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

Updated on January 3, 2017
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J. Schatzel works in agricultural/occupational medicine in rural upstate NY and has a Masters degree in history.

Throughout Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s Good Wives: Image and Reality in the Lives of Women in Northern New England 1650-1750, Ulrich presents an analysis of the societal values and ideologies of New England womanhood during the colonial period, emphasizing the importance of housekeeping, childbearing, and church-going performed by ordinary “forgotten women.” [i] In an analysis of role definition and gender, Ulrich uses a series of vignettes to portray individual situations in the lives of colonial women as representative of the lives of all New England women of the colonial period. A feminist historian, Ulrich emphasizes the empowerment of women through the roles they held, and analyzes women’s place within their cultural traditions, religion, economic status, local community, and family.

Ulrich uses evidence found within “sermons, account books, probate inventories, genealogies, church records, court records, paintings, embroideries, gravestones, and the private papers of husbands and sons” to examine the lives of everyday women of the colonial period.[ ii] Using such sources, Ulrich concludes that while serving in the roles of obedient wives, loving mothers, dutiful servants, willing mistresses, devout Christians, helpful neighbors, and humble servants of God and their family, women exercised a level of self-denial and humility that were social and legal requirements of them; which in effect placed women within a realm of anonymity. According to Ulrich, “a good wife earned the dignity of anonymity.” [iii] Women’s voices are not often heard in colonial New England history since no women before 1750 in New England kept a written journal account of their experiences that has been as of yet uncovered in any archives or collection. As a result, Ulrich relied on the documentation of the female experience left by men, of their wives, mothers, daughters, customers, and neighbors.

Ulrich places her analysis within the historiography of her subject, providing a discussion of the major authoritative texts on the subject which preceded her work, by such historians as Elizabeth Dexter, Mary Beth Norton, and Alexander Keyssar. [iv] Although former works focused on the role of women as passive to males and in positions of imposed subservience, in which “a woman became a wife by virtue of her dependence,” Ulrich redirects the focus of an analysis of colonial women on those women’s agency to influence husbands and families, and wives’ power within their family. Through an analysis of women’s economic skill “in the commerce of life” and an emphasis on the empowering “economic roles of married women,” characterized by Ulrich as “deputy husband” positions, Ulrich argues that contrary to former belief, women were not helpless victims of circumstance but were instead active agents of their own empowerment. [v] Ulrich contends that while “individuality or self-reliance had little place” [vi] in the lives of colonial women of New England, women shared a sense of gender solidarity through shared experience, and empowerment through their influences within their families and communities.

Using vignettes of three biblical figures (that the women of colonial New England could identify with and would have known of due to their religious devotions) to explain the various roles women held in their society and to show that within these roles, Ulrich asserts that women exercised a level of social and economic power that had been ignored by previous histories. Instead of focusing solely on women as a “good wife,” Ulrich contends that women were empowered because “a housewife polished female specialties. Her role was defined by a space (a house and its surrounding yards), a set of tasks (cooking, washing, sewing, milking, spinning, cleaning, gardening), and a limited area of authority (the internal economy of a family).” [vii]

Through the lenses of economics, sexuality and reproduction, and religion and aggression, Ulrich explains such duties of women as teaching their daughters domestic skills, [viii] the shared experience of childbirth in which “reproduction was the axis of female life,” [ix] and economic control within the home, were means through which women could exert power and control in their lives. Although “a wife who knew how to manage the ticklish chemical processes which changed milk into cheese, wheat into bread, malt into bear, and flesh into bacon was a valuable asset to a man,” [x] Ulrich contends that such skills were valuable to the woman as well, through her ability to use them to her advantage and secure for herself a position of leverage within her family and marriage. According to Ulrich, “a man works from sun to sun, but a woman’s work is never done.” [xi] While women were obedient to men, they could assert themselves to certain degrees within the social framework of their lives. As Ulrich repeatedly asserts, women commonly helped men with their work, conducted business matters in the place of a husband who was unavailable, oversaw the raising of all neighborhood children collectively, provided guidance to others through childbirth, and indirectly exercised influence within the churches.

