Being Good: Women's Moral Values in Early America
  • Being Good: Women's Moral Values in Early America
  • Being Good: Women's Moral Values in Early America

Being Good: Women's Moral Values in Early America

by Martha Saxton

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A pathbreaking new study of women and morality

How do people decide what is "good" and what is "bad"? How does a society set moral guidelines -- and what happens when the behavior of various groups differs from these guidelines? Martha Saxton tackles these and other fascinating issues in Being Good, her history of the moral values prescribed for

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A pathbreaking new study of women and morality

How do people decide what is "good" and what is "bad"? How does a society set moral guidelines -- and what happens when the behavior of various groups differs from these guidelines? Martha Saxton tackles these and other fascinating issues in Being Good, her history of the moral values prescribed for women in early America.

Saxton begins by examining seventeenth-century Boston, then moves on to eighteenth-century Virginia and nineteenth-century St. Louis. Studying women throughout the life cycle -- girls, young unmarried women, young wives and mothers, older widows -- through their diaries and personal papers, she also studies the variations due to different ethnicities and backgrounds. In all three cases, she is able to show how the values of one group conflicted with or developed in opposition to those of another. And, as the women's testimonies make clear, the emotional styles associated with different value systems varied. A history of American women's moral life thus gives us a history of women's emotional life as well. In lively and penetrating prose, Saxton argues that women's morals changed from the days of early colonization to the days of westward expansion, as women became at once less confined and less revered by their men -- and explores how these changes both reflected and affected trends in the nation at large.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

Being Good is a book full of light. Few historians have achieved a finer synthesis of the social and the inner life. But then Saxton's scrupulously distilled masterpiece of scholarship is also a work of literature, which is to say, of nuanced passion, wisdom, and revelation. If you're interested in the subject of the American woman--or if you are simply an American woman interested in knowing how you got to be who you are--read it.” —Judith Thurman

Being Good brilliantly brings to life the moral culture of the American woman. Highly thought of as both a historian and a biographer, Martha Saxton has written a truly luminous book. Fierce, bold and beautifully written, it conveys, as no other book has, what it meant for a woman to come-of-age in 19th century America.” —Wendy Gimbel, author of Havana Dreams

Being Good is a fascinating work in gender history and in the history of emotions. Encompassing three regions, two centuries, and a racially diverse population, this is one of the most ambitious books of comparative history in many years. The St. Louis section is remarkably original. Saxton takes us into the hearts and minds, the moral universe, of girls and women in early America. We learn of their understanding sexuality, marriage, and motherhood. Saxton has achieved a moving and enlightening story of the burden of expectation, convention, and the struggle for power over one's mind and body in a time at once very different, but still connected to our own.” —David W. Blight, Yale University

Being Good looks at the dark and the light of women's lives in the seventeenth through the nineteenth centuries, but mostly the dark. From Saxton's account, we get more of a feeling of what it was like to be a woman over these three centuries than from anything else in print.” —Richard Bushman, Columbia University

“With gripping analytic exactness, Martha Saxton compares the moral and emotional lives American women were expected to lead with the lives they actually led and fought for. Her exactness is matched by her range. She takes us from the 17th to the 19th century. We hear the voices and witness the radically different experiences of Anglo, African and Indian-American women. "Being Good" is essential and wonderfully readable American history.” —Margo Jefferson, co-author of The Tree of Life: A Novel

