Good Wives: Image
and Reality in the Lives of Women in
by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich
A Book Review by Deborah Stapleton
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
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
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.
divides the roles of New England women into three parts that illustrate three
broad views of the roles held by
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
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.
captures the lives of ordinary women of
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