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Good Wives, by Laurel Ulrich.

March 28, 2012

WOMEN’S HISTORY MONTH

Good Wives: Image and Reality in the Lives of Women in Northern New England, 1650-1750, by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich. Vintage (1991), Paperback, 336 pages

A women’s history classic drawing on a wide range of primary sources from colonial New England.

I met Laurel Ulrich at a Women’s History Conference just as she was starting to research her dissertation, the dissertation that became this prize-winning book. Her advisors had told her that she could not find enough material to write on this topic, but she intended to try. Her dissertation became Good Wives.

What Ulrich and other women’s historians did in 1980s did was develop new ways to research the history of those who did not leave abundant personal documents. Ulrich read men’s writings about women as prescriptive statements of how they wanted women to be rather than accurate depictions of them. She figured out how to use legal documents in new ways. From wills, she teased out the lives of women of different economic levels. Most women had basic items like spinning wheels that allowed them to provide adequately for their families. Poor women did not. Wealthier women had a few luxury items as well. Birth records revealed that most women in colonial New England were pregnant or nursing the majority of their adult lives, a fact that fundamentally shaped their lives.

In addition to finding ways to study ordinary women, Ulrich laid out a basic outline of what life was like for women in colonial, pre-industrial America. Other colonies would reveal variations, but in Good Wives we have a baseline for assessing what has changed and what has not within the limits of American history. For example, we see women as bearing and caring for many children, some their own and some those of neighbors and relatives who died. Much of their time and energy went into being mothers. But mothering was “extensive” and spread over many children, not the “intensive” mothering that would focus attention on a few children with the expectation of shaping them as individuals. Such information helps us assess what is “natural” and unchanging and what is not.

I recommend Good Wives for all readers who to learn about women in a significantly different time in US history.

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