Good Wives: Image and Reality in the lives of Women in 1650-1750
by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich
A Book Review by Deborah L. Wascher
In the book Good Wives: Image and Reality in the Lives of Women in Northern New England 1650-1750, Laurel Ulrich speaks of the experiences of women in colonial America.Ulrich speaks up for the women from 1650-1750 who have been left out of history.It is as though they do not exist or contribute to our history. She tells how these women’s lives are far from routine or submissive.They worked hard in the home as well as being a part of the community around them.Women relied on each other as well as their family to get through the every day as well as the struggles that came along.
Ulrich tells of the lives of women around three Biblical models: Bathsheba, the dutiful and capable wife; Eve, the husband’s helper and mother; and Jael, the dutiful and heroic.She tells of the wife’s role in the home, as well as the community.
Ulrich coins the phrase “deputy husbands” in her book.Ulrich feels that the women served as a replacement for their husbands in typically male responsibilities in order to help their household.This could be from running a business to planting a field.
Ulrich’s research was different since she did not have many primary or secondary sources available.Records for women were not kept before 1750.Ulrich uses court records, household inventories after the death of husbands, probate records, grave stones, samplers, diaries, letters, church records, and artifacts.She also researched men’s diaries and writings of men for her sources to find what they told about women.Very few women were visible in history records as far as documentations.In public histories and records from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, women are either not mentioned or linked to their husband’s business dealings.There are few records about women.Ulrich’s book is unique in that she found diaries of two women from this time period.One diary was hardly legible but the one of Martha Ballard, Ulrich transcribed.It was a very valuable resource to the author. Abbreviations, notes, a bibliographical essay and illustrations qualify Ulrich’s findings. One flaw may be that the research is only from northern .Also there is little comparison of rural and the more settled areas and their relationship to women.Even though there is a lack of primary source, the book is enlightening to the role of women in early history and society.
Good Wives was eye-opening for me as far as the work that was expected from women.Women were expected to do it all.They were to take care of children, cook, clean and sew, raise gardens and livestock, step in when their husbands were absent to run businesses, to name only a few. Planning of pregnancy and lactation and weaning journey were something I had never heard of.I found the charting and planning to be fascinating. These ladies were as Eve; mothers of a new country.With high numbers of birth also came the mourning of many babies and young infants. If a woman could see her grandchildren and great-grandchildren, she had accomplished a lot and was honored for it.
It was also interesting to read about the women, men and children who were taken captive by Indians.In order to survive a trip to by foot they had to very strong and determined.Many died or were ransomed.Many that escaped remained in .
I truly enjoyed reading Good Wives. Ulrich tells with such detail the dealings of women that you feel you are there.She organizes her book around the three biblical women and tells how the lives of 1650’s-1750’s women fit in these categories.She gives examples of daily living of the people in . Having so many facts in her book sometimes became a problem as I was reading.I found the many times Ulrich’s book went from fact to fact when I wanted to know more about hoe the women dealt with happenings or life around them.
Good Wives is a book I would recommend to others.I would also recommend other Ulrich books as well and plan to read others by this author.Good Wives gives a picture of life for these pioneer women. It makes me appreciate the things we have today and the women who helped make them possible.
The role of women in America in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries was not confined simply to matters within their households, as some have popularly believed. Historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich has come up with the term “deputy husbands” to describe women’s potential role in the colonial household. In some cases, women “shouldered male duties,” Ulrich writes. “These might be of the most menial sort—but they could also expand to include some responsibility for the external affairs of the family.”1
A wife could act as a surrogate for her husband, even in legal matters, in times of necessity.2 The necessity might arise because of a husband’s absence—if, for example, his occupation required him to spend a great deal of time away from home. Some men were frequently away at sea, as noted by Crèvecoeur in Letters from An American Farmer: “As the sea excursions are often very long, their [fishermen’s] wives in their absences are necessarily obliged to transact business, to settle accounts, and in short to rule and provide for their families.”3
A wife might also be thrust into the role of deputy husband when her husband was away at war. A 1780 broadside written by “An American Woman” addresses this topic, averring that women are up to the task: “On the commencement of actual war, the Women of America manifested a firm resolution to contribute as much as could depend on them, to the deliverance of their country. Animated by the purest patriotism . . . they aspire to render themselves more really useful; and this sentiment is universal from the north to the south of the Thirteen United States.”4
Sometimes it wasn’t the husband’s occupation but rather an illness or disability that led a wife to step forward and engage in business. An example is found in the proceedings of the Salem Quarterly Court of June 1672. When Philip Cromwell, “having taken a cold in his head, his hearing was then very bad,” he expressed trust in his wife to undertake his affairs. According to the other parties in a trade, Cromwell claimed: “Whatsoever his wife doth ingage, he would make it good.”5 Mrs. Cromwell remains somewhat anonymous, as her first name is never given—which was generally true in such cases. As Ulrich notes, “As deputy husbands, a few women . . . might emerge from anonymity; most did not.”6
Perhaps Ulrich’s most salient point is that the “role of deputy husband reinforced a certain elasticity in premodern notions of gender. No mystique of feminine behavior prevented a woman from driving a hard bargain or chasing a pig from the field.”7 Notions of clearly defined gender roles were sometimes overridden by a need for wives to perform activities traditionally attributed to their husbands for the good of the family.
1 Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, Good Wives: Image and Reality in the Lives of Women in Northern New England, 1650-1750 (New York: Knopf Doubleday, 2010), p. 9.
3 J. Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur, Letters from an American Farmer (1782; reprint, Carlisle, Mass.: Applewood Books, 2007), p. 205.
4 Also depicted in online exhibit, “A Woman’s Work is Never Done,” at the American Antiquarian Society, americanantiquarian.org/Exhibitions/Womanswork/waryears.htm.
5Records and Files of the Quarterly Courts of Essex County, Massachusetts, Vol. 5, (Salem, Mass.: Essex Institute, 1916), p. 57.
6 Ulrich, Good Wives, p. 36.
7 Ulrich, Good Wives, p. 50.
About Zachary Garceau
Zack Garceau is a Researcher at the New England Historic Genealogical Society. He joined the research staff after receiving a Masters Degree in Historical Studies with a concentration in Public History from the University of Maryland-Baltimore County and a BA in history from the University of Rhode Island. He specializes in French-Canadian Genealogy and Sports History. View all posts by Zachary Garceau →