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

By Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, Laurel Thatcher Ulrich

1,580 ratings - 3.99* vote

This enthralling work of scholarship strips away those abstractions to reveal the hidden -- and not always stoic -- face of the "goodwives" of colonial America. In these pages we encounter the awesome burdens -- and the considerable power -- of a New England housewife's domestic life and witness her occasional forays into the world of men. We see her borrowing from her nei This enthralling work of scholarship strips away those abstractions to reveal the hidden -- and not always

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Book details

Paperback, 296 pages
June 4th 1991 by Vintage

(first published March 12th 1982)

Original Title
Good Wives: Image and Reality in the Lives of Women in Northern New England, 1650-1750
0679732578 (ISBN13: 9780679732570)
Edition Language

Community Reviews


Good Wives started out slow and dry, and while reading the first few pages, I remember thinking, "I'm not going to finish this." Then something happened, and I'm not sure if the pace picked up or Ulrich moved on to richer history or if some other variable came into play, but I was hooked shortly thereafter. I didn't even notice how involved I was until more than halfway through the book, at which point I was still trying to read as I clocked back in after my lunch break. It takes her awhile, but Ulrich does succeed in drawing the reader into her subject.

Exhaustively researched, Good Wives occasionally gets bogged down by Ulrich's determination to move away from the common perceptions of the time period, but the vignettes of everyday life she presents are intriguing enough to prop up the reading when her arguments are thin. These same episodes are especially entertaining when she's operating on a solid foundation, easily one of the main motivations to keep turning those pages. With such a focus on women and their roles in society, there was always a danger of Ulrich tripping over the fine line between "women's cultural history study" and "feminist preaching." I was extremely relieved when Ulrich never crossed over, sticking as close to historical accuracy as is possible with such a sparsely documented period.

Overall an interesting read. Definitely not for everyone, yet if you like your history a bit eclectic and off-beat, give it a try. Just remember to stick it out past the first twenty pages or so, because the parched opening pages are not indicative of the rest of the book.


Very interesting and accessible. Ulrich doesn't get too theoretical and doesn't seem to have an "-ism" driving her work. I don't recall shaking my head much at interpretive stretches. I feel like I have a better understanding of what life was like for my ancestors 300 years ago.

Angela Gyurko

This caught my eye at a bookstore in Salem, Massachusetts, and it was worth the read. Easily organized into sections related to the different roles women played, Ulrich provides bite-sized nuggets of women's lives in New England in the early colonial days.

My yearnings for greater detail will have to wait until I have time to seek out her primary sources.


Also on my blog, Luthien Reviews

In Good Wives (a play on the title “Goodwife,” or “Goody,” commonly used by many Puritans in New England to refer to a married woman), Laurel Thatcher Ulrich explores the expectations and conventions of colonial women in Maine, New Hampshire, and northern Massachusetts over the course of a century and how they intersected with the realities of their day-to-day lives. She separates her study between the economic, sexual and parental, and religious roles of these women, and along the way reveals that they often had far more influence and agency than is commonly believed, though the means by which they expressed it reflected the attitudes of their society at large.

Colonial American history is my favorite historical period, and it was a delight to read about places–Wells and York in Maine, for instance, and Portsmouth and Dover in New Hampshire–that I got to know so well last summer. Knowing exactly where all the towns Ms. Ulrich discussed were without having to flip back and forth to the map really helped bring Good Wives to life for me, as did the fact that I spent so much time in an eighteenth-century house-museum full of the sorts of artifacts that were so frequently discussed.

But it didn’t need much help. This is a well-written, highly readable, and very well-researched book. Occasionally I felt like Ms. Ulrich bit off more than she could chew (the entire last section of the book, “Jael,” dealing with Indian captives and the impact of religion on colonial women and vice-versa, felt a bit underbaked, especially when she briefly forayed into the infamous, complex web that is the Salem Witch Hysteria). For the most part, though, I found the book to be engaging, enlightening, and entertaining as well.

