"The Easy Task of Obeying"
There is a story told of John Winthrop, the first governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. One day in 1645, Governor Edward Hopkins of Connecticut consulted his friend Winthrop. Hopkins was greatly distressed, for his wife appeared to have completely lost her senses. Insanity had set in--without warning, he reported, and without apparent cause. Winthrop, however, instantly knew the origins of the woman's madness: reading books. "If she had attended her household affairs and such things as belong to women, and not gone out of her way and calling to meddle in such things as are proper to men, whose minds are stronger, etc.," he explained, then she might have "kept her wits."
Few educated men of the following century would have made such a demeaning statement about a woman's intellect. Yet an equally small number were ready to concede that women, as much as men, had the capacity for rigorous formal education or political decision making. The philosophers of the Enlightenment, whose works were so popular among the eighteenth-century colonial leadership, might insist that all humans had the ability to reason, but not even the most radical of these philosophers suggested that the fairer sex had abilities equal to those of men.
This debate over women's capacities was theoretical, of course, and few colonists, male or female, had the time or inclination to engage in it. Most colonial men and women--like most ordinary Americans today--took the gendered world as they found it, and, although what they found varied with social class and region, certain truths seemed too obvious to debate. Chief among a woman's truths was that God had created her to be a helpmate to man and Nature had formed her for this purpose. Her natural inclination was to obedience, fidelity, industriousness, and frugality and her natural function was bearing and nurturing children. From childhood, a woman heard her destiny as helpmate confirmed and affirmed by the authorities who peopled her world. Ministers sermonized it, educators elaborated it, lawmakers codified it, and poets versified it. From a pulpit in Massachusetts, the Puritan divine Cotton Mather urged a woman to be an "Ornament of Zion" by "look[ing] upon [a husband] as her guide" and recognizing that husband and wife are "but one mind in two bodies." In his 1712 book, The Well Ordered Family, the scholar Benjamin Wadsworth reminded women that God had made Eve as a helpmate to Adam and that the apostles required "wives be faithful in all things, keepers of the home." From the pages of his treatise Baron and Feme, Samuel Chase declared that "the law of nature has put [a wife] under the obedience of her husband," and the law of man must be made to agree. And, in his epic poem Paradise Lost, John Milton summed up the relationship between a husband and wife in an epigram of hierarchy: "He for God only / She for God in him."2
Thus, through precept, law, and custom, English society established the acceptable parameters of women's lives, just, of course, as it established those of men. On the whole, however, a woman's life was dominated by negatives. Born rich or poor, a woman faced restrictions on her economic independence, her legal identity, and her access to positions of formal authority. These restrictions nudged, or pushed, a woman into the narrow choice of marriage or spinsterhood. Colonial inheritance laws, drawn from English law, ensured her economic dependency, for sons were given land while daughters had to be content with movable property. Land ownership in colonial America defined a man as an independent citizen; the possession of cattle, slaves, and household goods defined a woman as a traveler from her father's house to her husband's. Sons might be apprenticed to learn skilled trades, brought into family businesses, or sent to college, but custom barred women from most crafts and the lingering belief that the female brain was too weak to absorb abstract ideas barred them from all but the most elementary education. Closed out of professions such as law and the ministry, landless, and with few acceptable occupations outside the household, most women who did not marry faced bleak futures as dependents in the homes of their parents or married sisters.
Spinsterhood was more than a life of dependency. It was more than a mark of rejection, a sign that men found a woman, in the blunt language of New England, a "thornback." Without a husband, a woman remained in limbo between childhood and adulthood, for English colonial society offered her no other rites of passage but marriage and motherhood. While men could chart their maturity by the call to militia service, by voting and perhaps office holding, by positions of honor within the church, or by landownership, all these public venues of responsibility were closed to women.