Publishers Weekly
A massive accumulation of detail earns Saxton the right to state her conclusion succinctly: fetishizing female chastity has been "one of the most enduring hindrances to women's equality." In this exhaustive and entertaining work, Saxton (Louisa May Alcott: A Modern Biography), a historian at Amherst College, studies women's morals in three settings: 17th-century Massachusetts, 18th-century Virginia and 19th-century St. Louis. While men's moral life included political and professional concerns, the overarching demands on white women, according to Saxton, were for sexual restraint and obedience. White women's behavior, in turn, was conflated with the survival of the republic. In contrast, Saxton says, a mythical salaciousness was ascribed to black women, which, as well as offering a comforting difference from supposed white chastity, justified men's sexual abuse of female slaves. Many of the letters, newspapers and court records Saxton has found give telling glimpses of old customs, e.g., the Puritan practice of sending even well-off girls to work as maids and the Virginian habit of describing runaway female slaves by their breast size and perceived "lusty" sexual behavior. Though she sticks close to the facts, Saxton draws out the occasional lesson for modern times, sharing her belief that, for instance, the early Virginian equation of prettiness with good behavior pushed women into a long-lasting and unhealthy concern with appearance. Although clunky at times, the book manages to simultaneously pile on information yet amuse. (Feb.) Forecast: While a strong candidate to become a women's studies textbook, Saxton's work could also appeal to general readers perplexed by the self-contradictory aspects of today's sexual morality. Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
This wide-ranging study draws on varied primary sources to understand ways in which gender, religion, age, class, race, religion, and geography shaped women's moral values and behavior in three settings-Puritan Boston in the 17th century, Anglican Virginia in the 18th century, and French Catholic St. Louis in the 19th century. Saxton (history, women's and gender studies, Amherst Coll.), the author of several articles and books, concludes that the tendency to assign differing moral values according to gender, race, and class hampered development of a "mature and realistic moral code" in America and continues to foster inequitable public and social policies. However, what makes this book most fascinating and useful to scholars is not its conclusion but its detailed, nuanced understanding of early American women's lives in such varied locales and circumstances. This volume expands on Saxton's 1989 dissertation and is the result of more than 20 years' research. Highly recommended for academic libraries, it would also be a useful supplemental text for history and women's studies courses.-Linda V. Carlisle, Southern Illinois Univ., Edwardsville Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.

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Product Details

Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date:
Edition description:
First Edition
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Product dimensions:
5.70(w) x 8.70(h) x 1.10(d)

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How did early American women think about trying to lead a good life? By what standards did they evaluate themselves and their efforts? Where did they come from morally, and how did their morals change over time? In the first decades of the United States' existence, many white women's moral ideas about themselves were truncated by the dependence and obedience expected of them as wives and by their enforced absence from the great debates concerning politics and the structure of the economy. Ironically, slave women had, whether they wanted it or not, more personal and moral autonomy within marriage than white women had, but far less in the wider social context.

Moral life is intimately connected with emotional life, and it is impossible to talk about one without implicating the other. Parents and other people in authority usually deliver moral prescriptions with emotional warnings that evil will be received with anger and punishment and good will be rewarded with love and encouragement. Children internalize the emotional messages as readily as, if not more so than, the ethical ones. As children grow up and absorb the moral code surrounding them, they will also be likely to be pleased with themselves when behaving as they should and worried, frightened, or perhaps defiant when behaving as they should not. Of course children and adults experience far more complex feelings than simple pleasure or self-dislike in malting moral choices. Values have powerful, if not always predictable, effects on emotions, and vice versa. Furthermore, and particularly for women, societies moralize emotions themselves, emphasizing the virtue in sweetness and compassion, the vice in anger, or, for the early republic, the unalloyed good in the expression of motherly love.

Being Good looks at women in three communities in early America to see what moral values were prescribed for them and how they responded to these values. The book starts in Puritan Massachusetts, an obvious choice for a story about moral questions. Puritans famously wished to be an example of a community living out God's word both for themselves and to demonstrate to the corrupt in England what a pure life looked like. Boston and its environs were a relatively homogeneous community, established by people who argued interminably but who saw the world and their places in it with relative uniformity. Although many in Massachusetts were not Puritans or were not good ones, and although many disagreed on points of doctrine with the clergy and magistrates, no one seriously threatened their moral authority in the seventeenth century.


Part One is a discussion of moral standards for women in Boston from 1630 to 1700. It attempts to define the comprehensive moral system Puritan authorities devised to organize the lives of women in their familial and community relations. The discussion begins with childhood and shows how Puritans educated their girls to render them obedient, humble, and passive, their parents giving them such names as Chastity, Mercy, Silence, and Charity. Puritan ideas and laws about sex, including the sexuality of Native Americans and Africans, demonstrate Puritan efforts to instill in girls modesty and easily tapped wells of shame. Puritan habits of introspection and self-criticism led girls to search themselves for, and to find, wickedness. They scrutinized themselves for moral information about what needed to be brought under control, instilling the discipline for their married lives. Men were expected to select agreeable and sexually attractive spouses while women were to find mates they could obey. Individual choice mattered for women, but its reward was to be found in deference more than in desire.

