Women's Lives in British Colonial New England and the Pre-Industrial U.S. 

United States History/History of American Women

Name/School: Amy Rutenberg (Ardsley High School)
Grade Level: 10-12
Topic: Women’s lives/Daily life in British Colonial New England and the pre-industrial United States

Activity: A “hook” activity to introduce either women’s roles in pre-industrial medicine in general or to introduce the life of midwife Martha Ballard in specific.

Overview: Students have a tendency to assume that the field of medicine has always been male-dominated, but this is a flawed assumption.  This activity can be used to “hook” students into a study of the role that women played in health care in the pre-industrial era.  It revolves around the examination of an eighteenth century medical kit. 

Time: 15 minutes to 2 class periods depending on time and available materials.


  • A photo of an eighteenth century medical kit, either printed out in color for individual students, on a transparency, or in a powerpoint presentation.
  • Individual student internet access, if available.


Concepts (Big idea/central theme):

  • Students will generalize about the role women played in family health care in pre-industrial New England.

Content (What students should know):

  • Students will understand how the lives of women differed from the lives of men in this time period.
  • Students will see how prevalent illness was in people’s lives.
  • Students will research the role of herbs and plants in pre-industrial medical practices.
  • Students will explore the notion of illness and childbirth as female centered events.
  • Students will compare and contrast the activities of male “doctors” and female “healers.”
  • Students will draw connections between “non-traditional” medical practices of the eighteenth century and “non-traditional” medical practices of the twenty-first century

Skills (What students should be able to do):

  • Students will learn how to interpret the language of 18th century New England
  • Students will practice digging for the various levels of meaning in a material object.
  • Students will act as historians by interpolating, inferring, and generalizing about broader historical themes based on a specific object.
  • Students will research information using the internet as a source.


1.)  For homework the night before this activity, have students fill out the alternative remedy questionnaire.

2.)  To start off the class, go around the room and have students share their answers.  Write their responses on the board.

3.)  See if any generalizations can be made of if students have observed anything else.  Then ask the following questions:

  • Why do people use alternative remedies?
  • Do you believe alternative remedies work?  Why or why not?
  • What can be gained by using these alternative remedies?
  • What, if any, are the dangers in using them?

4.)  Ask students who they asked for the information when they filled in the questionnaire.  Most likely, they asked their mothers instead of their fathers.  Ask them why they chose their mothers.  Further, ask who generally controls medicines in their household, or in other words, who do they go to when they do not feel well?  Explore the notion that they most likely go to their mothers.

5.)  Show pictures of the medical kit.  Ask the following:

  • What is this?
  • Describe it.
  • What do you think it contained?
  • Who do you think constructed/manufactured/mixed its contents?
  • Who do you think controlled its contents?  Why?
  • Why are these answers important?  What is their connection to the present?  (The tradition of women as caretakers of the family is longstanding.  This usually means that they are also responsible for the healthcare of the family as well.  In the pre-industrial era, this responsibility carried over into the field of medicine, especially since professionally trained and licensed doctors were rare and their remedies often harmful.)

6.)  As time and materials permit, assign students small research projects on various medicinal herbs (a sample list provided in Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s book A Midwife’s Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard Based on Her Diary, 1785-1812 is attached) and colonial medical practices such as trepanning, bleeding, and amputation.  Have students report back to the class.

7.)  Use these findings to introduce pre-industrial medicine and midwifery, possibly as lead in to a lesson on Martha Ballard as introduced in A Midwife’s Tale.

Evaluation/Assessment: Evaluation could come in a variety of forms – a standardized unit test, a fictional journal of a pre-industrial female healer, a letter to a newspaper from a male doctor upset at the competition of a female midwife, etc.


  • If time is short or individual internet access is not available in class, the information about herbal remedies and pre-industrial medical practice could be provided by the teacher or done as a homework assignment.
  • The above is meant to be a general “hook” activity and can be taken in any number of directions.  A case study of Martha Ballard is just one suggestion.  This is why methods of evaluation/assessment will vary.

Social Studies Standards Addressed (New York State):

Standard 1: United States and New York History

1. The study of New York State and United States history requires an analysis of the development of American culture, its diversity and multicultural context, and the ways people are unified by many values, practices, and traditions.

  • Students will analyze the development of American culture, explaining how ideas, values, beliefs, and traditions have changed over time and how they unite all Americans.

3. Study about the major social, political, economic, cultural, and religious developments in New York State and United States history involves learning about the important roles and contributions of individuals and groups.

  • Students will compare and contrast the experiences of different ethnic, national, and religious groups, including Native American Indians, in the United States, explaining their contributions to American society and culture
  • Students will understand the interrelationships between world events and developments in New York State and the United States (e.g., causes for immigration, economic opportunities, human rights abuses, and tyranny versus freedom).

4. The skills of historical analysis include the ability to: explain the significance of historical evidence; weigh the importance, reliability, and validity of evidence; understand the concept of multiple causation; understand the importance of changing and competing interpretations of different historical developments.

  • Students will analyze historical narratives about key events in New York State and United States history to identify the facts and evaluate the authors’ perspectives
  • Students will evaluate the validity and credibility of historical interpretations of important events or issues in New York State or United States history, revising these interpretations as new information is learned and other interpretations are developed. (Adapted from National Standards for United States History)

Short (selected) Bibliography: 

  • Photo of medical kit provided by Historic Deerfield
  • Tannenbaum, Rebecca J.  The Healer’s Calling: Women and Medicine in Early New England. Cornell University Press, 2002.
  • Ulrich, Laurel Thatcher.  A Midwife’s Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard Based on Her Diary, 1785-1812.  Vintage Books, 1991.