Good Wives: Image and Reality in the Lives of Women in Northern New England 1650-1750 by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich

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Good Wives: Image and Reality in the Lives of Women in Northern New England 1650-1750

by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich
A Book Review by Deborah Stapleton

March 2009

In Good Wives: Image and Reality in the Lives of Women in Northern New England 1650 – 1750, Laurel Thatcher Ulrich examines women’s roles and the various definitions of these roles as found in early American New England. Ulrich approaches her study with concerns about what tasks or jobs women in early America performed daily, weekly, and monthly and how those responsibilities were distinguished as female roles which would be disseminated from mother to daughter. Aside from a recounting of early American chores, Ulrich more deeply examines role performance or how people behaved in particular roles. She acknowledges that “role performance cannot be applied with scientific precision, but as a general concept it is useful in approaching the history of women in the traditional world. It recognizes that informal structures and unwritten codes can be as effective in determining behavior as legal and economic systems. It allows for diversity, and even for contradiction, in acknowledging that a complex role like that of a wife is really composed of many roles, (Ulrich, p.5)” Within this context, Ulrich claims that a married woman was “simultaneously a housewife, a deputy husband, a consort (emphasizing the equality of men and women), a mother, a mistress, a neighbor, a Christian, (Ulrich p. 9)” and occasionally a heroine. These conjectures can just as easily be related to our contemporary world where women continue to live and work in diverse roles.

Ulrich proposes that because of nonexistent resources, historians have paid little attention to the women who contributed to the familial, material, and social cultures of the late 17th and early 18th century in early America. “The archives contain no female diaries written in New England before 1750 and few female letters (Ulrich p. 5)” The primary objective of her study is to recover lost details of the lives of these early American women. Considerable evidence of female contributions are uncovered in Ulrich’s examination of primary sources such as account books, probate inventories, genealogies, church sermons and records, court records, gravestones, and the private papers of husbands and sons. In carefully constructed vignettes, she imagines the realities of colonial life in Salem, Boston, Essex, Nantucket, Haverhill, and the wilds of Maine and New Hampshire.

There is a 16 page center section containing period illustrations, photos of artifacts, title pages of books, cookbook excerpts, embroidery samplers and tapestries, portraits, maps and gravestones. Each illustration or artifact photo is captioned to connect with a vignette, scene or individual in the text. In this way the women’s stories seem grounded in reality and not from some lost and forgotten past. For example, seeing the embroidered pocket that is tied around a woman’s waist with a string accentuates the author’s notion of the pocket being a metaphor for the housekeeping role. The pocket, being plain or elaborately embroidered, also reflects the status and skill of its owner. The pocket, containing essentials such as a key, a needle and thread, or a baby’s bib, symbolizes the versatile nature of the housewife’s role.

Thirty-one pages of endnotes point to the original sources, but the reader may hunger for more of the primary source materials. For example, the author summarizes and contextualizes the court case of Mary Jenkins vs. John White, in which Mary accuses John of rape, and provides a few lines from the transcript itself. The reader may wonder what a longer section of transcription might add to the narrative. Finally, Ulrich examines the limitations of her resources in a bibliographic essay in which she claims the contributions and influences of colonial women have been either ignored or dismissed by historians and archivists.

Ulrich divides the roles of New England women into three parts that illustrate three broad views of the roles held by New England women: wife, mother, and woman. The first section titled “Bathsheba” compares the colonial female in her role as economic wife with the Puritan ideal of the times. (In the Biblical context, this Bathsheba is the mother of Solomon, not David’s temptress whom he saw in her bath.) In the role of deputy husband, for example when the Massachusetts wife’s husband was at sea, she would act as attorney for her husband as did Edith Creford of Salem when she signed a promissory note for 33 pounds in “merchantable cod fish at price current.” The reader is cautioned to remember that though colonial women might appear, as is documented in court records, to be independent by modern standards, they have merely derived their status from their relationship to their husbands.