Marriage had its costs as well. As a feme sole, or woman alone, a colonial woman had access to a broader legal identity than she would as a matron. A feme sole could sue and be sued, earn what wages she could, buy and sell property, and will her assets to her heirs. Without these legal rights, a woman without family support would have become a burden on the state. Yet once a woman married, English society saw no need for her to enjoy these rights. In her new status as feme covert, or woman covered, all that she owned became her husband's property, even the clothes on her back. The noted English jurist Blackstone wrote lyrically of this deprivation, assuring new husbands that "by marriage, the husband and wife are one person in law: that is, the very being or legal existence of the woman is suspended during the marriage, or at least is incorporated and consolidated into that of the husband" and reassuring new wives that they were secure under their husbands' "wing, protection, and cover."3 In exchange for this complete surrender, the law guaranteed her dower rights, declaring that in widowhood she would have the use, though not the actual ownership, of one-third of her husband's property. Women might cherish dower rights as recognition of their contribution to the family welfare, but colonial governments saw this provision in more practical terms. A woman's "thirds" protected the state from the burden of caring for an aging woman or a young widow with children. If the law rendered a wife dependent, it also required a man to support her from the grave.
Colonial society ensured that women's identity was synonymous with the roles they played: wife and mother. Yet society could not ensure that the what and how of these roles remained uniform or constant. As the circumstances of women's lives grew more varied, the content of the roles changed. As cities grew, women adapted the repertoire of household skills to fit their urban lives. As social distinctions hardened, women of the upper classes adopted behavior that distinguished them from their poorer neighbors. Yet no matter how different the what and how, the why remained the same: women were helpmates to men.
In the seventeenth century, when the colonies were overwhelmingly rural and agricultural, the traditional skills a woman brought to the marriage--a repertoire of domestic manufacturing and processing skills--were essential to the success of the family. Her domain was the household, the garden, and the henhouse, and her days were spent processing the raw materials her husband produced into usable items such as food, clothing, candles, and soap. In this environment, a woman's fertility was as vital as her productivity, for children were an essential labor force on small farms throughout the colonies. Seventeenth-century gravestones and eulogies attested to the value placed on motherhood. Thus, women who hoped to gain renown in their small rural communities had to demonstrate a lifelong commitment to industry, frugality, and fecundity.
Rural housewives had little time for activities that the modern reader associates with housework: cleaning, dusting, polishing, and decorating. But in the colonial cities of the eighteenth century, among the growing ranks of prosperous mercantile families, these tasks now defined women's work. A consumer revolution--with its availability of cheap English cloth and the influx of luxury items that were now within the reach of the wealthy merchant or lawyer--had freed elite urban women from most production tasks. Able to purchase many of the goods their grandmothers had once made, these women turned their energies and attention to the refinement of their homes and of their families. With slaves or servants to assist them, and with greengrocers and bakers and seamstresses to supply their cupboards and their wardrobes, these "pretty gentlewomen," as one historian has called them, focused on the beautification of their homes and the genteel upbringing of their daughters. Along with this new set of chores came a new code of behavior, a new definition of femininity. Industry and frugality gave way to delicacy, refinement, and an attention to fashion. This new focus on gentility among the urban elite eliminated many housewifely activities, yet it also added others. Although they no longer churned butter or slaughtered pigs, these privileged women adopted a set of maintenance chores. Cleanliness became a mark of urban sophistication, and even when servants or slaves performed the unpleasant tasks of scouring, laundering, and polishing, the burden of ensuring an attractive domestic environment fell squarely upon their mistresses.4
Many women found themselves caught between the older ideal of "notable housewife" and the newer ideal of "pretty gentlewoman," and thus shouldering the burdens of gentility and the burdens of traditional housewifery. Thus, in addition to planting her garden and pickling her beef, Mary Holyoke, the wife of a prosperous country doctor, felt compelled to scour the pewter and hang pictures. In her daybook, Holyoke carefully recorded her workweek: "Washed. Ironed. Scoured pewter. Scoured rooms. Scoured furniture Brasses and put up the chintz bed and hung pictures. Sowed Sweet marjoram. Sowed pease. Sowed cauliflower. Sowed 6 week beans. Pulled radishes. Set out turnips. Cut 36 asparagus. Killed the pig, weighed 164 pounds. Made bread. Put beef in pickle. Salted Pork, put bacon in pickle. Made the Dr. [her husband] 6 cravats marked H. Quilted two petticoats since yesterday. Made 5 shirts for the doctor." Her diary entry ends with this remarkable understatement: "did other things."
