Women in Early America

Cover Image of Women in Early America

Women in Early America (NYU, 2015), edited by Thomas Foster, is the latest in a line of scholarly histories examining the ways that seventeenth- and eighteenth-century women were actually key players in the economic, cultural, and political life of the American colonies despite the many legal and societal obstacles they had to overcome due to their gender. Most chapters in this wide-ranging work, each written by an expert in the field, focus on specific regions or identities. There is a chapter on the gendering of slave ownership in colonial Jamaica, for example, and another on trade and power in Early French America and Detroit. More familiar topics are also covered, like the connections between witchcraft and resistance to patriarchy or the lives of loyalist women in British-occupied New York City. Our own Mary C. Kelley, Ruth Bordin Collegiate Professor of History, American Culture, and Women's Studies, contributes the final chapter of the book. As in her well-known work Learning to Stand And Speak: Women, Education, And Public Life In America's Republic (UNC, 2006), Kelley discusses the ramifications of a revolution in women’s educational opportunities between the Revolutionary and Civil Wars that enabled many to take up positions in the public sphere as writers, educators, and reformers.

Kelley is not the only pioneering women’s studies scholar to contribute to this volume. The foreword is written by Carol Berkin, a scholar whose work in the 1980s and 90s exemplified the powerful potential of women’s history to change fundamentally our perspective on colonial society and the role of gender within it. Berkin’s First Generations: Women In Colonial America (Hill and Wang, 1996) was a pathbreaking work and in her foreword she writes that Women in Early America “constitutes the boldest challenge yet to the notion...that it is still ‘acceptable for men to be portrayed as the universal historical subject’” (p. x).

Readers interested by the connections between economics and power discussed in Women in Early America should also look at The Ties That Buy: Women And Commerce In Revolutionary America by Ellen Hartigan-O'Connor. Focusing on Newport, Rhode Island and Charleston, South Carolina, Hartigan-O'Connor  “investigates everyday economic networks in Revolutionary America with women at their center” (p. 2). The work examines the various ways that free and enslaved women managed to obtain degrees of economic autonomy and commercial savvy at the end of the eighteenth century and the opening decades of the nineteenth. For example, in the book’s sixth chapter, The Republic of Goods, Hartigan-O'Connor discusses the ways that women engaged in the struggle for independence from Great Britain through their purchasing choices and the products they produced, from scarves to musket balls.

Women In Early America and First Generations: Women In Colonial America are both available at the Shapiro Undergraduate Library while The Ties That Buy and Learning to Stand And Speak can be found in the Hatcher Graduate Library.