The discussion of marriage falls into two parts: its moral outlines and internal dynamics, as well as some of the ways wives enlarged its boundaries. The first part deals with the reach of obedience into the relation, the expectations surrounding sexuality, and the risks of melancholy. The second deals with divorce, separation, adultery, and aspects of wives' lives that were not necessarily related to marriage but occurred at the time of women's maturity. It suggests that some managed to achieve a substantial measure of moral authority as vigorous advocates of the moral system in which they lived. The last chapter treats motherhood. Mothers, like wives, had opportunities to experience the pleasures of achieving stature in the family and the neighborhood through rigorous observance of the moral code. But the isolation of life in the New World, the unremitting work, and the substantial risk of depression that accompanied the Puritans' system of strict emotional control could flatten mothers' energies and capabilities, leaving them and their children in a bleak, despondent landscape.

Another facet of Puritan maternity was mothers' relative emotional independence from their children, augmented by the imperative that they rescue their children from sin and place them on the road to salvation. Puritans' dour view of the moral condition of small children made motherly discipline an urgent task. The solitude of the search for salvation emphasized each Puritan's existential isolation. Thus Puritan culture was not particularly hospitable to excessive dependence or the kind of moral and emotional merging that characterized nineteenth-century middle-class white life.

Throughout the book I attempt to show the lifelong interrelationship among women's behavior, feelings, and the moral system designed to control them. Puritanism stressed self-distrust and trying to understand and fulfill God's desires. Authority proceeded from rationality. Women, who were considered imperfectly rational at best, could only proceed from obedience to a higher (male) rationality. However, being a foot soldier for Christ within a culture that does not value personal autonomy, as Puritans did not, was not itself inherently humiliating for women. Many women created strong identities and strong families despite the repressive culture and took pride in the belief that they were doing God's work as best they could. Most accepted the fundamental notion that men and women had different restrictions on them and different tasks in society.

Puritans in general saw potential significance in everything. This habit of mind made life a serious business for both sexes. Puritans could find God's blessings in another's disaster, even while they could discover harbingers of disaster in their own apparent blessings. I confess to having what John K. Nelson, historian of Anglicanism, has called dissenter bias: I admire the way Puritans examined the lives they led. I do not admire their self-serving interpretations but their imperative to interpret, which was an invitation, indeed a duty, for both sexes.

Sex is most frequently associated with women's moral values. This is probably because men have traditionally been most interested in controlling the sexual behavior of women to the exclusion of many other kinds of behavior. Puritans tried to regulate sexuality as a profoundly important appetite that could alienate one from God. They worked hard to associate independent sexuality, aggression, and self-assertion in women with shame as a central disciplinary strategy. But they were not Victorians, as historians have pointed out for decades. They were relatively practical and frank about sex, even as they wished to moderate its hold on the female imagination in particular. The installation of self-control was even more important to Puritans than controlling sex, and they tried to regulate love as well. The disproportionate emphasis on the sexual behavior of women became more pronounced in the nineteenth century, when it acquired significantly more symbolic weight than it had in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

In addition to looking at the Puritans' overall ideas and behavior, I have tried to see how the moral systems for different groups chafed against one another, starting with male and female Puritans and including Puritans and Indians, and Puritans and Africans. Puritans fought to create harmony between men and women through complementary prescriptions for sexuality, emotional and familial responsibilities, and identical prescriptions for detachment from the world and devotion to God. These complementary prescriptions did not endure. Puritan men in the New World began to look less and less to religion and more to their callings, and after 1660 women increasingly dominated the church rolls. Women's piety and virtue came to be a central support on which the whole community could base its moral confidence. Puritans, who had once seen all community members as equally culpable and equally affected by one another's actions, came to believe both that God had ordained that women suffer more than men and that women were closer than men to God. The roots of a kind of implicit social bargain developed in he emerging distinctions of piety according to gender. Women's suffering and religiosity, if combined with an otherwise "godly carriage," began acquiring broadly redemptive potential.

Encounters with Native societies and with Africans challenged, reconfirmed, and in some ways altered the moral values of the English immigrants. Racist stereotypes about both Indians and Africans began to exaggerate the significance of the chastity of European womanhood in creating a virtuous (female) identity in the New World. Moreover, the heroic ethos of Native warriors gave Puritans an easy justification for self-interestedness and ruthlessness, a tradition that, like others, continued long after Puritan theology had been displaced.

Copyright © 2003 Martha Saxton

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Meet the Author

Martha Saxton is an assistant professor of history and women's and gender studies at Amherst College. She is the author of several books, including Louisa May Alcott: A Modern Biography. She lives in New York City.

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