Founding Mothers and Fathers: Gendered Power and the Forming of American Societyby Mary Beth Norton
Focusing on the first half-century of English settlement - approximately 1620 to 1670 - Mary Beth Norton looks not only at what colonists actually did but also at the philosophical basis for what they thought they were doing. She weaves theory and reality into a tapestry that reveals colonial life as more varied than we have supposed. She draws our attention to all… See more details below
Focusing on the first half-century of English settlement - approximately 1620 to 1670 - Mary Beth Norton looks not only at what colonists actually did but also at the philosophical basis for what they thought they were doing. She weaves theory and reality into a tapestry that reveals colonial life as more varied than we have supposed. She draws our attention to all early dysfunctional family extending over several generations and colonies. The basic worldview of this early period, Norton demonstrates, envisaged family, society, and state as similar institutions. She shows us how, because of that familial analogy, women who wielded power in the household could also wield surprising authority outside the home. We see, for example, Mistress Margaret Brent given authority as attorney for Lord Baltimore, Maryland's Proprietor, and Mistress Anne Hutchinson, who sought and assumed religious authority, causing the greatest political crisis in Massachusetts Bay. Norton also describes the American beginnings of another way of thinking. She argues that an imbalanced sex ratio in the Chesapeake colonies made it impossible to establish "normal" familial structures, and thus equally impossible to employ the family model as unself-consciously as was done in New England. The Chesapeake, accordingly, became a practical laboratory for the working out of a "Lockean" political system that drew a line between family and state, between "public" and "private." In this scheme, women had no formal, recognized role beyond the family. It is this worldview that eventually came to characterize the Enlightenment and that still looms large in today's culture wars.
Taking the period between 1620 and 1670 as the basis for this study, Norton (American History/Cornell; Liberty's Daughters, 1980, etc.) sets out to prove that the political and social worldview of early Americans underwent a drastic change from the founding of the first colonies to the framing of the Constitution 150 years later. The philosophy dominant in the 17th century, which Norton terms "Filmerian" after its primary theorist, Sir Robert Filmer, was a patriarchal view of both family and state, in which the hierarchical systems of power were derived from God and nature. Opposed to this was the later "Lockean" worldview (named after John Locke), which severed the connection between family and state, holding that public power was derived from a contractual agreement between consenting adults. Here Norton focuses on the Filmerian view, using court cases from the 17th century to show how women and men were treated under the law, how sexual offenses were punished, and what attributes were valued under this system. She also comes to the somewhat ironic conclusion that the Filmerian patriarchal worldview allowed more room for women to wield public power than did the Lockean: Although women were ordinarily subordinate to men in family situations, occasionally a woman could become the head or acting head of the familyif her husband were away, for example, or deceased. In the Filmerian system, these women were given a say in public affairs, whereas Lockean political philosophy would categorically deny women any access to political power by virtue of their sex alone.
Something of a work-in-progress (Norton's next book will address the question of how the Lockean view became dominant), this is a promising beginning to what may prove to be a definitive work on the subject of gendered politics in America.
- Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
- Publication date:
- Product dimensions:
- 6.73(w) x 9.59(h) x 1.60(d)
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