There were too many great anecdotes to mention them all here, but I will say that the story of Judith Coffin in particular amazed me. Judith, mother of thirteen living children, lived to the impressive age of 80, dying in 1705. According to the inscription on her headstone in Newbury, Massachusetts, she “lived to see 177 of her children and children’s children to the 3d generation.” Ms. Ulrich elaborates:
By the time Judith’s last baby was born in March of 1669 [when she was 43] she already had six grandchildren. From 1677 to until her death in 1705–twenty-eight years–at least one grandchild was born in each year. In the most prolific period, from 1686 to 1696, thirty-eight infants were born, almost four a year. Judith’s gravestone should probably be taken literally when it says she lived to see 177 descendants, for two of her four surviving sons and five of her six daughters remained in Newbury, while the others clustered in nearby communities. […] If Judith made any effort to assist at these births, to help during lyings-in, to watch in sickness, and to assist with the nurture of her grandchildren, as many women did, there was little lull in her mothering. (149)
177 children and grandchildren–hard to imagine!

And while, as you might imagine, the behavior and choices of women were limited in colonial society, Ulrich makes it clear that many of them–many more than you would expect–found ways to surpass those limitations, some of which were accepted by their society and others, condemned.

The only real drawback of this book was that it made me desperately wish to return to New England, which right now I’m not able to do. When I do make it back, though, I’ll be armed with a good deal more information than I started with thanks to this remarkable work of scholarship.

Bev Siddons

As part of my research into our family tree, I was guided to this book. I've only just finished the first couple of chapters but can already see how it enables the reader to actually experience the lives of 17th century New England women. For a long time history was only told from the male perspective as it was a male dominated society with women not being allowed to own property and many times losing a means of survival once their husbands died. "Good Wives" sheds some light on that topic by showing that at times women actually sustained their husband's businesses while they were away. Occasionally, women were willed their husband's house and business as well. It's hard for us to imagine today, but stories of the hardships and sacrifices women made throughout history make me proud to be of that gender and grateful to all grandmothers who have come before.


Historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s book, Goodwives: Image and Reality in the Lives of Women in Northern New England, 1650-1750, “is a study in role definition, an extended description constructed from a series of vignettes.” According to Ulrich, women's roles during the colonial period are important and complex, and Goodwives fills a gaping hole in the historiography of women’s history by addressing the many ways in which women participated in the various levels of society during the colonial period. Ulrich's immense knowledge of the time period is obvious. She knows the ins and outs of colonial life. She knows the differences between the small details of colonial life and today within the realms of religion, household care, business and economy, and sexuality. Also obvious is Ulrich’s skill at using the primary and secondary sources available to her as well as sociological and anthropological cues that give rich depth to her analysis and argument. Due to her depth of knowledge, readers can comprehend the time period and small idiosyncrasies that are no longer relevant today. Her immense knowledge breathes light into understanding of the Puritan lifestyle during the colonial period and how women, in particular, played many important and complex roles within the private realm and public society.

Much of the successes of Goodwives can be attributed to Ulrich’s use of the primary and secondary sources and data as well as the format she chose for the book. As suggested by the title of the book, Ulrich focuses on the reality versus image of women from 1650 to 1750. While many assume the scripturally-derived image presented in primary sources of the time, such as Cotton Mather’s sermons of the gentlewoman-wife-mother-housekeeper, is accurate, Ulrich strives to prove the reality of the many complex roles women held. She seeks to upend the commonly-held belief that women were solely mothers and housewives. To prove her point, she creatively and innovatively provides rich detail of daily life that shows the diversity and complexity of the female experience by presenting vignettes of real women within each theme area. Her primary sources include court and probate records, family papers and household inventories, church records, sermons, men’s diaries, colony public records, account books, indentures, and captivity narratives. Most of her sources are not written by women, or even, first-hand accounts experienced by women. The power of Ulrich’s writing stems from her ability to find data about women within these seemingly womanless sources.

