The Gender Order in Colonial America

Early New England history cannot be properly understood without thorough examination of the ways in which women, or the representations of women, threatened or maintained the gender hierarchy of English society. This is a complex task. Documents written by women and men alike could weaken or strengthen the ideology and practice of male dominance, just as the acts of women, whether accurately preserved in the historical record, distorted in their representation, or lost to humankind forever, could engage with the hierarchy in different ways. (The deeds of men could as well, but that falls beyond the scope of this paper.) This is not to say that every act or writing represented a conscious decision to threaten or shore up the gender order — some likely were, others likely not — but for the historian the outcome or impact grows clear with careful study. Of course, this paper does not posit that every source only works toward one end or the other. In some ways a text might undermine a social system, in other ways bolster it. Yet typically there will be a general trend. Uncovering such an overall impact upon the hierarchy allows for a fuller understanding of any given event in the English colonies during the sixteenth through eighteenth centuries. (That is, from the English perspective. This paper considers how the English saw themselves and others, yet the same analysis could be used for other societies, a point we will revisit in the conclusion.)

Let us begin with a source that works to maintain the gender order, Mary Rowlandson’s 1682 The Sovereignty and Goodness of God. Rowlandson was an Englishwoman from Massachusetts held captive for three months by the Narragansett, Nipmuc, and Wompanoag during King Philip’s War (1675-1676). Her text, which became popular in the colonies, carefully downplays the power of Weetamoo, the female Pocassett Wompanoag chief, whose community leadership, possession of vast land and servants, and engagement in diplomacy and war violated Rowlandson’s Puritan understanding of a woman’s proper place in society.[1] As historian Lisa Brooks writes, “Throughout her narrative, Rowlandson never acknowledged that Weetamoo was a leader equal to a sachem [chief], although this was common knowledge in the colonies. Rather, she labored to represent Weetamoo’s authority as a pretension.”[2] In contrast, Rowlandson had no issue writing of “Quanopin, who was a Saggamore​ [chief]” of the Narragansetts, nor of “King Philip,” Metacom, Wompanoag chief.[3] It was appropriate for men to hold power.

That Rowlandson presented Weetamoo’s authority as an act is a plausible interpretation of the former’s lengthy depiction of Weetamoo dressing herself — this “proud Dame” who took “as much time as any of the Gentry of the land.”[4] She was playing dress-up, playing a part, Rowlandson perhaps implied, an idea that grows stronger with the next line: “When she had dressed her self, her work was to make Girdles of Wampom…”[5] The gentry do not work; the powerful do not labor. How can a working woman have authority? Further, Rowaldson ignored the fact that wampum “work” was a key part of tribal diplomacy, attempted to portray her servitude as unto Quinnapin rather than Weetamoo (giving possessions first to him), and later labeled the chief an arrogant, “proud gossip” — meaning, Brooks notes, “in English colonial idiom, a woman who does not adhere to her position as a wife.”[6] Rowlandson likely felt the need, whether consciously or not, to silence discomforting realities of Native American nations. Weetamoo’s power, and a more egalitarian society, threatened the English gender order, and it would thus not do to present dangerous ideas to a wider Puritan audience.

“Likely” is used as a qualifier because it must be remembered that publication of The Sovereignty and Goodness of God had to go through male Puritan authorities like clergyman Increase Mather, who wrote the preface.[7] It remains an open question how much of this defense of the gender hierarchy comes from Rowlandson and how much from the constraints of that hierarchy upon her: under the eyes of Mather and others, a narrative that did not toe the Puritan line would simply go unpublished. But the overall impact is clear. Rowlandson, as presented in the text, held true to the proper role of women — and thus so should readers.

Conflict with native tribes and captivity narratives held a central place in the colonial English psyche. One narrative that did more to threaten the gender order was that of Hannah Dustin’s captivity, as told by religious leader Cotton Mather, first from the pulpit and then in his 1699 Decennium Luctousum. Unlike his father Increase, Cotton Mather was in a bit of a bind. Dangerous ideas were already on the loose; his sermon and writings would attempt to contain them.[8] Hannah Dustin of Massachusetts was captured by the Abenaki in 1697, during King William’s War. She was placed in servitude to an indigenous family of two men, three women, and seven children.[9] Finding themselves traveling with so few captors, Dustin and two other servants seized hatchets one night and killed the men and most of the women and children.[10] Dustin and the others scalped the ten dead and carried the flesh to Boston, earning fifty pounds, various gifts, and much acclaim. Mather’s representation of Dustin would have to confront and contextualize a seismic disturbance in the social order: women behaving like men, their use of extreme violence.

Mather first turned to the bible for rationalization, writing that Dustin “took up a Resolution, to imitate the Action of Jael upon Sisera…”[11] In Judges 4, a Kenite woman named Jael hammered a tent peg through the skull of the (male) Canaanite commander Sisera, helping the Israelites defeat the Canaanite army. Mather’s audiences would understand the meaning. Puritan women’s subservient and submissive status was rooted in the bible, yet there were extreme circumstances where female violence was justified; being likewise against the enemies of God, Dustin’s gruesome act could be tolerated. Mather then used place as justification: “[B]eing where she had not her own Life secured by any Law unto her, she thought she was not Forbidden by any Law to take away the Life of the Murderers…”[12] In other words, Dustin was in Native American territory, a lawless space. This follows the long-established colonizer mindset of our civilization versus their wilderness and savagery, but here, interestingly, the condemned latter was used as justification for a Puritan’s act.[13] Being unprotected by Puritan laws in enemy lands, Mather wrote, Dustin saw herself as also being free from such laws, making murder permissible. However, the clergyman’s use of “she thought” suggests a hesitation to fully approve of her deed.[14] He nowhere claims what she did was right.