Occasionally we can catch glimpses of the frustration women felt as they struggled to satisfy the demands of housewifery and gentility. After two days of midsummer cherry harvesting, spring house cleaning, and a hog butchering, Mary Cooper of Oyster Bay, New York, recorded that she was "full of fretting discontent dirty and miserable both yesterday and today." A year later, her discontent resurfaced: "It has been a tiresome day it is now Bedtime and I have not had won minutts rest." At last, in October 1768, Cooper offered this modest eighteenth-century version of "a room of one's own": "I have the blessing to be quite alone without any Body greate or small . . ."
In the pursuit of gentility, both men and women embraced a concern with personal appearance--not simply how they looked but how they behaved in polite society. They devoured English advice manuals that prescribed and proscribed behavior, providing step-by-step instructions on everything from proper dress to regulating the decibel levels of one's speech. Mothers labored to instruct their children in the complicated, subtle rules of refinement. Through a steady regimen of social calls, elaborate tea parties, dances, and balls, women honed a new set of skills that would earn them notability.
A suitable marriage was, of course, the raison d'être behind a young woman's mastery of dancing, fine needlework, and French. Wealthy girls understood that "a woman's happiness depends entirely on the husband she is united to." In their letters and diaries, genteel girls set high standards for behavior and character in the men they considered eligible suitors, sensible, as one wrote, "that Happiness does not consist of Wealth, but the Riches of the Mind." Their mothers and fathers were often more practical. For the parents of romantic young girls, a man's assets had to include wealth and property as well as an ability to be pleasing "both in person and Conversation."
Nothing in this new credo of gentility challenged the subordination of women to men. For if women were now to be charming companions to their husbands rather than useful workers, their purpose remained to satisfy male expectations for a wife. As a wife, even the most refined woman understood her place. "Making it the business of my life to please a man of Mr. Pinckney's merit even in triffles," wrote Eliza Lucas Pinckney in 1742, "I esteem a pleasing task; and I am well assured the acting out of my proper province and invading his, would be an inexcusable breach of prudence; as his superior understanding . . . would point him to dictate, and leave me nothing but the easy task of obeying."
The ideal woman of the farmhouse--obedient, faithful, frugal, fertile, and industrious--or the ideal woman of the eighteenth-century parlor--obedient, charming, chaste, and modest--was rarely fully realized. In the very heart of John Winthrop's early New England, wives were known to batter their husbands, commit adultery, abandon their families, and murder their newborn infants. Women were enjoined to "submit yourselves unto your own husbands as unto the Lord," yet local newspapers carried a small but steady stream of notices that a wife had "not only eloped from my Bed and Board, but otherwise behaves in a very unbecoming manner toward me." Women's bodies moved to the rhythms of pregnancy, childbirth, nursing, and weaning, but court records in every colony preserve instances of abortion, infanticide, and incest. Ministers praised chaste brides, yet women in the eighteenth century, as in the seventeenth, were often pregnant when they took their vows. Although husbands were urged to "love your wives, and be not bitter against them," men were known to vent their anger in their wills at a lifetime spent with a slovenly wife, a shrew, or a cold, unloving partner. And despite all the incentives society offered women to marry, some single women and some prosperous widows refused to give up the freedom they enjoyed in their husbandless state. Poets like Anne Bradstreet could write movingly of her marriage as a perfect union, declaring, "If ever two were one, then surely we / If ever man were loved by wife, then thee"; almost a century later, Abigail Adams could assure her husband, John, that "the Affection I feel for my Friend is of the tenderest kind." But an anonymous poet cheerfully declared, "I'll never marry, no indeed / For marriage causes trouble; / And after all the priest has said, / 'Tis merely hubble bubble."
From the Hardcover edition.