Beyond Ulrich’s sources, her use of three biblical women provides a format and structure for her discussion. The three biblical figureheads -- Bethsheba, Eve, and Jael -- represent three large theme areas of women’s roles -- caretaker, sexual being, and heroine. The format of her book around the three biblical women is effective and coherent. She argues a few points within these themes that provide evidence for her thesis. First, women's lives were shaped by cycles of time whether that was the changing seasons that affected their work or their reproductive cycle of birthing, nursing, and caring for children. Second, women held both ordinary (housewife) and extraordinary (deputy husband) roles within society. Her third point was of the importance of the female network to police and mold the community to its whims. While this network was central to everyday life for women, equally important were the roles of women as neighbors, businesspeople, knowledge-keepers, community caretakers, and political and religious change-makers within the larger community of women, men, and children. Finally, Ulrich argues about the role of women as heroines, particularly within the captivity narratives from the many Indian wars of the period. She argues that women survived captivity more often than men due to their abilities to adapt to the situation. Her examples provide ample evidence for the reality of women over the scriptural image and the contradictory idea that women regularly, perhaps daily, crossed gender boundaries within the patriarchal society of the colonial era in ways that were acceptable and mostly unprovocative.

Ulrich successfully argues her main point. Through her study of role definition, she proves that women's roles during the colonial period are important and complex. Overall the Goodwives is effective, but one drawback remains within her book. Ulrich often writes of the colonial women as without agency; she suggests they are simply stuck within the throes of a patriarchal society and doing their best within the roles that are acceptable to their male peers. Does Ulrich believe that women's experiences are solely the side effects of societal and economic norms and not decisions, consciously made by the agency-filled colonial females? Perhaps this tone is simply held over from an older era when historians wrote about women differently if they wrote about women at all. Published in 1980 and 1982, this might be attributed to a change in the historiography of women’s history as Goodwives comes on the heels of the women’s rights movements of the 1970s. Despite this question, Ulrich fills a hole in the historiography that was often overlooked and swept aside by other historians who assumed there was nothing more (or of importance) to discover about women during the colonial period. With her creative use of the primary sources and masterful weaving of vignettes and data, Ulrich provides readers with the complexity and importance of women’s roles within Puritan, colonial America.


Excellent, serious, non-pedantic book. I read it because I - true story! - found a box of "Good Wives" brand puff paste in my freezer and I got all bent out of shape.

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Read majority of book - what surprised me was the social power that women exercised - which then turned into kinds of political and even religious power. Ahhhh, but, we have our ways!


Good Wives has become, as it is for me, the classic text for dipping into women's history in early America. First published in 1980, Laurel Thatcher Ulrich set out to examine how married women in Northern New England spent their lives besides being "good wives" as they were called, and to restore their humanity beyond loving wives and mothers. "How did they fill their days?" Ulrich puzzled. Her task was formidable - women left few sources - no women's diaries exist in NE before 1750 and very few of their letters survive, so Ulrich got creative with the sources that do exist - probate records, men's letters and journals, sermons, architecture, gravestones, genealogies, paintings, embroidery, and scant extant clothing and bed curtains.

To answer her query, she turned to the use of "Role Analysis" defined by Sociologists as "the sum total of the culture patterns associated with a particular status. It includes the attitudes, values and behavior ascribed by the society to any and all persons occupying this status. ...It recognizes that informal structures and unwritten codes can be as effective in determining behavior as legal and economic systems." (pgs. 5-6) In this early era, Ulrich notes that unlike the 19th century, women's lives were instead defined by a "series of discrete duties, rather than by a self-consistent and all-embracing 'sphere'." (8) Thus, she examined the position of wife through lenses of law, social obligations and expectations, and procreation, identifying the following roles women played: housewife, deputy husband, consort, mother, mistress, neighbor, christian, and heroine. She then divided these various roles of the goodwife into three biblical archetypes of female behavior:" "Bathsheba" focuses upon economic life; "Eve" upon sex and reproduction, and "Jael" upon the intersection of religion and aggression." (10)
Although impressive in many respects, the book has its flaws. The major one that stand out to me, is that while Ulrich arrangement of women's lives and characters into three archetypal categories of biblical heroines is useful it is also overly constraining as it doesn't allow for changes across time and place in all parts of the work. The behavior of an assertive, Indian-killing Jael was far more acceptable in outlying regions and in earlier eras, than once the region was settled, the Indians mostly removed, and in times of peace. Time, place and atmosphere are important variables, and Ulrich seems willing to more or less ignore all these aspects in order to neatly fit everything into her 3 main character archetypes.