As pride was considered sinful, and modesty of women was prized in colonial New England society, the “good wife” [xii] was legally subject to her husband’s wishes, yet entitled to his protection. [xiii] Women assumed active roles as the purifiers of their society, [xiv] in which their place within prescribed hierarchical social order involved understanding the “rhythms of the seasons, the technology of fire building, the persistence of the daily demands of cooking, the complexity of home production, and the dexterity demanded from the often conflicting roles of housekeeper, mother, and wife.” [xv] Ulrich contends that it was through such roles that colonial women of New England proved their heroism, and through their tenacity established themselves as powerful agents of their own influence. [xvi] With the inclusion of specific incidents of violence committed by women in self-defense under circumstances of the authoritarian violence of wife-beating, Ulrich shows that while “violent men were still men, violent women became superwomen.” [xvii] Using kitchen implements and boiling water as weapons of self-defense, Ulrich contends that women were not merely passive victims but instead empowered enough to act out in their own defense.

While Ulrich uses a vast repository of primary source documentation and makes a compelling argument, she seems to both validate her own point and prove the points she claims are out of date and need reevaluation. The majority of Ulrich’s study is focused on examining the role of women, in which Ulrich acknowledges the restraints placed upon women and the lack of documented evidence of women’s conscious recognition of the sense of shared solidarity which Ulrich asserts the women experienced. Although Ulrich makes a compelling case, her continuous speculation about undocumented psychological consensus among long deceased women has the effect of detracting from the validity of her argument. With no documentation with which to prove that the women of whom she speaks actually perceived themselves as being empowered by their circumstances. While Ulrich’s use of primary sources to document her thesis is compelling, it is not conclusive evidence of her thesis, and the documents she uses could also be used to prove the opposite of Ulrich’s intention. Ulrich’s constant assertions that women’s role was to “provide a comfortable living for a man” [xviii] and that a good wife was considered to be a “gift from god, ordained to warm a man’s bed and happify his life,” [xix] seemed to contradict Ulrich’s assertions that women were empowered by their situation and held roles of power within their lives. In a seemingly broad chapter in which Ulrich examines the accounts of women captured by Indians, Ulrich finds significant differences between the captured women and the ordinary women of New England in terms of their levels of submissiveness and aggression toward their captors. Yet despite the lack of evidence to prove her theory, Ulrich develops a framework in which these differences might be understood within early New England society as a whole; too broad of a suggestion, which requires further evidence and analysis to prove such a statement.

In a sweeping overview of the lives of women in colonial New England, Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s Good Wives: Image and Reality in the Lives of Women in Northern New England 1650-1750 provides historians, anthropologists, feminists, and other interested readers with valuable insight into the lives of everyday women of the colonial period in the northern colonies. Although Ulrich fails to present inconclusive evidence of her thesis, her position is valid and inspires a curiosity for further analysis of the subject. Her unique perspective brings to light formerly ignored or unknown ideas which deserve further research and scrutiny.

[i] Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, Good Wives: Image and Reality in the Lives of Women in Northern New England 1650-1750. (N.Y.: Alfred A. Knopf, 1982). Xiii.

[ii] Ibid., 5.

[iii] Ibid., 3.

[iv] Ibid., 35.

[v] Ibid., 46-50.

[vi] Ibid., 8.

[vii] Ibid., 9.

[viii] Ibid., 22.

[ix] Ibid., 126.

[x] Ibid., 23.

[xi] Ibid., 67.

[xii] Ibid., 82.

[xiii] Ibid., 94.

[xiv] Ibid., 104.

[xv] Ibid., 39.

[xvi] Ibid., 179-182.

[xvii] Ibid., 191.

[xviii] Ibid., 106.

[xix] Ibid., 124.

Special Thanks

Special Thanks to Hartwick College, Oneonta NY, for the use of their beautiful library!
Special Thanks to Hartwick College, Oneonta NY, for the use of their beautiful library!

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