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The Good Woman

November 9, 2002

I was working on a bit of my own family's history today - an activity I haven't had much time for since beginning this genealogy website - and I found myself sidetracked as an old-timey phrase came to mind. My fingers flew across the keyboard until I realized that I wasn't on the topic of that particular family any longer: I'd wandered into a little essay on historical context!

In deference to those COX family historians who don't care to read my musings on the memories and thoughts that a particular old-fashioned phrase brought to my mind, I decided to clip out that bit and move it over here to the Publisher's Notes, where only my favorite diehard knuckleheads and the truly lost can read it!

How'd I get started on this? I was writing about my great-grandfather, J. W. COX, who described his wife - and one of his principal reasons for marrying her - as a "good woman."

A "good woman?" Like, dude, what's a "bad" woman?!

To our modern ears, the phrase "a good woman" sounds odd and archaic, but it had a special meaning in its day. In his wonderful book,  In a Narrow Grave: Essays on Texas Larry McMurtry explores the meaning of being a Texan in this post-Wild West era. Along the way, he describes the old-time, romanticized and reverential attitude of cowboys toward the ideal of the "good woman."  Though McMurtry doesn't go into great detail about what this ideal is, the phrase instantly rang a bell as I read: I'd heard it in my dad's stories about his grandfather. And J. W. COX was a cattleman, among other things, and is said to have worked on cattle drives up the Chisholm Trail before settling down, teaching himself law, passing the Texas State Bar Exam.

But back to that phrase, "a good woman." I know women who would instantly bristle at that one, charging "male chauvinism" and instantly judging J. W. as hopelessly misogynistic. Certainly, I don't know anyone who talks like that today

But I'm not writing about someone who's lived through the Sexual Revolution of the 60's and 70's, or who's been enlightened by Women's Lib. I'm writing about a man who was born in 1854

The Victorian-era ideal woman was credited for her calming and civilizing influence on the otherwise rough and erratic nature of her man. The "good woman" would inspire her husband to work hard to support his family, would give him the reason to come home at the end of the trail drive, and would insure his attendance in church on Sundays. Her value as a homemaker was deeply appreciated, for the making of their home was what brought out his best, and helped to preserve the family tradition for the future. 

J. W. COX was a man of his times, but he was ahead of his time, as well. He made sure his daughters went to college, an unusual attitude in the early 1900's in the very rural South. While his description of Eliza as a "good woman" may brand him as a male chauvinist today, at least to the more superficial reader, we know that he was definitely not chauvinistic, and he wanted more for his daughters in life.

Our values as a culture have changed dramatically, for better or for worse, and thus the "good woman" is a politically incorrect anachronism today.  But I think it's important to take these snippets of memory, like the tale of J. W. 's desire to marry the "good woman" Eliza, and to put them in the proper context. It wouldn't be fair, and it wouldn't be right, to apply our modern sensibilities and views to their lives, any more than we'd (necessarily) welcome their 19th-century judgments upon our lives today.

Do you ever find yourself cringing over something an ancestor did (or didn't do)? Is there something that is part of your family's story that you find embarrassing because it's something that we would never think of doing today? What about poverty? Illiteracy? Or attitudes that we would consider intolerable today among our peers?

We all do this, to some degree. After all, we have only our own experience and our own cultural perspective from which to view these people of our past. But it would be wise to remember, when considering an ancestor's misdeeds or politically incorrect attitudes, that it's important to consider them within the context of their times, and in the context (as much as we're able to learn) of their experiences.

Unless, naturally, we'd be willing to have those citizens of the 19th century sit in judgment upon our lives, not knowing a whit about how things and times have changed in the intervening decades. I doubt that many of us could fare well with such judgment!

Historical context is critical in understanding our families' stories. Thus, even if you got started in genealogy with no intention of undertaking history as a hobby, too.... surprise!  It's time to go back to school!

The good news? No tests! And History is infinitely more fun when you're learning it in the context of your own story!

Now, go learn something new today!


Happy Hunting!

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