For me, the weakest section of the book was Ulrich's interpretation of the captivity narratives and her uncritical reading of both the primary and secondary sources on the subject. On page 204, she discusses "white captives" and notes that (Alice) "Coleman found only four 'white Indians' from northern New England" and goes onto list Joanna Ordway, Martha Clark, Samuel Gill, and Sarah Hanson. Presuming that she is including Massachusetts as northern New England, how in the world did she miss Eunice Williams, daughter of Rev. John Williams, who was taken during the 1703 raid of Deerfield, and is perhaps the most famous of all these 'white Indians'. Even if Coleman inexplicably missed counting her (and I seriously doubt this! I have read both volumes, but I don't have them on hand to consult), Ulrich should have known this information. Furthermore, Ulrich mentions John Williams twice (pg. 205 and 211) without any mention of Eunice, despite the fact that her story fits perfectly into the narrative Ulrich is weaving and would have been vital primary evidence to support her claims. On the bottom of 211 she writes: "Since the New England Captives who stayed in Canada included daughters of prominent families it is little wonder that officials at home worried over the threat of French Catholicism. John Williams the minister of Deerfield, devoted most of his captivity narrative to the spiritual threat of 'papacy'." At no point does Ulrich ever work in that Eunice not only married a Mohawk man, but she also converted to Catholicism, and refused to return to her home community to live and convert back to protestantism, despite the opportunity to do so. This was a real blow to John Williams who used his daughter's story as a tool of his ministry and to raise money to rescue all English who remained in native captivity. Williams' will left Eunice an inheritance which she was free to claim if she ever came back home to live. She did come for a visit, but chose to return. That Ulrich omitted Eunice's story is completely baffling – if it didn’t fit into her self-imposed geographic constraints, then why mention John Williams at all? It leaves me wondering what else was omitted from sections I know less about.

