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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In this pioneering study of the ways in which the first settlers defined the power, prerogatives, and responsibilities of the sexes, one of our most incisive historians opens a window onto the world of Colonial America. Drawing on a wealth of contemporary documents, Mary Beth Norton tells the story of the Pinion clan, whose two-generation record of theft, adultery,

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Overview

In this pioneering study of the ways in which the first settlers defined the power, prerogatives, and responsibilities of the sexes, one of our most incisive historians opens a window onto the world of Colonial America. Drawing on a wealth of contemporary documents, Mary Beth Norton tells the story of the Pinion clan, whose two-generation record of theft, adultery, and infanticide may have made them our first dysfunctional family. She reopens the case of Mistress Ann Hibbens, whose church excommunicated her for arguing that God had told husbands to listen to their wives. And here is the enigma of Thomas, or Thomasine Hall, who lived comfortably as both a man and a woman in 17th century Virginia. Wonderfully erudite and vastly readable, Founding Mothers & Fathers reveals both the philosophical assumptions and intimate domestic arrangements of our colonial ancestors in all their rigor, strangeness, and unruly passion.

"An important, imaginative book. Norton destroys our nostalgic image of a 'golden age' of family life and re-creates a more complex past whose assumptions and anxieties are still with us."—Raleigh News and Observer

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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.)
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:
9780679749776
Publisher:
Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date:
07/28/1997
Pages:
512
Sales rank:
1,504,192
Product dimensions:
5.22(w) x 7.97(h) x 1.02(d)

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