Separated by Their Sex

Separated by Their Sex: Women in Public and Private in the Colonial Atlantic World

Mary Beth Norton
Copyright Date: 2011
Edition: 1
Published by: Cornell University Press
Pages: 272
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    Separated by Their Sex
    Book Description:

    In Separated by Their Sex, Mary Beth Norton offers a bold genealogy that shows how gender came to determine the right of access to the Anglo-American public sphere by the middle of the eighteenth century. Earlier, high-status men and women alike had been recognized as appropriate political actors, as exemplified during and after Bacon's Rebellion by the actions of-and reactions to-Lady Frances Berkeley, wife of Virginia's governor. By contrast, when the first ordinary English women to claim a political voice directed group petitions to Parliament during the Civil War of the 1640s, men relentlessly criticized and parodied their efforts. Even so, as late as 1690 Anglo-American women's political interests and opinions were publicly acknowledged.

    Norton traces the profound shift in attitudes toward women's participation in public affairs to the age's cultural arbiters, including John Dunton, editor of the Athenian Mercury, a popular 1690s periodical that promoted women's links to husband, family, and household. Fittingly, Dunton was the first author known to apply the word "private" to women and their domestic lives. Subsequently, the immensely influential authors Richard Steele and Joseph Addison (in the Tatler and the Spectator) advanced the notion that women's participation in politics-even in political dialogues-was absurd. They and many imitators on both sides of the Atlantic argued that women should confine themselves to home and family, a position that American women themselves had adopted by the 1760s. Colonial women incorporated the novel ideas into their self-conceptions; during such "private" activities as sitting around a table drinking tea, they worked to define their own lives. On the cusp of the American Revolution, Norton concludes, a newly gendered public-private division was firmly in place.

    eISBN: 978-0-8014-6089-0
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Preface
    (pp. xi-xvi)
  5. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xvii-xx)
  6. List of Abbreviations
    (pp. xxi-xxiv)
  7. Introduction
    (pp. 1-8)

    The contrasting observations of Sir Robert Filmer, the English political theorist, and an anonymous New Yorker, penned about a century apart, summed up contemporary understandings of women’s relationship to politics and governance at the time each author wrote his essay. As was commonplace in the seventeenth century, Filmer, proclaiming women’s potential political and military abilities, cited Queen Elizabeth I for evidence of the truth of his assertion. The eighteenth-century American, by contrast, ignored her and all other female monarchs. Moreover, he referred to women in a manner that would have been alien to Filmer, since the term fair sex as...

  8. Chapter 1 Lady Frances Berkeley and Virginia Politics, 1675–1678
    (pp. 9-36)

    The rebel and councillor Nathaniel Bacon, flanked by his fusiliers, confronted Governor Sir William Berkeley and his council outside the state house in Jamestown during the early afternoon of June 23, 1676. The dramatic events that followed so impressed a witness, Thomas Mathew, that he could still describe the scene vividly almost three decades later. “We Saw from the Window the Governour open his Breast, and Bacon strutting betwixt his Two files of Men with his Left Arm on Kenbow [akimbo] flinging his Right Arm every Way both like men Distracted.” What Mathew and others inside the state house could...

  9. Mistress Alice Tilly and Her Supporters, 1649–1650
    (pp. 37-40)

    Although Lady Frances Culpeper Stephens Berkeley and some of her high-ranking Virginia contemporaries moved comfortably in the political arena, seventeenth-century Anglo-American women of ordinary rank did not do so with equal assurance. Assumptions that women of high standing could claim political authority did not translate into notions that lower-status wives and mothers were appropriate state actors, even as supplicants.

    A set of female-authored petitions submitted to the Massachusetts General Court in 1649–50 exposed most colonial women’s uncertainty about venturing into the realm of politics. The 217 signatories to five closely related petitions sought the release of Mistress Alice Tilly,...

  10. Chapter 2 English Women in the Public Realm, 1642–1653
    (pp. 41-70)

    “Wee your poore petitioners,” the authors explained, were “imbouldned” to address the House of Lords because conditions in the nation were deteriorating rapidly. In early February 1641/2, the economy was in ruins, with trade in “decay”; Irish Catholics had revolted against English rule; and both “Church, and Common wealth” desperately needed reformation. The supplicants warned of the dangers posed by those “disaffected to the publique good” and asked that such people suffer proper punishment. Another petition, submitted to the Commons the same day by the same group and later published, repeated those observations but also vigorously criticized the House of...