Points of interest under each:
I. Bathsheba - remembered not as the rooftop bather and temptress of King David, but "as a virtuous housewife and godly woman whose industrious labors gave mythical significance to her sex." (14) She's a "skillful manufacturer", "hardworking agriculturist" and "resourceful trader" - qualities which describe the tasks of the NE housewife in early America. (14-15)
- spinning = perfect task for young mothers, which is why wheel ownership was not attached to ownership of sheep or loom. (29)
-Continuous warfare between 1689-1713 enriched merchants in Portsmouth and Kittery, "but it kept inhabitants in outlying settlements in a state of impecunious insecurity." (30)
- A charge and conviction of fornication in early america was expensive and inconvenient, but did not lead to permanent social outcasts. (31)
-Poverty and the confined spaces associated with it, blurred the lines between husbands and wives domains. (32)
-Ulrich disputes earlier historians notions that women were valued because they were essential for survival. She asserts that women were essential for social organization and that their work linked houses together into communities. (33-34)
-Asserts that a more representative symbol of women's work is not the spinning wheel, but rather her pocket which "symbolizes, the obscurity, the versatility, and the personal nature of the housekeeping role." (34)
- Concerning the place of women: the Pre-modern world granted women more fluidity than the 19th C, but the place of colonial women was essentially domestic. (36)
-3 basic assumptions of family government in the pre-modern world: 1) father was supreme leader and titular head in affairs external to the family. 2) His decisions should ideally incorporate his wife’s opinions, 3) Should the husband be away or unable to fulfill his role, the wife had the right and responsibility to act as his stand in. (36)
- It is good to remember that “no matter how colorful the exceptions, land and livelihood in this society normally transmitted from father to son.” (37)
- Historians are apt to miss the responsibilities of women that were important but not economic. (37)
-“Gender restrictions were structural rather than psychological.” (38)
-Male and female space overlapped, there were no true “separate spheres” (39)
-“Neighborliness was a cultural norm in all New England Colonies and… borrowing was part of the rhythm of life at all social levels. Families not only shared the commodities, they shared the work that produced them.” (51)
- “It is a mistake to romanticize the concept of ”neighborliness“ to assume that material interdependence and physical proximity automatically ensured “meaningful personal relationships, a sense of participation and the feeling of collective caring.” (52)
– it was often “almost impossible to distinguish privates from public issues, sexual slander from economic, or the entitlements of women from the a few of their spouses.” (55)
–“Because the boundaries of authority and responsibility largely defined by custom rather than law, casual watching and wording by neighbors was far more significant than most women in the power of magistrates.” (59 – 60)
– “Moralists in every century preferred “productive” to “ornamental” women. The underlining assumption is that the two roles are incompatible, that a woman must give up the homely duties of kitchen and barnyard to acquire the refinements of the parlor.” (68)
- “Pretty gentlewomen simply refined the skills which all good housewives shared. To a knowledge of plain sewing and common cookery they added concern for grace and style.” (71)
- gentility and refinement meant more work not less. (72)
-Ulrich suggests that ”The first specialized “good housewives” in New England were ”pretty gentlewomen” of mid-18th century towns. Such a conclusion must be tentative, since historians as yet know very little about the development of domesticity in America.” (76)
-Reminder of the problem of disappearing maids, a common theme of rural New England. (76)
– “even after a century after supposed ”leveling” and long after the sumptuary laws were abandoned, clothing carried subtle clues to values and status. … clothes distinguished the better sort from the commonality, but they also distinguished the proud from the virtuous. … when the daughters of liberty brought down their spinning wheels from their attics, they were responding to a moral imperative in as well as to a practical need.” … they renounced the luxury of a corrupt England, demonstrating that the descendents of the Saints had not forgotten the lesson of Bathsheeba, “she looketh well to the ways of her household, and eateth not the bread of idleness.”(82)
- “As we have seen, the myth of Bathsheba encompass the productive roles of housewives and deputy husbands, the social roles of mistresses and neighbors, and the intellectual and spiritual roles of committed Christians.” (84)

