Monthly Archives: January 2017

Book review: A Midwife’s Tale (Laurel Thatcher Ulrich 1990)

Rating: 4/5

A Midwife’s Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard Based on her Diary, 1785-1812 tells the tale of midwife Martha Ballard in 18th century frontier Maine. Every day for 35 years, Martha Ballard detailed the weather, her travels, her housework, her community, and her deliveries. If not for her diary, history would only have known Martha’s date of birth, the day she married, the day her children were born, and the day she died. Thanks to her diary, we have insight into her life and into the lives of frontier women in this time period. A Midwife’s Tale discusses rape, family conflict, the role of women in medicine, a family annihilation murder, women’s housework, sexual morays, and frontier life, among other things.

For content, this book is 5/5, it details a unique and wonderful document. For readability, I give A Midwife’s Tale a 3.5/5. Most of the difficulty of the book is inevitable; it has lots of original quotes.

WHY THIS BOOK?

Most history is written by rich older white men. In Martha’s town of Hallowell, Maine, two other diaries of the period survive, written by such men. Although she mentions the authors of these diaries multiple times, she barely appears in theirs. Her diary has roughly even numbers of men and women; theirs barely mention women. The wife of one of these men was a hatmaker; we know that from Martha’s diary, not his.

Martha Ballard’s diary is an ideal historical source. It’s a day to day documentation of her life, without narrative. It wasn’t written to entertain or titillate. It was private. To the extent that one person’s perspective and recording of the days can be honest, her account was.

THE GOOD

A Midwife’s Tale covers a range of topics. That’s part of its difficulty; it’s very broad. We learn about birth, medicine, illness and death, as one might expect from the diary of a midwife. We also learn about economics, debtors’ prison, family, the religious and political conflicts of colonial New England, sexuality, and crime.

Women of Martha’s era were tough. They had babies every other year, and said births typically kept them in bed for a week. They managed their own money, managed gardening and cloth making. Martha continued deliveries until her death at age 77, staying up long hours and traveling through all weather. She didn’t even begin her career until she was 50.

Colonial Maine is full of family squabbles, politics, and trysts. History is less chaste than we imagine when it’s recorded honestly; 38% of firstborns that Martha delivered were conceived out of wedlock. A few women even have multiple children out of wedlock, failing to marry at all. Unlike The Scarlet Letter, they are part of society too, and the fathers of their children are on the hook for support.

Martha moved to Hallowell at the beginning of the American experiment, and her life was full of changes from this. Her landlord had to flee to Canada for being a loyalist. She switches from shillings to dollars in her transactions. The town of Hallowell grew continuously while she lived there; it gave her much of her work. And the economics of her region changed with time. Her nephew was part of the Malta War, caused by economics conflicts of the Plymouth Company owning massive amounts of land and people chafing under this yolk.

THE BAD

This seems to be a recurring complaint for me, but there were too many people to keep track of. Is it too much to ask for a glossary of characters? This was especially bad in A Midwife’s Tale; people were referred to by more than one name or, with Martha’s tenuous grasp on spelling, said name could be spelled half a dozen different ways. Also, Martha had a large family and I totally lost track of who was related to her. A family tree would have been an asset.

A Midwife’s Tale is a slow and challenging read. Because Ulrich has to make (extremely well-researched) inferences, the details are presented with qualifications and caveats. While I appreciated the insight into the process of teasing  out the truth, it impacted the narrative flow substantially. This is less of a “bad thing” and more of a warning–this book makes the reader work.

 

OVERALL

This isn’t a book that tells you the narrative of a single event; it gives perspective on the lives of ordinary people as they traversed the many events of this time period. Life was complicated, but in many ways that are still recognizable today.

If you ever wonder about time travel, this book is probably one of the closest things we have to living a woman’s life in colonial Maine. It’s a unique work on a unique document and seems likely to be as timeless as the source document.

New Mexico History: The Battle of Columbus

Last week was the 100th anniversary of the interception of the Zimmermann Telegram (1/19/1917), in which Germany encouraged Mexico to attack the United States to keep them from participating in WW1. Ironically, the interception contributed to the United States entering the war in April. When we learned about the telegram in school as a child, the idea of Mexico attacking the US sounded laughable. In fact, Pancho Villa had attacked the town of Columbus, New Mexico nine months before. At the time of the Zimmermann Telegram, General John Pershing was hunting Villa in northern Mexico in the “Punitive Expedition.”

At the time of the Battle of Columbus, Mexico was several years into the Mexican Revolution. After 35 years, the presidency of Porfirio Díaz collapsed in 1911. A string of leaders followed; Francisco Madero ruled from 1911 until his assassination in 1913. Victoriano Huerto and Venustiano Carranza controlled different parts of Mexico in 1913-1914. In 1914, the United States assaulted the port of Veracruz, with Wilson stating his desire to overthrow Huerta. The United States then supported the presidency of Pancho Villa’s rival, Carranza.

