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.1 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 themselves could not have been fully aware of. But things like life expectancy, sex ratios, average age at marriage, and family size, even without the benefit of precise knowledge of them, can have a direct, even determining, effect on human relations. They set bounds for an almost autonomous popular culture, which may bear little relation to the high culture with which it coexists. And where the two do converge, popular culture can translate the abstract principles of high culture into powerful directives of human conduct.

A major point of convergence in many societies lies in the views that govern relations between the sexes, now encompassed by the word “gender.” Gender is the guiding concept of the three books noticed here and of a host of other books and of articles in every professional historical journal in the past ten years. The word as currently used, both as a noun and a verb, applies to the rights and duties and functions that a society assigns to people solely on the basis of their sex. A few of these may be relatively unchanging, rooted in the biological differences between the sexes; but more are literally man-made, dictated by the prevailing culture of a particular time and place.

The line between the two is not always clear, and the question of where and how to draw it in any society is an extension of the old and continuing debate over the relative roles of nature and nurture in shaping human character. But at opposite ends of the spectrum the difference is obvious. Bearing children is imposed on women by God or nature or biology, whether in Boston or Burma, but women’s subjection to men, whether in the state or the family, is imposed by ideas and attitudes that have no other basis than a society’s acceptance of them.


Since the gendering of power in the Western world has generally subjected women to men, women’s history, which has become a scholarly discipline in itself, has been devoted heavily to ascertaining the degree and extent of subjection that prevailed at different times, tracing its cultural sources and the forces that have altered its extent (it can scarcely be said to have disappeared). Carol Berkin’s book is a survey of the differing positions of women in several societies of seventeenth-century America, north, south, and middle, and of the changes wrought in the course of the eighteenth century by commercial growth and by the American Revolution. Throughout she has striven for “a sensitivity to the social construction of gender” and has included chapters on the contrasting roles of women among Native Americans and African slaves.

Something of the scale of recent work on women’s history can be gauged by Berkin’s bibliographical essay of twenty pages, in which books and articles published in the last fifteen years predominate. Her text is full of what “some historians” have recently argued and how others have disagreed. What seems clear from her survey is that the position of women vis-à-vis men was worse where the settlers were English than it was with the Indians, or the Africans. Even the Dutch, so closely engaged with the English in the seventeenth-century contest to dominate world trade, gave to married women in their colonies a share in property rights that was totally denied them by the English, whether in their colonies or at home. Economic rights were not as gendered in New Netherlands as they were in New England or in New York after the English took it over.

Berkin brings her subject down to earth by focusing on the way gender determined the experiences of an individual woman in each of the societies she examines. She shows how throughout the colonies the subjection of women could be affected by social class. Women automatically gained the same social status as their husbands, and widows might retain it, thus gaining an anomalous superiority over men of lower class. Finally she notices that the pursuit of equality in the American Revolution fell short of recognizing the equality of the sexes. Power in the new republic was still gendered. Berkin’s synthesis of recent research offers what Mary Beth Norton rightly calls “the best available introduction to the lives of women in colonial and revolutionary America.”

Norton’s own Founding Mothers and Fathers: Gendered Power and the Forming of American Society is more ambitious, more original, and more challenging. It is limited in the time covered to the period before the mid-1670s, limited in the area covered to New England and the Chesapeake colonies of Virginia and Maryland, limited in the sources used to published court records. The last limitation is serious, because almost all the extant records are of county courts, and for the Chesapeake colonies only those of Maryland have been extensively published. Only two vol-umes out of several dozen extant seventeenth-century Virginia county records have been published, and only one volume exists of Virginia’s central General Court (the rest were lost in the burning of Richmond in the Civil War). As a result, Norton’s statements about Chesapeake society are mainly statements about Maryland society. Nevertheless, the records used, however limited, are still voluminous, and Norton’s examination of them has been intensive. She has gleaned from them the statistical backing that has become compulsory for social historians; and within the limits she has set herself in time, place, and sources, she has constructed a daring intellectual frame, a formula for understanding how and why the gendering of power operated in the two quite different cultures that developed in New England and the Chesapeake.

She divides her study into three parts to show the location of power within the family, in the unofficial community or neighborhood, and in the state, where the ultimate power resided. She recognizes that power may require force but that it is not the same thing as force, that power can be limited by the need for consent, whether in family, community, or state. Accordingly she classifies social and political activities as public or private, and further distinguishes “informal public” (affecting a whole community that included women and children) and “formal public” (involving almost exclusively adult men, who alone wielded the powers of government).

