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WOMEN & WORK IN COLONIAL NEW ENGLAND
CONTENT SESSION MATERIAL

Theme: An Industrious People: American Economic History
Topic:  Women & Work in Colonial New England
Date: Summer 2005
Scholar: Gayle Fischer, Ph.D., Associate Professor, Department of History, Salem State College

Overview | Required Reading | Reading Questions

Materials selected and syllabus compiled by Gayle Fischer, Ph.D., Associate Professor, Department of History, Salem State College, (gayle.fischer@salemstate.edu)


OVERVIEW

In colonial New England, what kind of work did women do, inside and outside the home?

Historians once regarded the colonial period as a "golden age" for white women because of their significant contributions to the economy and their employment as widows in a wide variety of occupations, but this interpretation ignored women's lack of access to education, dependent legal status in marriage, and lives of hard work, frequent childbearing, and early death. Now historians assess white women's lives more realistically, recognizing that their labor contributions did not necessarily translate into control over resources and that most of their lives were spent as subordinates to fathers or husbands. Furthermore, as Jane Kamensky reminds us, in Colonial Mosaic, “Colonial women's work was hard, punishing labor…In the 17th and early 18th century, nearly endless toil marked the lives of the majority of American women, regardless of their region, color, or status.”

This content session will focus on the model for understanding the working lives of colonial New England women laid out in Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s Good Wives. Ulrich identified eight "discrete duties" that shaped women's lives in the early colonial period—housewife, deputy husband, consort, mother, mistress, neighbor, Christian, and heroine. All eight roles transcended domestic boundaries by establishing social networks serving important community functions, and all balanced women's exercise of authority with social expectations of meekness. Ulrich’s concept of “deputy husband,” as applied to those New England women who acted as surrogates for absent husbands, is especially intriguing and invites us to ask: What if the deputy husband did not merely “step in” and perform tasks routinely done by her husband? What if deputy husbands considered themselves partners in marriage, consistently paying bills and taxes and settling accounts whether their husbands were present or not? Why, no matter what activities they pursued, did women never threaten patriarchy as a governing principle?

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REQUIRED READING

Secondary Sources

Kamensky, Jane. The Colonial Mosaic: American Women 1600-1760. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995. (Chapter 2 “To Toil the Livelong Day: Working Lives”)

*Ulrich, Laurel Thatcher. Good Wives: Image and Reality in the Lives of Women in Northern New England, 1650-1750. New York: Knopf, 1980. Reprint, New York:             Vintage Books, 1991. (Introduction, Chapters: 1: “The Ways of Her Household”; 2 “Deputy Husbands”; 3 “A Friendly Neighbor”; 4 “Pretty Gentlewoman”)

Primary Source

Probate Inventory. Estate of Francis Plummer of Newbury (1672). In The Probate Records of Essex County, Massachusetts. Vol. II, 1665-1674. Salem, MA: The Essex Institute, 1917.

RECOMMENDED READING

Newell, Margaret Ellen. “The Birth of New England in the Atlantic Economy: From Its Beginning to 1770.” In Peter Temin ed. Engines of Enterprise: An Economic History of New England. Cambridge, MA and London: Harvard University Press, 2000.

Temin, Peter. “Introduction.” In Peter Temin ed. Engines of Enterprise: An Economic History of New England. Cambridge, MA and London: Harvard University Press, 2000.

Remainder of Ulrich, Laurel Thatcher. Good Wives: Image and Reality in the Lives of Women in Northern New England, 1650-1750. New York: Knopf, 1980. Reprint, New York: Vintage Books, 1991.


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READING QUESTIONS

1. Compared to present-day families, the seventeenth-century household served a wider range of functions and had more porous and flexible boundaries. What were some of the functions that the seventeenth-century household served?

2. Laurel Thatcher Ulrich describes seventeenth-century mothering as extensive rather than intensive. What does she mean by this?

3. In Good Wives, Laurel Thatcher Ulrich argued for a new icon for women's history: "Spinning wheels are such intriguing and picturesque objects, so resonant with antiquity, that they tend to obscure rather than clarify the nature of female economic life, making home production the essential element in early American housewifery and the era of industrialization the period of crucial change." Why did Ulrich argue for a new icon for women's history and what icon, if any, did she support?

4. How did the role of "deputy husband" reinforce "a certain  elasticity in premodern notions of gender"?

5. Ulrich identified eight "discrete duties" that shaped women's lives in the early colonial period—housewife, deputy husband, consort, mother,  mistress, neighbor, Christian, and heroine. For this reading we are concerned with four-- housewife, deputy husband, consort, and neighbor. How do these four duties elucidate your understanding of the work of colonial New England women?

6. What were some of the ways in which colonial New England women and men struggled to reconcile the ways in which women and men are different and the ways in which they are the same?

7. One explanation for the dearth of scholarship on colonial women's history (this has been changing over the last 10 years) is that the sources do not exist for telling women's stories. What sources does Ulrich use and how does she use these sources to extract the history of colonial New England women?


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