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

(Vintage, 1991)

Good Wives sheds an illuminating light on the lives of early American women in New England. Laurel Ulrich does a great job in proving that these women's lives were far from static and submissive, a fact long lines of historians have never realized or have ignored.

Of course, one reason New England's pre-colonial women have not been studied to any vast degree is the fact that primary (and even secondary) source material is almost nonexistent. For example, there is no female diary written before 1750. Ulrich deeply mines the sources that are extant and presents her findings in a way that is highly organized, richly detailed and quite illuminating. Her main sources consist of court records, probate records, family papers (which include only a very small number of letters written by women), diaries of men, church records and the contents of ministerial sermons. She is very careful to qualify the reliability and utility of each source and, in a bibliographical essay, she points to the shortcomings of previous historical monographs that either ignored colonial women or dismissed their influence in colonial life.

Ulrich states that this book is a study of role definition, and she organizes her text around three role clusters associated with three Biblical women (an appropriate framework for the religious societies of colonial New England). Her three prototypes are Bathsheeba for economic affairs, Eve for sexual/reproductive matters and Jael for matters of female aggression within the bounds of religion. Ulrich identifies and expounds upon the following roles for colonial New England women: housewife, deputy husband, consort, mother, mistress, neighbor, Christian and -- in some cases -- heroine.

While women were subservient to men, they could assert themselves to certain degrees within the social framework of life. For example, 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, dominated the frequent occasions of childbirth and indirectly exercised influence within the churches.

In some of the most interesting material in the book, Ulrich examines the accounts of females captured by Indians. Although she finds significant differences between them in terms of their levels of submissiveness and aggression toward their captors, she develops a framework in which these differences can be understood within early New England society as a whole.

The real magic of the book is its success in describing the normal, daily lives of women and comparing and contrasting the stories of those residing in urban centers, town outskirts and frontier homes. While the lack of primary source material makes it impossible to know the true aspects of these pioneer New England women, Good Wives offers a sweeping yet individualized picture of an important part of colonial society in all its aspects, a society in which the boundaries of men and women did sometimes blur within the individual household.

- Rambles
written by Daniel Jolley
published 21 May 2005

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