Although “private” meant the opposite of “public,” it easily became a matter of dispute at the time whether a particular activity was private or not and thus whether it was subject to formal public scrutiny. In general, Norton finds that this question too was gendered: what men said to one another in private could not be held against them, but meetings of women were fair objects for public inquiry or condemnation. Informal meetings of women nevertheless had to be reckoned with by the men who claimed authority over them. Formal public power could be strongly influenced by informal public opinion, in which women could play a leading role. Gossip, characterized by Norton as a female specialty, could affect the credibility of any man in court proceedings or in the conduct of government.


The interplay of formal public, informal public, and private activities comes out in detailed examinations of a variety of episodes. When Mistress Alice Tilly of Boston was convicted by a Massachusetts court of malpractice as a midwife, the women of Boston, who thought they knew more about midwifery than the men on the court, gathered by themselves to protest that she was the best midwife in town. Though they did not get the court to admit it was wrong, they did get her released from prison to practice her profession. Neighborhood gossip affected formal public authority in Maryland when the government appointed Thomas Baker to the bench of Charles County. Baker was reputed to have stolen hogs and was known for “Baudie talk” about local women. When Baker arrived on the court, the informal hostility of his neighbors obliged him to step down. Norton follows a host of such cases through the courts and concludes with a brilliant analysis of the way confusion over the meaning of “private” figured in the trial of Anne Hutchinson, banished from Massachusetts Bay in 1638 for expressing heretical views in public (or, as Hutchinson insisted, private) meetings.

Despite the informal restraints that women might be able to place on the exercise of power, whether in New England or in the Chesapeake colonies, Norton makes clear that in the end men could always prevail over women. Anne Hutchinson gained a large following in the informal public realm and some in the formal, but she nevertheless lost her case and with it her right to live and teach among the people of Massachusetts. Women were excluded from any share in formal public power; and even in the privacy of the family a woman’s very identity was subsumed in her husband’s: any property she brought to the marriage was his, any debt she owed was his, almost any tort she committed was his.

The great strength of Norton’s book is its thick description of the way that male power and female subordination operated, or occasionally faltered, in specific cases. What makes her descriptions challenging is her delineation of the cultures in which she situates the cases, distinguishing New England’s “Filmerian” society from the “nascent Lockean society” of the Chesapeake. Miller had believed that the principles directing New England social organization could be found in what the ministers of New England themselves said. Later social historians found the directing forces in statistics unknown to the people they concerned. Norton finds the principles guiding the peoples of New England and the Chesapeake in the early seventeenth century to be best expressed in writings unknown to them. New England society exhibited the principles of Sir Robert Filmer, whose Patriarcha, written in the 1630s or 1640s, was first published in 1680 (though he published other works as early as 1648). Chesapeake society, on the other hand, was moving toward the principles of John Locke’s refutation of Filmer in his Two Treatises of Government, published in 1690. It would have been impossible for anyone in the Chesapeake region or anywhere else to have read Locke in the period of Norton’s study, and there is no evidence that anyone in New England read Filmer before or after 1680.

To prove that New Englanders acted in a particular way because they were “Filmerian” and that people in the Chesapeake were becoming “Lockean” is indeed a challenge. It is one thing to show that people were affected by statistics about themselves that they could not themselves have compiled. It is another thing altogether to show that they were moved by a system of ideas they had never heard of. Norton nevertheless is able to make a case. New Englanders may not have known they were Filmerian, but by Norton’s reckoning their society was driven by the assumption to which Filmer’s name is classically attached, that all government derives not from consent but from a father’s natural and unlimited authority over his family. Because a father’s power was unlimited, the power of kings must be unlimited. Filmer, an ardent royalist and no Puritan, directed his writings not toward the explication of family duties or family management but toward refuting the claims of popular rights and popular sovereignty made by parliamentarians against the king in the 1640s. Norton, however, also finds in Filmer an affirmation of the need for government to supervise paternal authority in order to ensure its support of public authority. Such a continuing reliance on family government is what makes New England, for her, Filmerian.

It is well known that the settlers of New England came over mainly as families in the 1630s. And Norton shows that New England governments kept a close watch over them to see that the master of each family was living up to his responsibilities. New England fathers gained a larger role in choosing spouses for their offspring than had been the case in England; but they were themselves held to a rigorous standard of sexual behavior, because in a “Filmerian system” any threat to family integrity by either spouse was a threat to the principle on which all government was based.

The Chesapeake could not have a Filmerian system because the settlers did not come as families but mainly as single men bound in servitude. During the period of Norton’s study, before the region turned decisively to slave labor, the planters relied on a continuing supply of servants from England, Scotland, and Ireland; and they wanted men more than women. Throughout Norton’s period there were as many as four men for every woman; and both sexes, in further contrast to New England, died early deaths. The family, therefore, could not play the role it did in New England in sustaining public order, and governments accordingly did not supervise family behavior as in New England. The Chesapeake can be called a nascent Lockean society, because Locke did not link the origin of government to paternity. He believed that women and children were subject to adult men in the family but that political government originated independently in a contract among men. Government in the Chesapeake rested not on paternal command within families but on gaining the support of men for other men. Power was gendered, but the subjection of women was not as crucial to its operation as was the securing of consent among men.

