In the context of 21st-century motherhood, the language of the “mommy wars” often seems outdated. Women today bend over backward to avoid moral judgments concerning women who work and those who don’t. We use cautious, subjective phrasing about “personal choices” and “best options” for our particular families.
And yet in more candid conversations, the mommy wars are alive and well, even if the rhetoric has changed. Both working mothers and so-called stay-at-home mothers (SAHMs) harbor angst about money, attachment, the judgment of others, and a host of other issues. We still want to know: Are working women ruining their children? Are SAHMs missing out on personal fulfillment? And, common to both sides, are our families going to make it financially?
These questions, shaped by unique racial, cultural, and theological contexts, dominate not only women’s thought lives (and men’s, too) but also the broader social and spiritual conversations of our churches and neighborhoods. As a young mother wading through the first year of my daughter’s life, I have found guidance in a surprising place: Puritan women.
I first started studying Puritan womanhood while taking a class on Jonathan Edwards for my MA in church history. In my studies, I came across a book by renowned historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich called Good Wives: Image and Reality in the Lives of Women in Northern New England, 1650–1750. While it confirmed many of my perceptions of Puritan society—strong definitions of male headship and female submission, limited public roles for women, the virtual nonexistence of female authorship before the mid-18th century—it completely changed my understanding of work and gender roles.
Unlike 19th-century norms surrounding womanhood, which maintained that women had no economic role to play within the family, so-called Puritan “goodwives” were responsible for the labor of the household alongside their husbands. Although men and women’s work was divided by gender, nonetheless Puritan women “worked.”
“If we were to draw a line around the housewife’s domain,” writes Ulrich, “it would extend from the kitchen … the cellars, pantries, brewhouses, milkhouses, washhouses, and butteries … to the exterior of the house, where, even in the city, a mélange of animal and vegetable life flourished among the straw, husks, clutter, and muck. … Such a line would surround the garden, the milkyard, the well, the henhouse, and perhaps the orchard itself… [it] would also extend into the houses of neighbors and into the cartways of a village or town.”
In other words, Puritan goodwives grew, manufactured, and created goods of vital importance for a New England household. Their work was not superfluous to the “real” work carried out by the head of the household nor was it relegated to hours leftover from childrearing. They, along with every other member of the household, participated in work that was needed, honored, and challenging. A woman’s work may have been different from a man’s, but in preindustrial life, the household was an economy of its own, and without it a family literally couldn’t survive.
Although the term goodwife had more or less died out by the mid–18th century, Jonathan Edwards’s wife, Sarah, was depicted by Jonathan’s disciples as the ideal Puritan wife and mother. According to Jonathan’s biographer George Marsden, Sarah was “the embodiment of the Puritan ideal of industry” in her management of the household’s farming, cooking, clothing, washing, cleaning, and educating. She hosted a constant stream of long-term houseguests and student boarders and also undertook numerous household business trips to Boston without her husband.
For Puritan women, work for the good of her household was simply part of every woman’s life.
In her book Love Thy Body, Nancy Pearcey underscores the fact that economic systems shape gender roles. “In pre-industrial societies, most work was done on the family farm or in home industries, where husband and wife worked side by side,” writes Pearcey. “Women were involved in economically productive labor, while men were far more involved in raising and educating children than most are today. What changed all this was the Industrial Revolution. It took work out of the home— and that seemingly simple change dramatically altered gender roles. The result was greatly constricted roles for both men and women—which in turn led to narrower definitions of masculinity and femininity.”
Although these divides still haunt us to this day, our economy is changing once again. As more and more work goes online and we transition to an information economy, the options available to women are also changing, making the demarcation between “working mom” and “stay-at-home mom” less visible. Arguably, then, we are shifting (even if slowly) back toward the more holistic and unified world of Puritan New England.
As women rethinking our roles in the context of these cultural shifts, we need mentors who hold an integrated view of the work-family picture. Although Puritan society cannot and should not be idealized or blankly copied, nonetheless preindustrial American women can speak meaningfully to our time and place.
Puritan goodwives offer us these truths for the ages:
1. All people “work.”
The Puritans often spoke of the virtue of “industry.” This term had nothing to do with our modern concepts of wage earning or having a career. Rather it was the opposite of sloth or laziness and very much connected to Reformed ideas concerning the cultural mandate given to us at creation. All of humanity is called to work, bearing the image of God in our labors. When we’re industrious with our time and resources, we reflect a God who was industrious in creating the world around us. The lives of Puritan goodwives reflected this fundamental truth: All work that produces common good—whether great or small, domestic or professional—is worthy of honor.
2. Worthwhile work doesn’t necessarily entail a salary; nonetheless, making money for your family is valuable and venerable.
Much of the work a Puritan woman participated in was specifically aimed at increasing her family’s prosperity. She managed her home in order to provide and save for it, and many of her duties involved trade on behalf of her family. Furthermore, Puritan goodwives took pride in the wealth they helped create. They were known for promoting the material good and were not above nor below participating in the economic concerns of their family.
3. Women work for the good of the community and the church.
Puritan women were taught that the cultural mandate in Scripture is given to both the man and the woman and that this mandate extends beyond the home and into the community. The goodwives did not live in isolated bubbles, cut off from the social systems around them. The world of the household was integral to the larger community, and they blessed their communities through the creation and care of systems, structures, and groups.
They also blessed the church through their labor. The church stood at the center of Puritan society and was fully integrated into Puritan work culture. Ulrich explains that although Puritan women were expected to be silent in church, they “frequently supplied the energy which established new congregations and parishes in outlying areas of older towns”—an issue of extreme practical importance in a society that largely depending on walking for transportation.
Furthermore, Puritan wives, particularly older ones, played an important role in holding younger ministers responsible to their profession. Ulrich recounts many stories of older women intervening in situations of illness and death, marital discord or sexual sin, and clergy hypocrisy. Their work, both seen and unseen, supported local churches and built up God’s kingdom.
4. Parents are responsible for their children’s wellbeing. They also parent in community.
The Puritan goodwives may have been laboring outside in the orchard all day long, but they didn’t do so at the expense of their children. Work and childrearing were indivisible. The Puritans cared a lot about how to best raise their children, particularly in the spiritual realm. Faith formation was the dual responsibility of both father and mother. Though the father was the head of the home, neither parent carried a greater responsibility for the children.
Puritan women (and men) also relied on the broader community. They often had help caring for their children. A woman’s unmarried sister or cousin often came to live in the home as an apprentice of sorts, learning how to manage a household and watch the children. Although modern mothers might not have access to this kind of live-in help, the same principle applies: We raise our children in the context of the church community.
5. Economies and systems change, but the Christian calling does not.
At the end of the day, however our economies change, our calling to be industrious does not. Women of every generation are shaped by forces too big to control. Some women experience an integrated work-home life, similar to the Puritans, but others feel a strong divide between traditional work and childrearing. By God’s common grace, I am hopeful that we may be returning to a time when that divide is smaller. But even if not, we can’t pit two aspects of the imago Dei—work and parenting—against each other.
All women work, and all mothers are responsible for their children. Muddling through the space between is perhaps one of the most difficult challenges of our postindustrial age. Nonetheless, in the midst of that quandary, we can hear our Puritan foremothers urging us to joyfully embrace hard work and industriousness—in whatever forms they come—for the larger good of our households, our communities, and our churches. As Ulrich writes, “the circle of female life [spins] outward into the web of community and religious life.”