The second section titled “Eve” documents the role of sex, reproduction, and motherhood through religious sermons, artifacts, genealogy, probate court records, and gravestones. The idealization of conjugal love and the magnification of motherhood are the themes found here. In sermons parishioners heard the love of man and wife compared to the bond between Christ and the Church. The emotional analogy of husband and wife was meant to strengthen the religious metaphor of Christ and Church. Eighteenth century paintings idealized sexuality. Crewel bed hangings made by Mary Bulman of York c.1745 depict a lush floral Garden of Eden in side panels, valence, head cloth and coverlet. Where seventeenth-century preachers found Eve’s ‘meetness,’ eighteenth-century poets and painters discovered her beauty (Ulrich p. 117).” The highest maternal status a colonial mother could attain is to see her children’s children prosper. A family of reproduction can be sketched through its birth and death records. Judith Coffin’s epitaph, for instance, acknowledges that she lived to see 177 of her children and children’s children to the 3rd generation. Judith Coffin was 80 when she died in 1705.


The third part titled “Jael” uses primary sources to illustrate anecdotal accounts of women’s courage and strength derived from their religion and piety as such was needed during Indian abductions. (In the Biblical story, Jael was confronted by her enemy Sisera. She welcomed him with hospitality but when he slept she drove a tent spike through his temple, killing him.) Thus colonial women who faced ordeals at the hands of Indian captors were compared to Jael who through prayer gathered the courage necessary to cause their attackers to fall down dead before them. Ministerial literature of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries such as that of Cotton Mather contain stories which at first seem to recount female heroism but upon closer analysis are about female suffering, victimization and reliance on religious faithfulness to redeem themselves.

As a feminist and social historian, Ulrich evokes empathy for the female of colonial times. From childhood the early American female was taught to please, to smile and fetch and carry, to light gentlemen’s pipes and converse coquettishly yet had learned no other responses to fend off unwanted advances from the so-called gentlemen. Another contribution to misplaced female identity was the dowry and arrangements made between suitor and future father-in-law as the female’s ownership was passed from father to husband. Son’s inheritance came in the form of land. Daughter’s inheritance came in the form of pots and spinning wheels otherwise known as movables. Furthermore, in her old age a woman typically had to depend on her sons to sustain her as land ownership went to the boys in the family, not the wife. On the other hand, Ulrich finds evidence that suggests that the matriarchs of the community were leaders in their own rights. While women were subservient to men, they could exercise their opinions within the social framework of the community. For example, women commonly helped men with their work, acted on their husband’s behalf when he was not available, managed the caretaking of children, presided over births and deaths, and held the moral torch of the community. As a social historian, Ulrich presents a new view of the female of colonial times: one who is complexly tied to her community and its values as both a victim and profiteer. One who is linked to her husband and family yet finds a form of independence in the various roles she may adopt.

Good Wives captures the lives of ordinary women of Massachusetts and the surrounding area through transcripts of court documents. Ulrich’s interpretations and considerable knowledge of the period give life to the words so that the reader can briefly step into colonial times and sentiments. Implications for the classroom are to use certain vignettes rich with quotes from the court records to illustrate for students the period, the individuals and their roles. Instructional value is also found in the primary source documents and their uses and interpretations. The notion that roles are not defined or confined to distinct black and white categories is also important to note as students may have misperceptions that categorize and generalize issues.

Common perceptions of the role of early American women suggest that they led inconsequential lives filled with unending drudgery, subjugation to their husbands, childbearing trials and grief, and an overall powerlessness. Ulrich convincingly dispels those one sided perceptions as she paints a realistic picture of New England life which she constructs from well documented and extensive resources. In many cases we may recognize that in colonial lives there were blurred lines between male and female roles. Moreover Ulrich reminds us that, “the recovery of women’s history is part of a larger movement to reassess and redefine the position of women in the contemporary world (Ulrich p. 240).” Even as in a colonial society, modern women’s roles are not static or confined to a oneness of position, but are more often a complex and ever developing combination of character as we journey through our life stages.


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