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Separated by Their Sex: Women in Public and Private in the Colonial Atlantic World

Separated by Their Sex: Women in Public and Private in the Colonial Atlantic World

by Mary Beth Norton

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In Separated by Their Sex, Mary Beth Norton offers a bold genealogy that shows how gender came to determine the right of access to the Anglo-American public sphere by the middle of the eighteenth century. Earlier, high-status men and women alike had been recognized as appropriate political actors, as exemplified during and after Bacon's Rebellion by the actions of&


In Separated by Their Sex, Mary Beth Norton offers a bold genealogy that shows how gender came to determine the right of access to the Anglo-American public sphere by the middle of the eighteenth century. Earlier, high-status men and women alike had been recognized as appropriate political actors, as exemplified during and after Bacon's Rebellion by the actions of—and reactions to—Lady Frances Berkeley, wife of Virginia's governor. By contrast, when the first ordinary English women to claim a political voice directed group petitions to Parliament during the Civil War of the 1640s, men relentlessly criticized and parodied their efforts. Even so, as late as 1690 Anglo-American women's political interests and opinions were publicly acknowledged. Norton traces the profound shift in attitudes toward women's participation in public affairs to the age's cultural arbiters, including John Dunton, editor of the Athenian Mercury, a popular 1690s periodical that promoted women's links to husband, family, and household. Fittingly, Dunton was the first author known to apply the word "private" to women and their domestic lives. Subsequently, the immensely influential authors Richard Steele and Joseph Addison (in the Tatler and the Spectator) advanced the notion that women's participation in politics—even in political dialogues—was absurd. They and many imitators on both sides of the Atlantic argued that women should confine themselves to home and family, a position that American women themselves had adopted by the 1760s. Colonial women incorporated the novel ideas into their self-conceptions; during such "private" activities as sitting around a table drinking tea, they worked to define their own lives. On the cusp of the American Revolution, Norton concludes, a newly gendered public-private division was firmly in place.

Editorial Reviews

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"As Norton notes, this book is a prequel to Liberty's Daughters. Norton had found that in 1750, men and women alike considered the 'fair sex' inferior and largely irrelevant to the world beyond their households. In Separated by Their Sex, she searches for the origins of this paradigm and specifically for its signature dichotomy of male/public versus female/private. . . . Norton's contribution is to chart in meticulous detail the political options available primarily to elite women and the subsequent eradication of those options. A little book that deals with big issues in an Atlantic world context, Separated by Their Sex is also an object lesson in the value of digital sources and methods for historians. Norton recognizes the importance of language: using full-text searches in massive collections of digitized materials enabled her to chart rhetorical innovations (and hence cultural trends) with remarkable precision."—Cynthia A. Kierner, Journal of American History

"Senior early American women's history scholar Norton, who also understands English sources, is ideally situated to ponder the intellectual worlds of early modern Anglo-Americans. Building on her work in Founding Mothers and Fathers, these essays interrogate the changing ways people understood the relationship of public to private, one of the most persistent issues in women's history. Recommended."—Choice

"Norton's book brings a welcome historical specificity with a focus on words and politics. For readers wondering what there is left to say about the public/private split, Norton reminds us that binary concepts have a specific political and cultural history. . . . The public/private splite, Norton argues, had one genealogy, the 'feminine private sphere,' and the idea that politics was an exclusively male domain had different ones, each deserving its own history. . . . It should, in the best way of provocative work, inspire additional comparative studies of women's words. . . . Norton's work provides an essential framework for future investigations."—Social History

"This is an enlightening and insightful study which builds upon Norton's decades of thinking and writing about the history of American women, and is essential reading for scholars of gender in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century England and its American colonies."—Natalie Zacek, English Historical Review (2012)

"Mary Beth Norton is always bold, always challenging, always ambitious. In this stunningly researched new book, Norton reconfigures our thinking about women's status in Britain and America during the long century after the English Civil War by mapping a shift in worldview from hierarchy to gender. Separated by their Sex will stir interest and debate."—Edith Gelles, Stanford University, author of Abigail and John: Portrait of a Marriage

"Challenging previously held views, Mary Beth Norton shows that the growing exclusion of women from politics and public life at the time of the American Revolution had not always been the case. Through a brilliant analysis of English and American sources, Norton traces the complex changes that produced a more rigidly defined definition of sex roles. This is transatlantic history at its best."—Rosemarie Zagarri, author of Revolutionary Backlash: Women and Politics in the Early American Republic

"Separated by Their Sex grapples with a fundamental question in early American women's history and presents an important missing piece to aid our understanding of the creation of a private female sphere antithetical to a male public/political realm."—Clare Lyons, University of Maryland, author of Sex among the Rabble