- “To understand this village morality play, we must determine the historical meaning of the characters. …What to make of a plot which casts a mother as a moral guardian, A dashing Englishman as assailant, and a pretty young bride as victim? One obvious interpretation would make Puritanism the real protagonist. … The real conflict was between two cultures– Puritan Massachusetts and Merry England.” (92)
- “Despite the efforts of Edmund S. Morgan to dispel the stereotype of the “Sad and sour” Saints, historians continue to ask, “How ‘Puritan’ were the Puritans?” … To understand the historical drama in Newberry, one must give less attention to ideology than to gender, taking the characters pretty much at their surface value.” (93)
- Mary Rolfe’s “dilemma was created by the coexistence in one rural village of a hierarchical social order (by no means limited to New England), a conservative religious tradition (not exclusively Puritan), and sex-linked patterns of sociability (rooted in English folkways). … Keith Thomas has argued that the double standard in sexual relations is but one manifestation of a hierarchical system which included not just the subordination of one class to another but the subordination of female male.” (93)
- “The legal record is quite clear– and sexual matters, as in most other areas of life, New England women were subject to men though entitled to protection. The more difficult question is determining how all of this translated into gender roles, which of course were enacted not in court but in the intimate arena of ordinary life.” (94)
- “Both sexes were culpable. But they were different. Men required restraint, especially when drunk. Women need protection, not because they were innocent but because they were not.“ (97)
- “The opposite of whore was rogue, a term which mixed sexual and more general meanings. … A rogue tricked or forced a woman into submission with no regard for consequences. The words mirror traditional gender relationships. A woman gave; a man took.” (97)
- “The 18th century has often been considered a pivotal point in the transformation from external to internal controls of sexual behavior. By the end of the 17th century in new England the authority of the county courts to enforce morality had already begun to slip. Fines replaced with things, and convictions failed to keep peace with the growth and deviant behavior.… The last years of the 18th century and the first years of the 19th saw the creation of a system of repression based upon internalized guilt. “(103)
- “At the heart of the so-called ”Victorian morality” which replaced the old “Puritan repression” was an altered concept of female sexuality. Man continued carnal, sensual, and devilish, but woman assumed an active role as purifier of society. Female chastity became the touchstone of public virtue, purity the radiant light of the home.” (104)
- Protestantism narrowed respectable women’s choices to one option: marriage and family. Respectable Catholic women who did not want a married life had the escape of the convent. ( 106)
- Ulrich wrestles with “How does one define “helpmeet”? When and what was the proper place of women? What was Eve’s real role in relation to Adam and man? “Most ministers, like Calvin himself, carefully distinguished between spiritual and civil equality.” (107)
- “Within marriage, sexual attraction promoted consort; outside marriage, it led to heinous sins. For this reason female modesty was essential.” (108)
- 17th-century Eve was a perfect helpmeet; 18th-century Eve = sexuality perfected. (117)
- 18th-century society was in transition between patriarchy and romance. “In either system of courtship, romantic or negotiated, a woman’s power to act on her own behalf was essentially negative.” (119)
- “There is evidence that premarital pregnancy increased in every decade of the 18th century, peaking just before the American Revolution.” …“Bundling is more logically seen as an attempt to preserve traditional rental protection of daughters in a marriage system which increasingly concise sexual attraction.” (122)
- “Childbirth in Early America was almost exclusively in the hands of women, which is another way of saying that its interior history has been lost.” (127)
- “Pious women like Anne Broadstreet of Andover or Sarah Goodhue of Ipswich wrote spiritual testaments as they faced childbirth, just as men of the same class and time signed wills before embarking on a long sea journey or military expedition.” (129)
- Pregnancy restricted women, but “A more dramatic restraint on travel is apparent in the next phase – the first 10 months of each baby’s life. This is undoubtedly related to lactation, which in many ways place more demands on the mother and pregnancy.” (141)
- Weaning journeys and possibility of traumatic weanings? (142 – 143)
- Analyzing the phrase“Honoured mother”…”What were the social, biological, and cultural realities which shaped the maternal role?” (147)
- Giving children family names was part of the command to Honor thy father and mother. Names also frequently honored dead relatives. (150)
- The “saintly mother”, while not new, became a favorite team of the 18th-century. (153)
- Common parenting mode in early America: “Tender nurture and open expressions of affection in early childhood gave way to firm discipline and pious rule-making as the children grew. Parents reinforced their own authority with frequent reminders of the correcting power of God.” (155)
- “Mothering” = generalized responsibility for an assembly of youngsters, rather than intensive devotion to a few. Everyone and no one watch the children. (157)
- Witches = bad neighbors and bad mothers (158)
- “Witchcraft belief confirms the social nature of the maternal role. Because women were perceived to how real, though mysterious, power, they could become the focus of communal fear and anger. But it also testifies to the psychological complexity of mothering in this insecure and frightening environment.” (159)

