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on April 14, 2004
"Pots and pans" history. So that's what this stuff is called. If that is supposed to diminish it, allow me to suggest that nothing could be further from the truth.
Nothing is more controversial in our society today than "woman's place," and no where is it more controversial than among women. (Any email list will bear this out.)
But what was it like for the women who were the founders of this country? How often do we even think about how they lived, unless we happen to visit one of the burgeoning historical communities multiplying across the country?
It was work, and it was hard work. Women were at home, and they were at home for a reason. Even getting to church was a major endeavor, and one they fought for, for it was women who built many of the major American congregations thriving today.
Their relationships with each other sustained them, and also were likely to pose the most threat, for women could make or break the reputations of one another, upon which survival depended.
Childbirth, pre, post and in between, determined the rhythm of life for generations of women. There were many births, and many of them did not live to adulthood. A woman who was able to nurture many children to see her grandchildren and great-grandchildren had accomplished a great deal, and was honored accordingly.
They had to know and understand the rhythms of nature and the timing of how to use an oven they could stand in and work with its heat as it coursed over the length of a day. There were no timers. There were no temperature regulators. There certainly were no microwave ovens or dish washers or washing machines.
They made medical tinctures as well as food, for doctors were few and far between and if they couldn't nurse their loved ones to health, they lost them more often than not.
They acted as "Deputy Husbands," representing their husbands in their livelihood, not in their own right, but as stand-ins based on the status of their husbands. It was power, even if not their own.
Well researched, thoroughly documented, well written and a very pleasant read, this book will allow us all to count our blessings -- and honor our foremothers.
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Good Wives sheds an illuminating light on the lives of early American women in New England. Ulrich does a great job in proving that these women's lives were far from static and submissive, a fact long lines of historians have never realized or have ignored. Of course, one reason New England's pre-colonial women have not been studied to any vast degree is the fact that primary (and even secondary) source material is almost nonexistent. For example, there is no female diary written before 1750. Ulrich deeply mines the sources that are extant and presents her findings in a way that is highly organized, richly detailed, and quite illuminating. Her main sources consist of court records, probate records, family papers (which include only a very small number of letters written by women), diaries of men, church records, and the contents of ministerial sermons. She is very careful to qualify the reliability and utility of each source, and, in a bibliographical essay, she points to the shortcomings of previous historical monographs that either ignored colonial women or dismissed their influence in colonial life.
Ulrich states that this book is a study of role definition, and she organizes her text around three role clusters associated with three Biblical women (an appropriate framework for the religious societies of colonial New England). Her three prototypes are Bathsheeba for economic affairs, Eve for sexual/reproductive matters, and Jael for matters of female aggression within the bounds of religion. Ulrich identifies and expounds upon the following roles for colonial New England women: housewife, deputy husband, consort, mother, mistress, neighbor, Christian, and--in some cases--heroism. While women were subservient to men, they could assert themselves to certain degrees within the social framework of life. For example, women commonly helped men with their work, conducted business matters in the place of a husband who was unavailable, oversaw the raising of all neighborhood children collectively, dominated the frequent occasions of childbirth, and indirectly exercised influence within the churches. In some of the most interesting material in the book, Ulrich examines the accounts of females captured by Indians. Although she finds significant differences between them in terms of their levels of submissiveness and aggression toward their captors, she develops a framework in which these differences can be understood within early New England society as a whole. The real magic of the book is its success in describing the normal, daily lives of women and comparing and contrasting the stories of those residing in urban centers, town outskirts, and frontier homes. While the lack of primary source material makes it impossible to know the true aspects of these pioneer New England women, Good Wives offers a sweeping yet individualized picture of an important part of colonial society in all its aspects, a society in which the boundaries of men and women did sometimes blur within the individual household.
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on October 21, 2000
I was also required to read this in college--last year in fact--for a seminar on Colonial American society. I was not able to finish it in the week we were given to read it...I liked it so much, that I finished it over the summer as my recreational travel reading! She gives you all the details, the colors, the textures, the sights, sounds, smells, and even the tastes of what it was like to be a woman in the early years of settlement in this country. Particularly enjoyable was reading about the living connection of Ulrich's own experiences working with cows, baking pies, preparing preserves, and speaking with old women in her little New England community.
What began to annoy me after I read this book was when people implied that nothing existed before 1776, the "birth of this country"--how could I believe that after living in the century prior to 1750 through this perceptive book? Amazing to read, amazing to think about, and amazing in the way it ultimately changes your paradigm. I only wish all history books were as absorbing as this.
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on November 28, 1999
This is an excellent book that will really make you rethink the history you've been taught. As another reviewer put it, half the population was left out of history! This book gives an account of the many roles puritan women played during this time and the immense impact they had on history. I enjoyed reading about the impact of sexuality and reproduction. Imagine your entire life being filled with getting pregnant, giving birth and lactating and then starting the cycle all over again. It just goes to show that women who aren't allowed control over their bodies aren't allowed any control in society. We can tie this to our own culture and the struggle for birth control and abortion rights. Anyways, a great read and I shall make my future sons and daughters read it so they know that women have a strong important place in history.
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on June 16, 2002
Ulrich succeeds in bringing to life the obscure and the mundane in a manner that intrigues and entertains. This is not a small feat given a subject that I thought would be somewhat dry. Rather than reading like a textbook, Ulrich targets the divisions of women's lives that Nancy Cott used, religion, sisterhood, domesticity, and marriage relations with a wit and wealth of facinating vingettes.
The only real issue I have with the book (aside from becoming a little dated twenty years on) is the title. People seem to assume that a book entitled 'Good Wives' is a type of antiquated self help manual, rather than a record of the Good wives of 17th and 18th Century America.
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on January 21, 2004
I am very interested in finding out about colonial American women. This book didn't disappoint as far as facts. The author takes great pains to mention as much as she can about the women she's writing about. My only quibble with the book would be sometimes when the author introduces some facts, she would just leave the facts hanging there. There would be interesting tibits mentioned about a particular woman, then that tibit would be left and the author would go one to discuss something else.
Still, overall this book is very enlightening about how women lived back in colonial times.
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on June 20, 1998
How can any history can be written as though 50% of the population doesn't exist? This book gives a clear idea of what that other 50% was doing while the others were becoming "historic". It becomes clear that these women were not cut from a cookie-cutter, and their position in society was not so stagnant or ineffectual as modern Americans like to believe.
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on October 22, 1999
I was required to read this book in college. To note that I kept it, and have re-read it many times tells you what a service Ulrich has done with this material. Her organiztion of subject is beautifully done , with lots of biblical allegory's. IMO, one of the overlooked gems of modern writing. Every Person should read this book!
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on June 5, 2003
This was fabulous! The author clearly does NOT hate Puritans. She is objective, insightful. It's a treasure!
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on February 23, 2004
I am a senior in college majoring in history and I just finished writing a paper about this book for a college class, and after reading the other reviews for it here I feel I should write my own really quick to present a different opinion. It was a good book, and did give a good view into the lives of colonial women, but I'm wondering what anyone learned from it. There was nothing surprising at all, completely mundane. I do not feel there's a need to argue the importance of women in history, no one's writing any books about how great chairs are for sitting, it's understood. Of course no society could develop and function without women and all of the very important things they do, to me thats a given. Anyway, I wont go on any more but in my opinion the book just isn't groundbreaking or interresting on any level what so ever.
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