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Cornell University Press
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By Mary Beth Norton


Copyright © 2011 Cornell University
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8014-4949-9

Chapter One

Lady Frances Berkeley and Virginia Politics, 1675–1678

The rebel and councillor Nathaniel Bacon, flanked by his fusiliers, confronted Governor Sir William Berkeley and his council outside the state house in Jamestown during the early afternoon of June 23, 1676. The dramatic events that followed so impressed a witness, Thomas Mathew, that he could still describe the scene vividly almost three decades later. "We Saw from the Window the Governour open his Breast, and Bacon strutting betwixt his Two files of Men with his Left Arm on Kenbow [akimbo] flinging his Right Arm every Way both like men Distracted." What Mathew and others inside the state house could not hear was that Berkeley dared Bacon to shoot him while baring his breast. The governor offered to fight a duel with Bacon then and there, but Bacon declined; and the rebel adopted "outragious Postures of his Head, Arms, Body, and Leggs, often tossing his hand from his Sword to his Hat," as the governor abandoned the field, retreating in disarray toward his private quarters in the state house. Bacon's actions were "impetuos (like Delirious)," Mathew remembered; and all the while the rebel was swearing, " 'Dam my Bloud, I'le Kill Governor Councill Assembly and all.'"

Just two weeks earlier, Bacon had behaved very differently. Separated from his armed men and brought before Berkeley and the council, Bacon had humbly asked the governor forgiveness for his "late unlawfull, mutinous, and rebellious practices ... without order and commission." Penitently, he kneeled before the governor after "many low bowings of his Body," promising "upon the word and faith of a christian and of a gentleman" that he would after a grant of clemency behave "dutifully, faithfully and peaceably" to the Virginia government. Accepting Bacon's characterization of himself as a "gentleman," Berkeley magnanimously pardoned him and restored him to membership on the council ("to the wonder of all men," observed one later narrative).

By contrast, at the June 23 confrontation, Bacon's body language and words were contemptuous in the extreme. Unlike the supplicant "low bowings" and kneeling Bacon had earlier displayed, he adopted the arms akimbo stance of a superior. But more than that: his unrestrained body movements showed that he had completely lost control of himself. Bacon was "Distracted," displaying "outragious Postures." The elderly Governor Berkeley too had been drawn into such movements. That he would bare his breast and behave in a "Distracted" way was shocking indeed. Bodily restraint and controlled gestures were among the key markers that distinguished high-status men from their low-ranking counterparts, so neither combatant had conducted himself properly.

Both Bacon and Berkeley were deeply concerned with preserving and displaying their own high social standing; accordingly, their violation of the rules of gentlemanly deportment revealed the passionate emotion fueling their confrontation. One crucial element of that passion inhered in their personal relationship: Nathaniel Bacon was distantly related to the governor's cherished wife, Lady Frances Culpeper Stephens Berkeley. The patronage of Lady Berkeley and her husband had enabled Bacon to rise rapidly in the society and polity of the Chesapeake colony. Thus his challenge to the governor's authority had a significant personal dimension overlooked in most accounts of the rebellion.

Although Lady Frances herself did not participate in the June 1676 encounters, she was more deeply involved in the events of Bacon's Rebellion and its aftermath than has commonly been recognized. As a woman of noble birth and one of the two highest-ranking people in the colony, she was an important state actor. Throughout the crisis, she did not hesitate to take the steps she thought necessary to safeguard Virginia's government from the challenge posed by her own kinsman and to protect her and her husband's personal interests.

The Cousins

Frances Culpeper was born in 1634 in Kent, youngest of the five children of Katherine St. Leger and Thomas Culpeper, a cousin of John, Baron Culpeper of Thoresway. Her father, a strong supporter of the monarchy during the English Civil War, was rewarded for his loyalty in 1649 with one of several patents issued by the future King Charles II for huge tracts of land in Virginia's Northern Neck, which lay between the Potomac and Rappahannock rivers. The following year, Thomas Culpeper moved his family to Virginia, where both Frances and her older sister Anne married around the time of his death in 1652. Frances's new husband was Samuel Stephens, who owned land in both Virginia and what would eventually become North Carolina. Named the governor of that Albemarle region in 1667, Stephens served for only two years before his death.

The couple had no children; Frances Stephens thus inherited most of her deceased husband's large estate outright under the terms of their prenuptial agreement. In April 1670, the Virginia General Court, with Governor Sir William Berkeley presiding, ordered that her title to the property be confirmed and that she be named executor. The next month, in a new prenuptial agreement, Governor Berkeley guaranteed Frances Stephens a life estate in England worth £600 annually, and they were wed before the end of June. At the age of thirty-six, Frances Stephens Berkeley had not only acquired the title she would employ for the rest of her life (even during a third marriage), but had also assured herself of a substantial income. In both respects she was exceptional; few seventeenth-century colonial women entered into profitable prenuptial agreements, and fewer still ever gained the honorific "Lady."

