The paper “Good Wives - Image and Reality in the Lives of Women in Northern New England" is a breathtaking example of a term paper on history. In the seventeenth century an ideal wife was submissive, a good mother, a good keeper of the home, and the master of a multitude of other domestic tasks. The limitations on women’s equality were numerous. Women could not own property, speak in church, hold a government position, or plan a social activity without permission from her husband or father. Social activities were limited to quilting or meals approved by a husband or father. Women did not have equal rights with men in the seventeenth century.
The first quality of an ideal wife would be a submissive attitude. A submissive wife was desired back to the times of Aristotle and Socrates (Keeble, 1994: 104). Submissiveness was the desired quality because men thought they could have a peaceful household. Men desired a wife that “must carry the stamp of fear upon them, and not be cut, sharp, sullen, passionate, tetchy, but meek, quiet, submissive” (Keeble, 1994: 151). If a wife was submissive and weak, the man could rule his household with little or no strife.
Being a good mother was also a requirement for the ideal seventeenth-century wife. A wife must first produce children. A man would look towards the mother of a woman. If a woman’s mother had many healthy children, then she would be more desirable. A woman with a mother that produced sickly children, girls, or had only a couple of children was not as desirable. In the seventeenth century, women were considered solely responsible for producing healthy children, preferably male children.
Aspects of being a good mother included the nurturing of the children. They would take care of infants, distribute chores among older children, and teach their daughters to be good wives. Sons were put to work carrying wood, milking cows, emptying chamber pots, and other mundane chores. The real teaching came towards their daughters. A good mother taught her daughters to run their homes. This consisted of either managing or carrying out everyday chores.
The household chores were taught to daughters in hopes of making them marriageable. In the seventeenth century, women were seen as liabilities. This made fathers want to marry off their daughters as soon as possible. Sons were seen as valuable assets. If a father or mother became ill, sons would take care of them. An ideal wife wanted to train their daughters to be good wives in hopes of pleasing their husbands and society as a whole.
In the seventeenth century, everyday chores could barely be completed in one day. An ideal wife managed her time wisely. One example would be the daily fire. The fire had to be managed so the right amount of heat was available when the ideal wife’s bread had risen (Ulrich, 1991: 5). The rising bread, making of food, milking, and other chores had to be timed just right. If a cow was not milked every day consistently, the milk might dry up. All of the food had to be prepared from scratch. Children had to be taken care of. Gardens had to be planted, weeded, and harvested. All of this had to be timed down to the last second to make full use of the limited amount of sunlight.
The final characteristic of an ideal wife was a pity. A pious wife reflected positively on her husband. It was also easier for a pious wife to accept her unequal station in life. The Bible has interpreted at the time that a man was submissive to God, a wife to her husband, and children to their parents. If a wife was pious, she believed in these concepts. There would be no rebellion, crosswords, or thoughts of equality. A pious wife gave her husband less trouble.
There were many limitations to women’s equality. The first was no government representation. In the seventeenth century, women could not hold government positions. Men made laws for women. The men in government positions made laws that oppressed women. The government treated women with inequality.
The laws generated by the government did not allow women to own property. A man, generally a husband or relative, would control all property. If a woman became a widow with an underage son, she could take care of the property for her growing son. However, she could never inherit her husband’s property (Ulrich, 1991: 22). A husband’s will might have provisions for his wife, such as her upkeep. For example, a husband might leave his property to his son with the condition he takes care of his mother for the rest of her life. Men were seen as the keepers of women. They took care of their women. So in this society, women did not need to own property.
Another place where women were not considered equal was in church. Women were supposed to defer to their pastor and husbands on theological matters. If they read the Bible to their children, they could not interpret or explain any part of the passages. When a question arose, the children were supposed to ask their fathers. Women were supposed to believe what they were told with no independent thought about God.
Social activities that promoted household interests were encouraged. An example would be spinning wool, sewing, or harvesting (Ulrich, 1991: 14). Church activities were encouraged. Group dinners and Sunday meetings were deemed acceptable by society. Gadding about was discouraged. Just dropping by to gossip or visit was frowned upon. This was the extent of the seventeenth woman’s social life.
The ideal wife was meek and submissive. She was able to manage a home, bear children, and take care of them. Women were not equal to men. There were restrictions on social, governmental, and theological activities. Women in the seventeenth century deferred to men. This is what made them the ideal wives. An ideal had to be strong enough to run a household, but meek enough to be controlled by her husband.