Researching women in colonial America
Over the past few days I’ve been working on some female ancestors from early American settler families. This has led me from town record indexes on to published genealogies of the type popular with amateur historians around the turn of the twentieth century – for instance, this one on the Brewer family (a bit unusual in that it was compiled by a woman), or this huge one about the Baldwins. These tend to crop up in Ancestry searches, and can be found at the lovely Internet Archive as well; I imagine that somewhere like the NEHGS would be a good place to look for expert advice on them, or for a comprehensive catalogue. They have a certain dry, old-fashioned charm.
Predictably, though, they don’t say much about women. Brief, usually flattering sketches of men’s lives abound, recording the farmhouses they built and the roles they played in the community; but details of women are typically limited to their names, any prominent male relatives (“sister of Judge Samuel Sewall”), and, if you’re lucky, birth and death dates and locations. This is particularly true of the sections covering the earliest generations of settlers in the 1600s and early 1700s.
Never mind: these books are what they are, products of their time. And still useful, up to a point – the completist in me appreciates knowing the names and birthdates of a colonial ancestor’s eleven siblings as recorded in the family Bible, even if I don’t have time to trace each branch. I now have a lot of names to work with, and some of them are fantastically Puritan, further whetting my appetite for personal detail. Who wouldn’t be a little bit curious about the lives of Submit Brewer or Deliverance White? Not forgetting Basmith Hamant, Thankful Allen, or their more prosaically-styled sisters either.
My main problem now is identifying where to look next for more personal details about these women. Later generations might show up in newspaper archives or census records, but not somebody born in 1625. I’m aware there may not be anything to find about my own actual family, or that I might need specialist help to get much further; but I’ll keep at it. And while casting about online for ideas, I’ve found some interesting sources to look out for:
Good Wives: Image and Reality in the Lives of Women in Northern New England, 1650-1750 by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich. Ulrich is a Harvard professor of history, and you can read more about her on Wikipedia or in this Slate article.
This page about Rebecca Tannenbaum’s work at Yale lists some relevant articles that look fascinating, particularly “Elizabeth Drinker’s Female Line: Mothers, Daughters, and Kinship In Eighteenth Century America” and “Mary Hale and Ann Edmonds: Gender, Women’s Work, and Health in Colonial Massachusetts”.
I also found, when looking at hits from pages giving basic information on this topic, that there were great big discrepancies in their assessments of exactly how difficult and restrictive ordinary life was for women in the colonies. Take this and this, for example. (I love the final sentence of that last article – it’s so breezily reductive.) The more I looked, the more I struggled to identify a consensus. Eventually the following passage from A Companion to American Women’s History by Nancy A Hewitt, a professor at Rutgers, turned up and helped to clarify things:
Colonial family history’s uneasy relationship with feminism is due in part to the fact that modern scholarship preceded the second-wave feminist movement and the birth of women’s history. The field is further divided by the fact that feminist scholars sometimes differ greatly among themselves in their portrayal of colonial family life. For these reasons, it is difficult to present a seamless summary of colonial family history, divided as it is philosophically by historians who emphasize consensus and continuity in the family, and those whose scholarship highlights conflict. Scholarship on colonial families is also divided methodologically between historical demographers and number-crunching social historians, on the one hand, and legal scholars and cultural historians who put more emphasis on qualitative sources, on the other. Furthermore, not all of these differences among historians fall neatly into ideological categories: some women’s historians are also consensus historians, and historians who see more conflict in colonial families are not necessarily feminist scholars.
So, no clear answers even in the groves of academe, but it’s good to have an explanation for that confusion. You can read a little more from the same page at Google Books.
I’ll post again on this topic when I’ve made more headway (optimism at work there). Meanwhile, I’d be delighted to hear from anyone who has suggestions for other resources, books, articles, or methodologies that might be useful in tracing the lives of colonial women.