III. Jael –
- “the ability to assume now roles temporarily and then shrink back into submissiveness is been a traditional female quality– especially in wartime. But the myth of Jael goes deeper than that. If woman is capable of assuming male responsibilities in the service of male authority, what is to prevent her from challenging the authority altogether? What contains the immense destructive power beneath the benign feminine mask?… For such questions did concern writers and popular moralists of the 19th century, many of whom went to great lengths to deny the aggressive potential of women.” (170)
- “The important problem is not whether colonial women had the ability to defend themselves but whether they had the will.” (179)
- “Wilderness courage and Protestant piety were both important ingredients in the myth of frontier heroism which was born in the narratives of King Phillip’s war and nurtured in the ministerial histories which followed.” (183)
- “the essential question was not whether the master had the right to strike the servant… but whether the violence used was excessive and whether other, more peaceful means had been available. Here the issue was abuse of, rather than disobedience to authority.” (186)
- “From the whipping post on the town common to the pudding stick in the hand of a mother, colonial Americans accepted authoritarian violence as essential to social order.” “… children were probably the most frequent victims of authoritarian violence though their stories seldom reached the court.” (187)
- In court records, men usually attacked other men (70%), but women attacked men and women equally. (191)
- Quote there is strong suggestion that the women acted as surrogates for the larger community, Since no one in that small town was willing to identify or prosecute him.… This is not “Frontier vigilantism” …Natalie Davis has demonstrated that from the 17th to the early 19th century the image of the “disorderly woman” sanctioned riot and political disobedience in England. Women were directly involved and even led some of these demonstrations. In others, male leaders assumed female disguise….” (194)
- “Church membership was one of the few public distinctions available to women… in a society in which church membership had to be earned, this was no small distinction.” (216)
- “Women had a vested interest in the establishment of churches. The relationship between women and the ministry was not always a comfortable one. In illness and death or in cases of marital disruption or sexual misbehavior, the authority of the clergy might encounter the powerful influence of the old wives of the community.… The most obvious conflict involved folk magic.… Women could not control salaries, but they could control reputations, and of course they could use the same weapons in attacking ministers as they used in promoting churches– their influence with their husbands.” (219-220)

