A Nation of Women chronicles changing ideas of gender
and identity among the Delaware Indians from the mid-seventeenth
through the eighteenth century, as they encountered various waves
of migrating peoples in their homelands along the eastern coast of
In Delaware society at the beginning of this period, to be a woman
meant to engage in the activities performed by women, including
diplomacy, rather than to be defined by biological sex. Among the
Delaware, being a "woman" was therefore a self-identification,
employed by both women and men, that reflected the complementary
roles of both sexes within Delaware society. For these reasons, the
Delaware were known among Europeans and other Native American
groups as "a nation of women."
Decades of interaction with these other cultures gradually eroded
the positive connotations of being a nation of women as well as the
importance of actual women in Delaware society. In Anglo-Indian
politics, being depicted as a woman suggested weakness and evil.
Exposed to such thinking, Delaware men struggled successfully to
assume the formal speaking roles and political authority that women
once held. To salvage some sense of gender complementarity in
Delaware society, men and women redrew the lines of their duties
more rigidly. As the era came to a close, even as some Delaware
engaged in a renewal of Delaware identity as a masculine nation,
others rejected involvement in Christian networks that threatened
to disturb the already precarious gender balance in their social
Drawing on all available European accounts, including those in
Swedish, German, and English, Fur establishes the centrality of
gender in Delaware life and, in doing so, argues for a new
understanding of how different notions of gender influenced all
interactions in colonial North America.
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