Clearly, Mather attempted to prevent erosion of the gender order through various privisos: a woman murdering others could only be agreeable before God in rare situations, she was outside Puritan civilization and law, plus this was only her view of acceptable behavior. He was also sure to present her husband as a “Courageous” hero who “manfully” saved their children from capture at risk of his own life, as if a reminder of who could normally and properly use violence.[15] Yet Mather could not shield from the public what was already known, acts that threatened the ideology of male superiority and social dominance. The facts remained: a woman got the best of and murdered two “Stout” men.[16] She killed women and children, typically victims of men. She then took their scalps and received a bounty, as a soldier might do. Further, she was praised by men of such status as Colonel Francis Nicholson, governor of Maryland.[17] Mather could not fully approve of Dustin’s actions, but given the acclaim she had garnered neither could he condemn them. Both his relaying of Dustin’s deed and his tacit acceptance presented a significant deviation from social norms to Puritan communities.

Finally, let us consider the diary of Martha Ballard, written 1785-1812. Ballard, a midwife who delivered over eight hundred infants in Hallowell, Maine, left a daily record of her work, home, and social life. This document subverts the gender order by countering the contemporaneous texts positioning men as the exclusive important actors in the medical and economic spheres.[18] It is true that this diary was never meant for public consumption, unlike other texts. However, small acts by ordinary people undermine social systems, whether wittingly or not, and are never known to others. If this is true, surely texts, by their nature, can do the same. Either way, the diary did not remain private: it was read by Ballard’s descendants, historians, and possibly librarians, meaning its impact trickled beyond its creator and into the wider society of nineteenth century New England.[19]

Written by men, doctors’ papers and merchant ledgers of this period were silent, respectively, on midwives and women’s economic functions in towns like Hallowell, implying absence or non-involvement, whereas Ballard’s diary illuminated their importance.[20] She wrote, for example, on November 18, 1793: “At Capt Meloys. His Lady in Labour. Her women Calld… My patient deliverd at 8 hour 5 minute Evening of a fine daughter. Her attendants Mrss Cleark, Duttum, Sewall, & myself.”[21] This passage, and the diary as a whole, emphasized that it was common for midwives and women to safely and skilfully deliver infants, not a man or doctor present.[22] Further, her documentations such as “I have been pulling flax,” “Dolly warpt a piece for Mrs Pollard of 39 yards,” and “Dolly warpt & drawd a piece for Check. Laid 45 yds” made clear that women had economic responsibilities that went beyond their own homes, turning flax into cloth (warping is a key step) that could be traded or sold.[23] Women controlled their labor, earning wages: “received 6/ as a reward.”[24] Though Ballard’s text presents everyday tasks of New England women of her social class, and had a limited readership compared to Rowlandson or Mather’s writings, it too presents dangerous ideas that might bother a reader wedded to the gender hierarchy: that women could be just as effective as male doctors, and that the agency and labor of women hinted at possibilities of self-sufficiency.

The events in this essay, the captivity of English women during war and the daily activities of many English women during peace, would look different without gender analysis, without considering how the acts of women and representations of events related to the gender order. Rowlandson would simply be ignorant, failing to understand who her actual master was, Weetamoo’s position, and so on. Dustin’s violence would be business as usual, a captive killing to escape, with all of Mather’s rationalizations odd and unnecessary. Ballard’s daily entries would just be minutiae, with no connection to or commentary on the larger society from whence they came. Indeed, that is the necessary project. Examining how the gender hierarchy was defended or confronted provides the proper context for a fuller understanding of events — from an English perspective. A future paper might examine other societies, such as Native American nations, in the same way. Clearly, the acts of indigenous women and the (English) representations of those acts influenced English minds, typically threatening their hierarchy. But how did the acts of indigenous women and men, those of English women and men, and indigenous representations of such things engage with Native American tribes’ unique gender systems? We can find hints in English representations (Weetamoo may have been dismayed Rowlandson violated indigenous gender norms[25]), but for an earnest endeavor, primary sources by native peoples will be necessary, just as English sources enabled this writing.

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[1] Lisa Brooks, Our Beloved Kin: A New History of King Philip’s War (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2018), chapter one.

[2] Ibid., 264.

[3] Mary Rowlandson, The Sovereignty and Goodness of God by Mary Rowlandson with Related Documents, ed. Neal Salisbury (Boston: Bedford Books, 2018), 81.

[4] Ibid., 103.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Brooks, Our Beloved Kin, 264, 270.

[7] Rowlandson, Sovereignty, 28.

  Brooks, Our Beloved Kin, 264.

[8] “The Captivity of Hannah Dustin,” in Mary Rowlandson, The Sovereignty and Goodness of God by Mary Rowlandson with Related Documents, ed. Neal Salisbury (Boston: Bedford Books, 2018), 170-173.

[9] Ibid., 172.

[10] Ibid., 173.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Kirsten Fischer, “The Imperial Gaze: Native American, African American, and Colonial Women in European Eyes,” in A Companion to American Women’s History, ed. Nancy A. Hewitt (Malden MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2002), 3-19.

[14] “Hannah Dustin,” 173.

[15] Ibid., 171-172.

[16] Ibid., 172.

[17] Ibid., 173.

[18] Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, A Midwife’s Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary, 1785-1812 (New York: Vintage Books, 1999), 28-30.

[19] Ibid., 8-9, 346-352.

[20] Ibid., 28-30.

[21] Ibid., 162-163.

[22] See Ibid., 170-172 for infant mortality data.

[23] Ibid., 36, 73, 29.

[24] Ibid., 162. See also page 168.

[25] Brooks, Our Beloved Kin, 265.