Thursday, March 27, 2014

An ideal wife should have Meekness, Patience, Sincerity, Prudence, Zeal ...

Good Wives by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich
I fell in love with Lauren Thatcher Ulrich a couple of years ago when I read her Pulitzer Prize-winning book about a colonial midwife, A Midwife's Tale.  Immediately, I purchased Good Wives:  Image and Reality in the Lives of Women in Northern New England 1650-1750.  I just finished Good Wives last night and let me tell you, it is just as fascinating as A Midwife's Tale.

Good Wives has a subtitle that is quite descriptive but still only hints at its details and depths.  In the introduction to this book, Ulrich mentions a gravestone that says a woman was "Eminent for Holiness, Prayerfulness, Watchfulness, Zeal, Prudence, Sincerity, Humility, Meekness, Patience, Weanedness from ye World, Self-denial, Publik-Spiritedness, Diligence, Faithfulness and Charity."

Nowadays, we would think this woman was either a) not real or b) really boring.  But Ulrich points out that in the 17th and 18th centuries, people did not try to be individuals, but to conform and be ideal.  "A good wife earned the dignity of anonymity," Ulrich says, and then she sets out in her book to show readers exactly what a "good wife" was - a loving mother, an obedient wife, and a kind neighbor.  And she also shows us what happens when women strayed from those norms, for good and bad reasons, and what the consequences were.  It is a fascinating study about a population that did not leave much behind to describe their lives to us.


In A Midwife's Tale, Ulrich had Martha Ballard's journal to guide her, and managed to bring rich context and detail to a journal that usually didn't give her much to go on.  In Good Wives, Ulrich uses court records, account books, sermons, gravestones and so many other amazing primary and secondary sources to support her research.  While I missed getting to know one family like the Ballards very, very well, I appreciated the wider lens that Ulrich employed here.  I learned even more about how townspeople interacted with each other, and how women participated in the economy and made their presence felt even when they were so clearly treated as second-class citizens.  Ulrich spends some time talking about midwifery and how it lost its eminence as physicians became more prominent.  She makes a point that midwifery was about a community's knowledge, not just one person's, and that childbirth was where women could share out their knowledge and expertise with each other:
The decline of the midwives in the nineteenth century cannot be attributed solely to the development of obstetrical science.  It was also a consequence of the undermining of traditional social relations and the increasing privatization of the family.  Midwives were "experienced," whereas physicians were "learned."  Because the  base of the midwives' experience was shared by all women, their authority was communal as well as personal.  In attacking the midwives, nineteenth-century physicians were attacking a system more than a profession.
As someone who has many friends with young children now and several that are expecting their first child, I can't help but feel sad about this.  So many of my friends have told me how lonely maternity leave can be, just the mother and child together for so many hours and the mother having no one around to ask for help or advice if she doesn't know why the baby is crying or fidgeting or not eating.  Early motherhood, particularly in an urban environment, can feel very isolating, and I think many women would love to have that camaraderie and shared experience back, if not in the delivery room, then certainly in the first few months of motherhood.

Other aspects of this book that appealed to me:
  • The tantalizing hints that colonial women took "weaning trips" when their babies were ready to be weaned, leaving home to go visit other family and friends while their husbands abruptly transitioned the children to food.
  • The experiences of women who were abducted by Indians; how many stayed with the Indians, how many stayed in Canada, and how many came back, and Ulrich's thoughts on how a woman made her decision.
  • The court records!  Sometimes so hilariously clear and sometimes so vague that you cannot help but wonder what these Puritans were up to, sharing bowls and spoons and sitting on stoops together.
  • The complete lack of privacy in a colonial village.  Complete.
I ate this book up like it was candy.  Ulrich has a way of finding both the ideal women and the outliers of colonial America and making connections between the two.  She details how little control women had over their lives - happiness in marriage could lead to a few years of bliss followed by a few decades of exhaustion from raising children; unhappiness in marriage could lead to violence and misery.  But she also makes clear what power women did take.  She cautions readers not to read too much into this - after all, 21st century feminists looking back in history are hungry to find evidence of women taking the reins and becoming successful leaders.  But this wasn't the goal and often, women's activities as "deputy husbands" were peripheral, few, and far between.  That's not the same thing as women having no rights, though, or being passive in every aspect of their lives.  And Ulrich gives us examples of women being active participants in their lives, too.

A fantastic book for anyone who enjoys social history, women's history, or American history.  Highly recommended, especially for Ana, who always likes to read about the women who were not always rebels and rabble-rousers.

17 comments:

  1. Well, I recall a weaning trip gone wrong from around 1964. My uncle's wife took it with my mother, to visit my aunt, who had just given birth.

    Unfortunately my aunt was sick in hospital and the two women had to help out with the house and the newborn. As artificial feeding of a newborn in the Soviet Union that time was a lot of hassle, so the uncles wife just breastfed the baby.

    As result, not only did she fail to lose her milk (she had been producing very little, as her own son was already a toddler), by the time she stepped out of the bus after the long journey back, her breasts were bursting with milk and extremely painful*, as result of feeding an hungry newborn for a week.

    So my cousins are also milk-brothers!

    Now I want to tell an old joke about milk-brothers, but I understand a comment is not a place for that.

    *she was a loud woman, so my much more shy mother recalled her yell: "Where is my son, I NEED him on my breast NOW!" even 40 years later, when she told me the story

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    1. Wow, what a great story! Thanks for sharing. I guess weaning trips are very dependent on not going to see someone ELSE with a newborn baby :-)

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  2. I really must check out this author. I just haven't got there yet. Glad you liked this one!

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    1. She really is fantastic.

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  3. Well crap, Aarti. Another one (two actually) goes on my TBR list. This sounds absolutely fascinating.

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    1. That's what I'm here for!

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  4. This does sound like non.fic for me

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    1. It is so, so interesting!

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  5. See, now, I would never ever have picked this up on my own, because I don't like American history and I don't like the seventeenth century at all. But you've made it sound irresistible!

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    1. Well, it was definitely irresistible to me! I think perhaps the women's history aspect trumps the parts that you would dislike?

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  6. I'm off to buy both of these books - or at least put them on my "hey my birthday is coming up soon" wish list. So very fascinating!

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    1. Yay! Nothing quite like books you wanted to splurge on for your birthday :-)

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  7. I loved this one too! The Age of Homespun is really good too. :) And have you read Waste Not, Want Not: a Social History of Trash? By a different author but full of fascinating daily life info.

    I found her description of how labour was a communal woman thing as was early motherhood so appealing as well, until I remembered my sister's mother-in-law. *shudder* I guess it's a two-way street: you get all of the warmth and support of your friends and family but you're also stuck with the busybodies and family feuds. That being said, I do think we've swung too far in the other direction, and it makes me sad.

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    1. I do want to read The Age of Homespun as well, but I have not yet gotten to that one. I think that's her only other book, right? So maybe I should give it some more time again.

      You are absolutely right about the good and the bad! Though maybe, with so many people spending their whole lives together, people were more forgiving ... unlikely ;-)

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  8. Yes! This is a favorite of mine, too. I taught it regularly in Women's History classes. I meet Ulrich when we were both in grad school. She was just starting the dissertation that became this book. Her (male) professors were sure that she would never find enough source materials about women to write about them.

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    1. Ha! Good for her. I love how just the act of her researching women is so feminist.

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  9. I hadn't heard of this book or A Midwife's Tale before, but you made them sound like must-reads!! This sounds so fascinating and it sounds like Laurel Thatcher Ulrich is an amazing writer.

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