Good Wives, Nasty Wenches, and Anxious Patriarchs Book Review

Updated on December 15, 2019
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Myranda Grecinger is a graduate student in interdisciplinary studies at Liberty University studying American History & Executive Leadership.

5 stars for Good Wives, Nasty Wenches, and Anxious Patriarchs


“Good Wives, Nasty Wenches, and Anxious Patriarchs,” is a wonderfully researched exploration of how gender and race became such an integral part of the social order in colonial Virginia. The author delves into a complex evaluation of colonial gender related social constructs from colonization through the first part of the 18th century, addressing how they ultimately led to or at the very least contributed to the creation of a culture in which slavery was not only expected but supported by what boiled down to a perception of divine ordinance . Combining several hot topics in heritage and historical studies, the author takes stances on colonization efforts in Virginia, gender roles and perceptions, racial inequity and social hierarchy.


The consistent theme of the piece is encapsulated within the title. Early on the author explains that the term “good wives” initially was applied to represent women who were considered to be virtuous, pious, and hard-working, but eventually transitioned into symbolizing women of Anglo descent, construed as virtue and privilege . Whereas the term “nasty wenches” initially described women who were considered to be lower-class deviants, but eventually came to symbolize women of African descent, construed as evil and lustful . Finally, the author explains that English society and eventually by extension Virginian society was built on the patriarchal notion that the foundation of an orderly society was an orderly household headed by a strong and powerful man; strong and powerful being terms that eventually would come to be associated with primarily men of Anglo descent, essentially leading to all of those who did not fit that description being grouped together in various ways based on the new culturally significant definitions of old social characterizations and terms within known systems .

She Makes A Good Point

The author’s position that Virginian culture was organized in such a way that would support its claim to rights for slavery, is supported through her careful and thorough examination of court records and other documents as well as books and pamphlets, primarily those written prior to 1750. Seeking to identify the interrelated nature of the roles that gender, and race played in Virginia colonization culture by isolating related terms and noting patterns and trends, the book successfully tracks transitions in discourse. The author makes some excellent points and I would definitely say has made her case. Her line of thinking was easy to follow, and her ideas and purpose were clearly stated. She uses images and maps to help keep things interesting and break up the monotony which is certainly an appreciated touch.

She Helps the Reader Understand

One thing in particular that the author did which really stuck out and set this piece apart from some of the other pieces I have read recently, was describing her understanding of, or her intention behind, using certain terms, many of which may have taken on a different context in modern times than they had had historically. Since the author’s intention is to understand gender and race as they were construed during the first part of the 18th century, the fact that she faces her reader with the terms as they were used during that era and within that culture helps him or her to put themselves in her shoes as she completed the research for this work. Additionally, the reader easily comes away with new perspective, having glimpsed, to some extent, the mindsets of the colonists throughout the transition of gender and race social constructs.

An Odd Arrangement

Throughout her writing, the author brings up several key elements that support her focuses, however, she tends to do so in lengthy, repetitive and, at times, what seems like, disorganized ways. Perhaps one of the most initially frustrating and confusing aspects of this author’s particular style of writing is that it does not follow necessarily the timeline of the transitions that she was tracking as one might expect with a historical study. For instance, chapter 2 mentions a tithing law enacted in 1705 which referred to males over the age of 16 in one category and virtually everyone else as “not being free,” which is certainly an important key piece to support her argument . Oddly, in chapter 7 she is back to discussing 1695 referring to a case in which a servant had to prove that his mother was a free Christian woman in order to gain his freedom from indentured servitude . While the book is very descriptive, and the author consistently makes her case and provides evidence to support it, she does not do so in a predictable linear fashion. The non-linear approach, however, it does not necessarily distract from the book in fact it may even help keep the reader intrigued throughout the study as a result of the unpredictability and also gives the author the freedom to explore discourse regarding a variety of subjects throughout the time in question and then come back to show how they relate to one another. So, although, her untraditional approach may take some getting used to, it may have been one of the things that helped her make her case so well.


This fascinating piece drew on brilliant perspectives to create a clearer picture of gender and race relations in Colonial Virginia. It was extensively researched, and the author offered various pieces of support for each of her arguments throughout the book which get the reader up close and personal with the content. The book is, in some areas, beyond captivating, bringing attention to the smallest mention or references to gender or race and addressing their, till now, unrecognized significance as part of the greater transitions taking place as Virginia’s culture began to diverge from that of England and take on its own identity. Clearly the connection between race and gender within the context of the Virginian patriarchy during the Colonial era were present, as well as historically and culturally relevant, a story more than worth telling in a book certainly worth reading.


Kathleen M. Brown. Good Wives, Nasty Anxious Patriarchs: Gender, Race, and Virginia (1996).

© 2019 Myranda Grecinger


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