Frances Berkeley made the most of her circumstances. Born to a branch of a noble family and guaranteed an independent income, married in succession to two colonial governors, she successfully wielded economic, political, and social authority. Although she had no children of her own, she personified the metaphorical powerful mother of Filmerian theory. Described by a contemporary as "very well bred" and "of very good discourse," she understood how to use her high standing to advance her family's interests. Through her role as hostess, she deployed sociability to gain allies and disseminate her views widely. Surviving correspondence shows that she generously dispensed patronage to younger relatives, expecting deference in return. She played up her connections to prominent men (both kin and non-kin) in order to win influence over key decisions and decision makers. Above all, she employed political and economic clout, even though, as shall be seen, on two occasions her actions caused her husband considerable embarrassment. After her husband's death, she established herself as an important political figure by becoming the focal point of opposition to his successor.

Sir William Berkeley, the widower governor attracted to this vivacious and powerful woman, was sixty-four in 1670, twenty-eight years the senior of his new bride. Knighted by Charles I in 1639, he had served as governor of Virginia since 1641, though with interruptions caused by the Civil War and Interregnum. Popular and successful for most of his tenure in office, Berkeley organized Virginians to thwart a major Indian offensive in the mid-1640s and to repel several attacks by the Dutch two decades later. He governed Virginia from his house at Green Spring primarily by forging and resolutely maintaining an alliance with a group of wealthy families, but by the time he married Frances Culpeper Stephens that alliance was nearing the end of its usefulness. Newcomers to Virginia, including his wife's distant relative Nathaniel Bacon, began to challenge its hegemony openly. In retrospect, one Maryland observer saw the Berkeley-Stephens marriage as the first step in the governor's decline: "Old Governor Barkley," he wrote, "Altered by marrying a young wyff," had abandoned his "wonted publicq good" and adopted a "covetous todeinge [toadying]" that led to his ruin.

The man who precipitated that ruin, Nathaniel Bacon, arrived in Virginia in the summer of 1674. Born around 1647 in Suffolk to a landed family and termed by his tutor a man of "quick wit" but "impatient of labour," he studied at Cambridge and the Inns of Court. After Bacon was implicated in a fraudulent scheme and his new wife was disinherited by her father for marrying him, Nathaniel's father shipped him off to Virginia with a sizable inheritance. Perhaps the father hoped that the young man's older first cousin once removed, another Nathaniel Bacon (thereafter known locally as "Sr." to distinguish himself from the newcomer), would assist him. The childless Nathaniel Sr. was a member of the colony's council and a close associate of the governor.

Yet in the end the young immigrant's kinship to Lady Frances Berkeley was more important to his rapid advancement than his intellect, his inheritance, or his ties to Nathaniel Sr. She and the immigrant called each other "cousin," a generic seventeenth-century term for distant relationships. Later Nathaniel Jr. was to refer to her "kindness" in her treatment of "her poore and Unworthy kinsman." After the families' connection had begun to crumble, the governor reminded the young man that he had initially offered him "all the services that was in my power," for three reasons: because "gent[lemen] of your quallitie come verey rarely into this Country"; because of "your owne particuler merritts which I alwayes esteemed verey greate"; and especially because of "your relation to my dearest." Bacon at that time acknowledged the governor's "generosity" and "kindnesses," admitting that he owed Berkeley "gratitude and obedience." The newly arrived Bacons in fact lived for a brief period with the Berkeleys at Green Spring before settling on their own plantation, located in Henrico County, forty miles up the river from Jamestown. That landholding also fatefully included a piece of property lying twenty miles further northwest, near the falls of the James River. In March 1675, the governor appointed Bacon to his council, a remarkable sign of favor for one so young and so recently resident in Virginia.

Two contemporaries remarked that the reasons for Bacon's ascent, "all on a suddain," were "best known to the Gouvernour," thereby slyly characterizing the appointment as nearly inexplicable and perhaps corrupt. But Bacon's rise may readily be understood in the context of the known influence of Lady Berkeley on her husband, which he himself acknowledged in the exchange with Bacon quoted in the last paragraph. On numerous occasions, she ex pressed great solicitude for members of her extended family, no matter how distant the relationship. For example, in the early 1670s she wrote twice to inform Robert Filmer (son of the author of Patriarcha) about the Virginia financial affairs of his brother's widow, Mary Horsmanden Filmer, who was Frances's first cousin once removed. Referring to herself as Robert's "Most affectionate Cosin," Lady Frances asked about the reported ill health of Robert's wife, commenting that "her owne Childern canot be more concerned nore more truile wish her recoverie" than she did. Years later, she wrote in the same vein to her nephew, Sir Abstrupus Danby, Virginia-born but living in England, about her concerns for his sister's (her niece's) financial well-being during widowhood and a difficult second marriage. Such evidence suggests that for Lady Frances Berkeley, loyalty to family constituted a paramount value. Those she identified as kin won her favor, and she expected them to reciprocate with similar care and concern for her and her husband. Robert Filmer the younger (whom she thanked profusely for services rendered in England) and "Strupie" (whom she described warmly as the son she never had) met her demanding test. Nathaniel Bacon, a kinsman whose interests she had worked to advance, did not-and he accordingly incurred her wrath.