  11. Mistress Elinor James and Her Broadsides, 1681–1714
    (pp. 71-75)

    Elinor James, a London printer of the late seventeenth century, was of middling background but always called herself Mrs., or mistress, implying higher than ordinary status. Appropriately dubbed the “She-State-Politician,” she produced more political writing than any other woman of her day. Nearly one hundred of her broadsides and pamphlets have survived, and more certainly existed. Over a period of more than thirty-five years, from the early 1680s to the mid-1710s, she regularly published her opinions on the monarchy, Parliament, the Church of England, and policies of the mayor and aldermen of the City of London, where she lived. Lest...

  12. Chapter 3 John Dunton and the Invention of the Feminine Private
    (pp. 76-104)

    John Dunton had his finger on the pulse of late-seventeenth-century English culture. A printer and bookseller, Dunton in 1691 founded the most successful periodical of his day, the Athenian Gazette, or Casuistical Mercury, commonly known as the Athenian Mercury.¹ A little-known predecessor of the more famous Tatler and Spectator, the Athenian Mercury catered to the male denizens of London’s coffeehouses and to a growing number of women who, whether or not they patronized such establishments, nevertheless participated in the same intellectual world. Dunton’s periodical invited its readers to enter into dialogue with the editors, and in so doing it opened...

  13. Mistress Sarah Kemble Knight and Her Journal, 1704
    (pp. 105-108)

    Mistress Sarah Knight, a thirty-eight-year-old Bostonian, set out in early October 1704 to travel to New Haven to settle the estate of her sister’s husband, and then in December went on to Manhattan to perform similar tasks related to the estate of her oldest brother. She traveled by horseback on the post road, accompanied by the post rider or by local guides. The journey itself was unusual enough for a lone woman, but what made it truly remarkable was the journal that described her experiences, which she probably composed after her return to Boston from notes she made each night...

  14. Chapter 4 Women and Politics, Eighteenth Century–Style
    (pp. 109-139)

    In 1697, an anonymous pamphleteer published A Letter to a Gentlewoman concerning Government, directed to a possibly apocryphal elite female Protestant who still aligned herself with the deposed James II. Why, he asked, when “the best and wisest Statesmen” in England supported King William, did “Ladies, who generally know little or nothing of State Affairs,” support the ousted Stuart monarch? Flattering the addressee by terming her “very sensible,” he carefully laid out arguments for William and Mary’s claim to the throne and reasons to reject a strict hereditary succession, which would have favored the son born to James in 1688....

  15. Lady Chatham and Her Correspondents, 1740s–1760s
    (pp. 140-143)

    Few if any eighteenth-century women in Britain or America could claim better political connections than Hester Grenville Pitt. Born in 1720 and married in 1754, she was the sister of one prime minister (George Grenville), wife of another (William Pitt the elder, Lord Chatham), and mother of a third (William Pitt the younger). She grew up surrounded by politics; her oldest brother, Richard, later Earl Temple, entered Parliament when she was just fourteen. Her brothers Richard and George and her husband-to-be, William Pitt, who was first elected to Parliament in 1735, were avid critics of Sir Robert Walpole during the...

  16. Chapter 5 Consolidating the Feminine Private
    (pp. 144-174)

    The sixteen-year-old Benjamin Franklin entered the world of publishing in an April 1722 issue of the New-England Courant in the guise of Silence Dogood, the widow of a rural clergyman.¹ Informing her readers that before her marriage she had been the ward of her older husband, Silence explained that the clergyman “endeavour’d that I might be instructed in all that Knowledge and Learning which is necessary for our Sex, and deny’d me no Accomplishment that could possibly be attained in a Country Place.” Widowed after seven years of marriage during which she bore three children, Silence described herself as “an...

  17. Conclusion: Defining “Women”
    (pp. 175-182)

    Before approximately 1700, ordinary female Anglo-Americans were likely to be thought of—and to think of themselves—not as a single group denominated women, but rather in a series of different roles, primarily defined by a sequence of family relationships: maid, wife, mother, widow, and the like. Female aristocrats of any age or marital status, for their part, were commonly lumped together as “gentlewomen,” an indication that for them rank generally took precedence over other determinants of social standing. Thus the early 1640s petitioners to Parliament termed themselves “gentle-women and trades-men’s wives,” “trades-mens wives and widdowes,” or stated, in the...

  18. Notes
    (pp. 183-240)
  19. Index
    (pp. 241-248)