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Review: Good Wives

Review: Good Wives

Title: Good Wives: Image and Reality in the Lives of Women in Nothern New England, 1650-1750
Author: Laurel Thatcher Ulrich
Published: 1982
Length: 296 pages  (includes image plates, notes, bibliography, and index)

My star rating: ★ ★ ★ ★

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.


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