Subject Women

First Generations: Women in Colonial America

by Carol Berkin
Hill and Wang, 234 pp., $23.00

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

by Mary Beth Norton
Knopf, 496 pp., $35.00

Women Before the Bar: Gender, Law, and Society in Connecticut, 1639-1789

by Cornelia Hughes Dayton
University of North Carolina Press, 382 pp., $18.95 (paper)

The first English settlers of North America knew they were making history. New Englanders in particular were so sure of it that they started writing their own accounts of themselves as soon as they got here. Their descendants have kept it up, and none more zealously than professional historians in the past fifty or sixty years. These three books on women in the colonies can be understood as revisions, amplifications, and syntheses of a rich succession of studies about every aspect of colonial society and culture.

Although the line starts with Captain John Smith of Virginia and Governor William Bradford of Plymouth Plantation, it gained a new beginning and the intellectual energy that still drives it with Perry Miller’s volumes on the New England mind written in the 1930s and ‘40s. Before him there had been plenty of hero worship as well as debunking and some preliminary efforts to take the Puritans seriously as human beings. But Miller, himself an atheist though immersed in the existentialism of his time, found in Puritan theology a system of thought commanding the respect he gave it and communicated to his readers. Miller’s analysis of that system was itself so thorough and so complex, continually discovering implications within implications of theological disputes, that all subsequent studies of Puritan thought in New England have been in one way or another commentaries on Miller.

By conferring intellectual respectability on the Puritans, Miller also prompted explorations of colonial society that owed little directly to his own work. Miller’s concern was with ideas. Everything that mattered about a people, he believed, could be found somewhere in what they thought about the way God deals with man. Not everyone has agreed. Miller’s New England Mind had nothing to say about ideas that may have filled the heads of fishermen and farmers as opposed to ministers of the gospel, nothing to say about what is now called popular culture. And of course it did not say anything about the details of social structure and problems of daily life that do not hinge on the problems of eternity.

Social historians moved to fill the gap. Taking their lead initially from French and English demographers, they gave their attention to the statistics of births, marriages, and deaths first of New England towns and then of the plantation societies of the South. County and town records, rather than theological treatises, became the guide to understanding the lives of ordinary people and the way they related to one another. The result has been a huge compiling of information that indeed could not have been derived or extrapolated from the ideas that occupied Miller. For example, Miller could not have known that New Englanders lived longer than their counterparts in England and that grandparents were therefore much more visibly a part of society than in England. It would scarcely have affected his analysis of original sin or predestination if he had known this or other facts that the New Englanders …

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