The Not So Good Lives of New England's Goodwives
~ a bit about what life was like for Colonial women ~
"In seventeenth-century New England, women of ordinary status were called Goodwife, usually shortened to Goody..." * The term was used much as we use Mrs. today.Although the Puritan religion was extremely restrictive to everyone and especially women it was also a great source of support and strength through the hardships these people endured. One such settler, Anne Bradstreet, wrote of her adjustment to this difficult and discouraging life. "After I was convinced it was the way of God, I submitted to it." p35 Bradstreet was an unusual woman of her time because she could both read and write.
More often women were taught to read so that they could read the Bible but few learned to write as it was thought that there was no reason a woman should know how to write. Writing was the prerogative of men. A woman was expected to be subservient to her father until she married and then to her husband. Ministers often reminded their flock that women were inferior to men and more inclined to sin and error.
Life was hard and unforgiving for women in Colonial America. Most homes were small and roughly built giving just a little protection from the elements. Poor diet, constant child bearing and illnesses were took their toll on women as well as long days of hard work.
As a result of such beliefs some women lived out their lives in suffering and hopelessness. Much depended on who a woman's father chose as her husband. Anne Bradstreet's family did support her writing and as a result she became America's first published poet. We are fortunate to have her writing as it gives us a sense of what life was like for women during this period of time.
One telling poem by Anne Bradstreet reminds us of how precarious life was then. She left it in a drawer to be found after her death should she not survive childbirth. The last stanza leaves this request.
"And if by chance to thine eyes shall bring this verse,
Even after colonial settlers became established in America a woman's daily life was still difficult. Typically she would be expected to spin, sew, preserve food, cook and clean while caring for her children and perhaps raising chickens and geese. Families tended to be large, Anne Bradstreet bore eight children but many women had more.
Life was fragile and childbearing dangerous. The term "now-wife" came to refer to a man's present wife as compared to those that he had previously lost. Many children didn't survive to adulthood. An early gravestone in Vermont displays symbolic faces of thirteen infants and one child that one woman lost before her own death at forty. P38 As I think about these women I find myself first wondering how a woman could carry such a load of work and at the same time how she could bear so much loss. Perhaps the hard daily labor necessary to survive helped these women bear their grief.
© 2002 Judy Anne Johnson Breneman (Do not reproduce this article without permission from the author.)
* Good Wives: Image and Reality in the Lives of Women in Northern New England, 1650-1750, by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich.
I used the fascinating book I Dwell in Possibility: Women Build a Nation 1600-1920 for much of the information in this article. It is a beautiful book of old photographs and history by Donna M. Lucey. The above quotes are from this book.
Colonial Women ~ Quilters or Not? , Quilting and quilts made in these early years.
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