GOOD WIVES: Image and Reality in the Lives of Women in Northern New England, 1650-1750 by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich

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

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KIRKUS REVIEW

The ""Good Wives"" of the title are the ""Goodwifes"" of colonial New Hampshire and its two neighboring counties--the married women who, aside from the rare heretic or accused witch, have remained largely unknown to us. Historian Ulrich (Univ. of New Hampshire) helps remedy that neglect through careful examination of colonial documents, interweaving women's history with colonial history in the process. For Ulrich, colonial women's lives were shaped by the demands of three different roles: of economic helpmeet and deputy husband, of mother and consort, of religious believer and Christian heroine. The emphasis on roles is appropriate, for, as Ulrich says, ""colonial Englishmen were far less concerned with abstract notions like 'femininity' than with concrete roles like 'wife' or 'neighbor.'"" Indeed, ""almost any task was acceptable for a woman as long as it furthered the good of her family. . ."" Though there was a distinction between the ""good housewife"" and the ""pretty gentlewoman,"" economic conditions were such that even an elite woman like Elizabeth Saltonstall, wife of Haverhill's magistrate and militia commander, found herself with ""few of the privileges but most of the responsibilities of gentility""--among them, billeting soldiers in her house or providing shelter for traveling strangers. The demands of the second role of consort were not so much onerous as perplexing, with colonial women admonished to walk a careful line between sexuality and spirituality, affability and accessibility. Poet Anne Bradstreet achieved this balance in her marriage to the son of a Boston merchant; her sister Sarah Keayne, less fortunate, was excommunicated from Boston's First Church for alleged ""odious, lewd, and scandalous uncleane behavior. . . ."" The third role allowed more autonomous behavior if properly identified with religious ideals. As the French and Indian wars raised the level of frontier violence, women assumed responsibility along with men, for their own defense. Hanna Duston, captured shortly after giving birth and forced to walk a hundred miles into the wilderness, not only escaped (with the aid of a female companion) but first killed her ten captors--whose scalps she proudly bore home to claim her spiritual reward and material bounty. Ulrich thus succeeds in revealing the pattern of these women's lives, reminding us meanwhile that women's history is not ""a linear progression from darkness to light. . . from negative to positive values (or vice versa), but is a convoluted and sometimes tangled embroidery of loss and gain, accommodation and resistance."" An estimable addition to women's studies, and distinctly readable.

Pub Date: March 31st, 1982
Publisher: Knopf