Norton is thus able to translate social statistics into political theory, indeed into political imperatives. Despite the anachronistic labeling, she is able to portray the organization of society and the order imposed on it as dictated by political ideas later articulated more clearly by Filmer and Locke than they were in New England or the Chesapeake at the time.

The trouble with this analysis is that New Englanders, at least, did articulate a great many ideas of their own, ideas that were decidedly not Filmerian. David D. Hall has recently shown that the contours of popular culture in New England conformed remarkably to those of the high culture that Perry Miller depicted.2 The conformity extended to political ideas. A central idea in Miller’s account of New England thought was that of the “covenant,” a term the seventeenth century preferred to the modern “contract.” God dealt with man in covenants, and so did men with one another. New Englanders, eschewing the hierarchy that Filmer cherished, created their own churches, not under the paternal authority of a bishop or even of a priest, but by a voluntary covenant among the prospective members, who then elected a minister (they could also dismiss him).

Secular societies, too, they believed to originate in covenants. A covenant among the settlers was the only basis of government in the Plymouth Colony until 1685, when it was merged with Massachusetts, in the New Haven Colony from 1638 to 1662, when it was merged with Connecticut, and in Connecticut until it procured a royal charter in that year. In Massachusetts John Winthop was able to interpret emigration to the colony as consent to a covenant, even though it was a royal charter that officially endowed the colony with power to govern itself. In all the New England colonies in the period covered by Norton governors and legislative assemblies were elected, usually annually, by the freemen of the colony.

Not elected by women, to be sure. Power was gendered, but how can it be said to rest on paternity? Norton finds the ultimate paternity in England’s king, three thousand miles away. She insists that in every contest between power resting on covenant and power resting on paternal, that is royal, authority, paternal authority won, as when New Haven had to “submit to the Filmerian imperative” by accepting absorption into Connecticut under Connecticut’s royal charter of 1662. It is a fact that the power of England’s king was proof against any open colonial claim of self-government. But his authority was no more visible in Connecticut (or in New Haven as part of Connecticut) after 1662 than before. He appointed no government officers there. “Acknowledgments of the need for consent” were not, as Norton claims, a mere ritual in New England. Consent alone, explicitly given in popular elections, placed men in government office before 1685.

In Virginia, on the other hand, that supposedly nascent Lockean society, a governor appointed in England, usually by the king, dominated the colony’s government from the beginning. Maryland’s governor was appointed by the Calvert family, who owned the colony and also filled its other official posts. If control by a higher authority than popular consent made a colony Filmerian, Maryland and Virginia fit the description better than New England. If government resting on consent is Lockean, seventeenth-century New England fits the description not only better than the Chesapeake but better than most of the Western world, including England, at the time. A good argument can be made for the increase of active royal authority in all the colonies during the eighteenth century, but by then only die-hard Tories were claiming that the king’s authority rested on a Filmerian power of paternity.

Norton’s analysis is not only anachronistic, it defies the central known facts of political history. Instead of illuminating the gendering of power in the cases she describes, her explanation of them as part of a Filmerian system obscures them. In subordinating women to men, New Englanders were not making a statement in support of absolute monarchy or absolute government, which Puritans abhorred and which Filmer’s published writings were unequivocally and singlemindedly designed to justify. What Filmer expounded in a multitude of arguments was not the need for men to dominate their families, about which he says virtually nothing, but the unlimited power of the king to dominate England. Norton constructs a system of thought to fit vital statistics, calls it Filmerian, and then attributes to that system a commanding influence on a people who were distinguished by their passionate adherence to quite a different and contrary system. Miller was closer to the mark in thinking that New England society scarcely needed explaining if you understood Puritan theology.

How much closer is suggested by Cornelia Dayton’s book on the changing legal position of women in New Haven, from its founding in 1638 until 1789. For Norton New Haven was the “most Filmerian of all colonies” because it manifested the greatest concern to sustain the family and its fathers as the source of public order. For Dayton, as indeed for most historians, New Haven was the most Puritan of colonies, distinguished by “a more ‘rigorous working out’ of Protestant dissenting notions of secular government than its neighbors, Massachusetts Bay and Connecticut.” Filmer, most historians would agree, did not entertain Protestant dissenting notions of secular government or of anything else. What Norton explains as Filmerian Dayton explains more plausibly as Puritan. For example, Norton can treat as a Filmerian concern for maintaining patriarchal public order the paradoxical fact that New England courts (in contrast to English courts) punished men almost equally with women for sexual disorders. Dayton concurs that “New Haven Colony came close to establishing a single standard for men and women in the areas of sexual and moral conduct,” but attributes this degree of equalization (or non-gendering) to the Puritan intent “to create the most God-fearing society possible.” That intent, documented by all the surviving sources, works better as an explanation than a putative influence of principles designed primarily to create a dictatorial king.

