Founding Mothers and Fathers: Gendered Power and the Forming of American Society

Founding Mothers and Fathers: Gendered Power and the Forming of American Society

by Mary Beth Norton
     
 

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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

Overview

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.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Defying an Anglo-American worldview that drew analogies between the family and the state as male-run, hierarchical institutions, women played important roles in colonial American society between 1620 and 1670. In her lively study, Cornell historian Norton highlights religious dissenter and health-care expert Anne Hutchinson, who held all-female religious meetings in her home, dispensed advice at births and preached God's free gift of salvation-activities that led to her excommunication from Boston's church in 1645. Another intrepid colonial woman, lawyer Margaret Brent, appointed in 1648 as the representative of Lord Baltimore, proprietor of Maryland, fought unsuccessfully for a vote and speaking privileges in the Maryland Assembly. We also meet a gossip group consisting of four women (including excommunicated heretic Anne Eaton, wife of Connecticut's governor) whose regular meetings elicited criminal prosecution on charges of slander and sacrilege in 1646. This erudite study is full of intriguing lore on colonial neighbors, sexual gossip and men's political squabbles. (Mar.)
Patricia Hassler
Norton documents the relationship between gender and power in early colonial America, basing her study on the period from 1620 to 1670. The dominant worldview of family and state during the period was patriarchal, and its leading proponent was one Sir Robert Filmer. The head of a family held power parallel to that held by the head of state, serving as justice of the peace, arbiter of order, payer of fines, and poster of bonds for all dependents, including servants. Most families were governed by men, but widows, wives of high-ranking men, and midwives, who knew the family sins and secrets, could assume leadership roles. The reader is shown how women such as Anne Hutchinson assumed religious power through the Filmerian principle that all authority flowed from the symbolic parent, father or mother--a belief soon overthrown by the encroaching Enlightenment's Lockean worldview, which initiated the confinement of women's authority to the home. A scholarly, provocative read.
Kirkus Reviews
A lucid and enlightening explication of the relationship between gender and power in early colonial America.

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 family—if 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.

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780679429654
Publisher:
Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date:
04/02/1996
Pages:
496
Product dimensions:
6.73(w) x 9.59(h) x 1.60(d)

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