by helping others. And the daily diary she left behind gives us a perspective on the everyday lives of people of that era that we would not have had any other way.

Women in the Colonial Period and the Republic Era

The years from 1789-1829 are generally considered the Early Republic era of the United States -- post-Revolution -- and roughly from Washington's inauguration to the inauguration of Andrew Jackson. There are numerous interpretations of "eras" in the U.S. And a margin of ten or twenty years is considered acceptable to most historians.

By around 1715, all of the colonies had achieved substantial communal stability: family-formation had reached levels that allowed for self-sustaining growth, and ruling elites… [END OF PREVIEW]

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