The Rebellion

In 1674, just as the twenty-seven-year-old Bacon relocated to Virginia, the colony was experiencing difficult economic times. Tobacco prices had fallen, and planters complained of being gouged by English merchants. Parliament had recently laid new duties on colonial products. Virginians, especially the large land speculators who sat in the assembly, were deeply concerned about potential claims to quitrents and other fees from the Northern Neck proprietors, including Lady Berkeley's second cousin, Thomas, Lord Culpeper, and her own natal family. In response, the General Assembly levied special taxes in order to purchase the Northern Neck patents and pay the expenses of agents dispatched to London to negotiate agreements for that purpose. Although few in Virginia favored the proprietors' claims, the heavy burden of those taxes—which largely benefited the colony's grandees—later figured prominently in lists of grievances prepared by ex-rebels. But those problems, separately or together, would not have caused a rebellion. Indian relations ultimately produced the spark that set off the conflagration.

Indian trade was the lesser of two intertwined matters at issue. In a letter to Governor Berkeley in September 1675, Nathaniel Bacon indicated that one of the reasons he had decided to establish himself in the west, "soe remote both from the businesse and best converse of this Country," was to profit from commerce with the Indians. Berkeley himself controlled the issuance of trading licenses, a policy instituted some years earlier to try to forestall fraudulent practices. He granted a lucrative license jointly to Bacon and William Byrd I, the second husband of Mary Horsmanden Filmer. Both men were by Lady Frances's reckoning relatives deserving of her patronage, and their kinship with her surely facilitated her husband's issuance of the trading license to the partnership. The conduct of the Indian trade, like the taxes levied to pay the Northern Neck proprietors, often appeared on the lists of grievances later cited as reasons for the rebellion.

The more important source of friction pertained to the land itself. The territory beyond the rivers' headwaters had been reserved for Indians under a treaty Berkeley negotiated in 1646 to end struggles with the Powhatans that had begun in 1622. Land to the east was fully claimed, so neither newly arrived high-ranking men like Bacon nor recently freed indentured servants could find satisfactory lands on which to settle. Both groups of claimants bumped up against the "friend Indians" on the other side of the treaty line, who were themselves being squeezed from the west and north by powerful Indian nations such as the Susquehannocks and the Senecas. Clashes—and perhaps even an all-out Indian war—were probably inevitable, but the ensuing civil war was not. That developed, on the one hand, because Governor Berkeley was determined to uphold the treaty and to maintain a firm distinction between "friend" and "enemy" Indians; and, on the other, because Nathaniel Bacon, viewing all Indians as hostile, insistently sought the governor's imprimatur for his expeditions against them. Had Berkeley acceded to the frontiersmen's demands, the internal conflict could have been avoided.

The trouble began in July 1675 when Indians from Maryland raided a plantation owned by a Virginian they believed had cheated them. Retaliatory incursions across the Potomac River boundary between the two colonies followed, until during the following January a party of Susquehannocks attacked plantations near the falls of the Potomac and Rappahannock rivers, killing more than thirty settlers. Among those murdered in such raids was Bacon's overseer on his frontier property. Governor Berkeley responded by summoning the militia, but he soon recalled the men who had mustered at his command. For reasons that remain unclear, he decided to postpone military action until after the scheduled March meeting of the assembly. At that session the assembly voted new taxes to pay for the construction of forts at the heads of the rivers, an action much derided by Berkeley's critics. They insisted that the forts would be useless, that "it was merely a Designe of the Grandees to engrosse all their Tobacco into their owne hands," and that the scheme was "a great Grievance, Juggle and cheat." Virginians petitioned Berkeley to appoint a leader for them, asserting that they would "hazard ... their Lives and Fortunes" to fight the Indians (not entirely altruistically, for they anticipated plunder), but he refused to comply.


Excerpted from SEPARATED BY THEIR SEX by Mary Beth Norton Copyright © 2011 by Cornell University. Excerpted by permission of CORNELL UNIVERSITY PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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