Alexa-rae Barnes

Within early New England historical research, specifically on Puritan settlements, ambivalence regarding women’s position and status prevails. However, Laurel Thatcher Ulrich explains that “in the study of early New England, gender is as important a category as race, wealth, age, geography, or religion.” (pg. 241) When people think of Puritan life, they are often quick to imagine a life of modest black clothing, sexual repression, and female subjugation defended by religious values. Indeed, religious duty was at the center of Puritan life and this marked various socio-political-and cultural realities in the 17th and 18th centuries of New England. However, also at the center of Puritan life was women, who on many occasions, transcended typical English gender norms. Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s book Good Wives: Image and Reality in the Lives of Women in Northern New England, 1650-I750, analyzes the status of women with a specific focus on women’s role in Puritan society. In three sections, using biblical analogies to the three scriptural women Bathsheba, Eve, and Jael respectively, Ulrich successfully and almost tangibly elucidates the normative elements of women and their day-to-day realties in Northern New England. This critical analysis will look into the various ways in Ulrich’s book successfully supports her claims, as well as the ways in which Ulrich’s research leaves room for critique. Furthermore, this analysis will mention the relevance of this research in understanding American civilization as a whole.
This book defies the academic claim that “there is not enough material” or primary sources to drawn upon for women’s history from this specific time period. The reality is, it is seldom possible to locate and identify “female” materials from the colonial period. However, there is some record of women’s lives such as court records, family papers, genealogies, court records, gravestones, paintings, embroideries, diaries (unfortunately there are no female diaries from before 1750), church records (such as membership patterns and disciplinary action), and probate records. Ulrich draws from all of the aforementioned primary sources weaving them together to form a narrative that seems to honestly reflect women’s condition and place in Northern New England Society. Her use of sources never feels like a distortion of evidence to benefit a certain argument, rather an explication of appropriate data.
Ulrich’s book makes use of the sociological theory “role analysis” which is the “sum total of the culture patterns associated with a particular status….it includes the attitudes, values, and behavior ascribed by persons occupying this status.” (pg 5) In the case of Good Wives, she is looking into preferences and behaviors of women in the 17th-18th century Northern New England. Because the phrase “woman,” “wife,” and “mother” were considered synonyms in the English vernacular during this time; (pg.4) Ulrich plays off of the expression “good wife” to illuminate the intracaies of the roles women performed that can be lost in the simple word “woman.” Ulrich also takes special care to emphasize the theological underpinnings of Puritan culture such as the stressed importance of husband and wife as codependent to one each other’s existence. (pg 8) A frequent assumption about Puritan social structure, is that women were subordinate to men. However, a more realistic description is that women were considered complementary to men. (pg. 9)
The first section of the book deals with the scriptural woman Bathsheba who was recognized in Puritan sermons as “a virtuous housewife, a godly woman whose industrious labors gave mythical significance to the ordinary tasks assigned to her sex.” (pg. 14) Ulrich explains that the New England housewives’ primary concern was to perform the arduous household chores such as cleaning, mending, weaving, and cooking. But they often performed male duties as well without appearing to it challenge views about realms of “feminine duty” as housewife. Ulrich describes three women: Beatrice Plummer, Hannah Grafton, and Magdelen Wear, in order to further demonstrate the various manifestations of the Bathsheba model of woman.
These women were not only wives, mothers, and housekeepers, but they were also a cook, baker and trader (Beatrice) , a shop keeper (Hannah) , and a cornfield helper and attorney (Magdelen) . Ulrich argues that in taking on traditional male roles, the women were serving as "deputy husbands." (pg. 36) Ulrich also find loopholes in gender norms in the activities of what she calls "pretty gentlewomen,"(pg. 69) who supervised servants as well as engaged in the sustainment of the community's existing social values. Moreover, as neighbors, women were expected to sustain these values and model their behavior by the Rule of Modesty and the Rule of Charity as expressed by Bathsheba in Proverbs. (pg. 63)
The second section of the book looks at the scriptural Eve, which Ulrich uses as an analogy to express the Northern New England woman’s role as a consort, as a mother, and as a Christian. (Pg. 9) Ulrich discusses the reality that for Puritans, “marriage was not a sacrament but a civil contract between two individuals, and like other contracts, it could be broken.” (Pg. 110) Ulrich explains that women were more likely to win a court divorce settlement than men according to documents available. Due to the importance of motherhood for women during this time, women faced the hardship of the life-long cycle of pregnancy, birthing, lactation, child rearing. This reality places women at center of the family unit due to the overpowering need for the woman to be fertile, bear children, and perform motherhood. Furthermore, because the sexual relationship was looked at in Puritan theology as “harmonizing,” (Pg. 112) if any partner was in conflict to harmony, divorce was acceptable.
Good Wives' concluding section uses the scriptural Jael a heroine who slew an enemy of the Israelites. Ulrich looks at the legacy of Hannah Duston, who was taken captive by natives, and escaped after killing ten of her captors. She is eulogized by Puritan leaders and compared to Jael. Ulrich gives numerous occasions in the 17th and 18th century New England, where women were engaged in acts of violent behavior. This historical reality adds another dimension to the reconstruction of women during the time period she discusses.
While Ulrich’s book is an excellent source for developing an understanding of Northern New England gender norms, the analysis fails to go beyond normative elements. Ulrich’s major focus is descriptive, not explanatory. One can infer successfully from the data she cites, and produce avenues for further, more explanatory research. If we agree that norms derive from the socio-political-cultural and economic matrix as Ulrich suggests in her introduction, then analysis of this matrix would be essential when researching gender norms. Ulrich does make some generalizations from her analysis of normative elements of gender when she applies them with a single stroke to society as a whole. More positively, this book presents a clear understanding of the importance of Puritan religious epistemology and its influence on the behaviors, structures, and social norms in 17th and 18th century Northern New England. Ulrich demonstrates the variety of roles women played in society, challenging the argument that the only key change in female economic life has been the shift from “production” to “consumption” during the industrial revolution. (pg. 15) By looking at the role of women during this time period, we can learn what America as a whole inherited from 17th and 18th century Puritan family structure. The changes that occur in the 18th and 19th centuries assuredly had some effect on the family unit, so this book is valuable for understanding this period of Puritan gender norms. Lastly, the collection of sources that Ulrich has compiled is invaluable to historians for research, as well as countless other academic/practical endeavors.