Dayton takes care to emphasize that society in the New Haven Colony was still patriarchal: it placed women clearly in subjection to men. As in other English colonies, a wife had no property rights apart from her husband; and New Haven actually gave widows fewer legal rights to property than English law provided. But Puritan patriarchy was tempered by a larger recognition of women’s rights and functions than had been the case in England or than would be the case in New England as Puritanism declined in the eighteenth century. Dayton goes so far as to suggest that although the nineteenth-century pioneers of women’s rights “would not have thought of themselves as operating within a Puritan framework, many of their demands had once been met for women before the bar in courts that cleaved to Puritan jurisprudence.”

Women in the Puritan system were not reduced to indirect influence through “informal” public activities. In the New Haven Colony women often appeared as litigants, suing for collection of debts, and their testimony in regard to property transactions became crucial, as the courts ignored many of the rules of formal pleading in favor of the memory of witnesses. Women evidently shared in the running of many businesses, and widows often served as executors of their husbands’ wills. New Haven, like other Puritan colonies, treated marriage as a civil contract, yet another covenant, and granted women’s petitions for divorce as readily as men’s. In such cases, although adultery was still legally defined as infidelity by a married woman and not the other way around, a man’s infidelity was nevertheless cause for divorce; and, again contrary to English law, custody of the children was awarded to the aggrieved wife. In cases of rape a woman’s testimony was sufficient for conviction, as it was for identifying the father of an illegitimate child, for whose support the government made him responsible.

With the waning of Puritanism all this changed. Although Connecticut, too, was a Puritan colony, the signs of decline had already appeared when New Haven was joined to it in the charter of 1662. Connecticut showed its Puritan heritage in granting nearly a thousand divorces between 1670 and 1799, far more than England or any other English colony did. But English law and legal practices gradually replaced the informalism of Puritan procedures, and commercial growth enlarged the geographical boundaries within which men carried on their dealings, dealings that included fewer and fewer women. Women appeared less often as litigants. They could still get divorces but not the custody of their children. The state no longer sought to identify the fathers of illegitimate children or to compel their support of the children. Women’s testimony in cases of rape succeeded only when supported by racial bias—Indians and blacks were now the only men likely to be convicted for the crime. Men were no longer prosecuted at all for fornication, which became a female crime, the more heinous as the image grew of women as the pure guardians of virtue on the one hand and dangerous temptresses on the other.

Dayton gives concrete and specific meaning and a new dimension to a phenomenon that has often been noticed by other historians, the transition in New England from Puritan to Yankee, from community values to the cash nexus. She shows the complexity of that transition and of the forces that determined the social construction of gender to deprive women of rights and functions they had for a time enjoyed.

It is tempting to see a parallel between the improvement in the status of women wrought by the New Haven Colony in the early seventeenth century and by the moral reform movements of the early nineteenth, of which the women’s rights movement was arguably an offshoot. In both cases the desire “to create the most God-fearing society possible” can be seen as a driving force. But religious zeal can as easily attach itself to a magnification of male dominance. Filmer himself drew his arguments from the Bible, his whole case resting heavily on the book of Genesis. What all three of these books show is the strength of patriarchy, that is, the consistent social construction of gender to empower men over women, whatever limits have been placed on the power at different times. The limits in America today are probably more restrictive than ever before (and without much assistance from religious zeal, which is currently enlisted on the other side). Berkin, Norton, and Dayton all show the variety of the limits prevailing earlier, but that very variety suggests not so much the vulnerability of patriarchy as its resilient persistence. It is easier to locate the limits and to identify the proximate causes of changes in them than it is to determine the ultimate sources of the power itself.

Perhaps, as Miller thought, what people believe about the way God deals with man will govern the way they deal with one another. But is God supposed to endorse some kind of patriarchy, however limited? The Puritan God, omnipotent, arbitrary, and angry, required better treatment of women than the reasonable deity who took his place in the eighteenth century. But they both endorsed patriarchy, as did the sentimental God of the nineteenth century by elevating women in order to subdue them. Shall we place the gendering of power in nature or nurture? It seems obviously to belong to nurture, but is nature dictating to nurture? These books, while arguing the contrary, raise a disturbing question.

This Issue

October 31, 1996