Celebrating America's Women Physicians

Changing the face of Medicine
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Higher Education
Suggested Reading
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Class 1: Before Maternity Wards: Women's Traditional Healing Work

Introduction: This first class introduces women as the typical healers of families and communities in the late seventeenth through early nineteenth centuries before the rise of professional medicine—and even later in rural areas. Because of low literacy rates for women and African Americans at the beginning of the nineteenth century, few first-hand accounts of women's healing work exist. Martha Ballard, a successful midwife and community healer in rural Maine who kept a diary from 1785 to 1812, is an exception. She gives her own account of several deliveries, followed by historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich's deeply contextualized interpretation of Ballard's role as a midwife whose community relied on her more than on doctors. Anne Bradstreet's brief memorial poems (1678) on the deaths of two grandchildren provide a window into the experience of childhood mortality and, indirectly, the great need for skilled healers. Ami McKay's historical fiction novel, The Birth House, dramatizes an experienced midwife's work through the perspective of a young apprentice. Historian Sharla Fett focuses on the antebellum South and offers a compelling view of enslaved women's expertise as well as their compulsory labor in plantation healing work.




  • Fett, Sharla M. Working Cures: Healing, Health, and Power on Southern Slave Plantations. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2002, Chap. 5.

Discussion Questions

  1. For Ballard: How and where does Ballard perform her work? Who helps her? What stands out about Ballard's birthing and healing work?
  2. For Bradstreet: What do Anne Bradstreet's poems reveal about childhood death? How might Bradstreet's poetry be a form of healing? How is Bradstreet's identity as a grandmother important to the poems?
  3. For McKay: What is the point of view, and what effect does Dora's perspective have on the story that is told? Is the tone matter-of-fact or sentimental, or both, and how does tone affect how the reader interprets the gendered work of Miss Babineau?
  4. For Fett: What are the areas of enslaved women's expertise? Why are enslaved women the healers of their communities? What constraints do they face in their healing work? How does the work of plantation mistresses and enslaved women compare?
  5. What are some common conflicts that midwives Ballard, Elsey, Binah, and Miss Babineau face? What is the nature of their work (i.e., birthing and healing techniques, palliation, social work, counseling, childcare, wet nursing)?
  6. What are common activities and characteristics of midwives in Ballard, Fett, and McKay? Among these three readings, where do social inequalities (gender, race, and class) appear most clearly?

Biography Project

Present the biography project in which students will identify and research a nineteenth-century woman physician and write her biography as a class. This project begins with asking students to consider writing history and biography using the following questions:

  • What facts and contexts do Ulrich and Fett take into account in their interpretations?
  • What methods or focal points are most interesting or useful in finding out about a specific woman and her relationship to healing work?
  • What do Ulrich and Fett not address that you would want to address in a biography?

Students take discussion notes and post them on an online learning system or keep them to use in Classes 2 and 3.