The reasons for the Battle of Columbus aren’t fully clear, but they were probably partially motivated by Villa’s need for munitions and by his irritation that the United States was supporting his rival. Early on March 9, 1916, Villa attacked Columbus with 500 men. The raid didn’t go well for Villa. 90-170 of his men are estimated to have died. President Wilson sent General Pershing into Mexico to hunt for Villa for nearly a year. He evaded capture and entered pop culture fame. At the close of the Mexican Revolution in 1920, he agreed to retire to the country. He was assassinated in 1923 after re-involving himself in politics.

Book review: Whipping Girl (Julia Serano 2007)

Rating: 5/5

Julia Serano’s Whipping Girl details the author’s perspectives on gender. Serano describes her journey from awkward teenage boy, through crossdresser, and through her transition to a transgender woman. She discusses what gender means to her personally and her experiences in society. She discusses gender roles, myths about trans people, and the role of trans people in the feminist movement.

WHY THIS BOOK?

Transgender lives are political. 2016 saw the passage of North Carolina’s  HB2, the “bathroom bill”; 2017 started with 5 more states proposing similar legislature. These bills say that individuals born with male genitalia endanger people in the women’s restroom. I never believed that, but discussions of trans people made me realize how little I knew. With Whipping Girl, I sought the transgender story.

THE GOOD

Whipping Girl is a fabulous book. I read Whipping  Girl because I wanted to better understand life as a trans person, but it makes so many great points about gender for the rest of us. Part of the strength of Serano’s narrative is the fact that she has lived on both sides of our gender divide. Sometimes the success of Jewish entertainers has been attributed to their ability to be both insiders and outsiders; perhaps transgender women like Serano have an analogous experience with womanhood.

I can’t possibly cover all the things I liked about this book. It’s the rare book that makes me consider my own life differently.

Serano asserts the societal belief: most believe that men and women are equal, but many do not believe that masculinity and femininity are equal. We consider masculinity strong, natural, and unpretentious. Because masculine and feminine are opposites, we believe femininity to be weak, artificial, and pretentious. It’s a restatement of familiar arguments; masculine women are penalized for failing to fit the model of a woman, and feminine women are penalized for being feminine. I realized that I hold some of these beliefs. I have congratulated myself for rarely wearing make-up; I have sneered at female friends that dress up. I heard these messages growing up a lot. They are rooted in seeing femininity as a failing.

Serano describes how these societal beliefs complicate gender transition. She describes how mtf transgender people are viewed with suspicion. If masculinity is superior, someone who “trades down” voluntarily must have suspicious motivations. She describes how media shows many more mtf people than ftm. I hadn’t noticed, but it is true. Many of the roles with mtf people show them either as succubi seeking to entrap and damage men or as pitiful, funny failures. She cites a bunch of examples that I don’t know. My media experiences are with Orange is the New Black and Transparent. Hopefully that’s a sign of progress in the decade since this book’s publication.

Serano discusses nature versus nurture. Some believe that men are born masculine and women are born feminine (and thus, gender is nature). Some believe that we only exhibit gendered behaviors due to societal influences (and thus, gender is nurture). Serano argues that women are more likely to be feminine and men more likely to be masculine, but with a distribution of traits. In her model, gender expression is like height; on average, men are taller than women, but many individual women are taller than many individual men. Women, on average, gravitate towards stereotypically feminine behaviors like chattiness, but many individual men are more naturally  chatty than many women. Femininity feels natural to most women, and masculinity feels natural to most men, but not all.

Serano talks about the process of seeing herself as transgender. Since childhood, she had experienced feelings that she was a girl. She calls it gender dissonance. She experimented with a lot of different gender expressions, eventually leading her to the trans identity. When she started taking hormones, that felt right. She describes it as her brain believing her body to be female. We don’t fully understand the relationship between brain and body, but to me, this seems similar to the so called “sixth sense” of proprioception, the awareness of one’s body in space.

Serano also discusses the horrifying history of transgender people and medicine. It’s full of icky stuff like doctors rating their patients’ attractiveness, and seeing society’s comfort, rather than their patient’s, as the most important outcome of transition. Trans people were forced to leave home and assume a new life to make others comfortable, meaning that they were forced to leave their families and support networks. Today’s bathroom bills fall into that history of putting society’s discomfort above the health of an individual.

 

THE BAD

The book is a decade old. Although mine is a 2016 second edition, the guts haven’t changed much. Whipping Girl is still super informative, but a decade changes much. For example, DSM V was published in 2013; it’s treatment of transgender issues vary substantially from the DSM IV discussed in the book.

The second half of the book discusses trans theory and feminist theory. Some other reviews of the book suggest that she is unfair to the feminist movement; I have no idea. Still, the first part had a real immediacy that the second part didn’t. It probably would be well-suited to the classroom, but didn’t add much for me as a reader  just wanting to understand a different perspective better.

OVERALL

Whipping Girl is an essential read if you want to understand trans people better. It’s also a great dissection of gender in society. I came away from the book wishing that people could be more supportive of one another. Trans people aren’t bathroom predators, they’re people in a tough spot. We are obsessed with men being men and women being women, and we mostly don’t even notice. Trans people challenge that obsession, and we see that some people would rather punish others than question their assumptions.