Early US Literature

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Tough Women

“The husband is called the Head of the Woman, it belongs to the Head to rule and govern…wives are part of the House and Family, and ought to be under the Husband’s Government.”  Benjamin Wadsworth, A Well Ordered Family (1712)

The role of women in colonial America is often characterized as subservient to that of men. Like today, many people believed that women were supposed to remain in home, and not meddle in the affairs of the men. These attitudes were most likely re-enforced by the strict, religious teachings that originally governed the Puritan and Quaker colonies. According Genesis, women were created as the helpmates of men, not equal or superior to them. However prevalent these attitudes were, not all women were content with the role assigned to them. Some women, like Anne Hutchinson and Anne Bradstreet challenged the status quo through their teaching and writing, while others, like Mary Rowlandson and Hannah Dunstan and other female captivity writers, showed women to be capable of strength, fortitude, and survival.

Anne Hutchinson is certainly one of the most studied women of early America. Her fight against the male ministers of Massachusetts Bay has been well documented and explored by scholars, simply because it was so unique for the time. Feminist writer Ben Barker-Benfield claims that in some ways Hutchinson “represented the emergence of dynamic individual consciousness as a potential for everyone after the Reformation” (65). Hutchinson’s actions, though ultimately punished by excommunication and banishment, awakened women to the fact that they had voices and opinions other than the one’s prescribed to them by men. John Winthrop feared Hutchinson’s growing influence, and as a result made a public example of her. This fear stemmed not only from the beliefs Hutchinson promoted, but also the fact that her acts were not “comely in the sight of God nor fitting for [her] sex” (Puritans 156). The issue was not just that the accusations were being made, but that they were being made by a woman.

Anne Bradstreet lived during the same time as Anne Hutchinson and shared more than just a name with her fellow Puritan sister. Like Hutchinson, Bradstreet also struggled against the male dominated culture, but rather than playing host to voices of dissent, Bradstreet turned her struggle into art. In her poem “The Prologue”, Bradstreet immediately tackles the issue of male dominance by writing

“I am obnoxious to each carping tongue
who says in my hand a needle better fits
a poet’s pen all scorn I should thus wrong
for such despite they cast on female wits” (25-28).

Bradstreet makes it clear early on in her work that she is well aware of the predominate opinion of women writers. Her willingness to write in spite of these opinions shows fortitude and strength similar to that of Hutchinson, but without the very public confrontation that Hutchinson’s so-called rebellion led to. Bradstreet entered the public discussion of sex and gender roles through her poetry. Works like “The Prologue”, “Of the Four Humours in Man’s Constitution”, and “Of the Four Ages of Man” all contain passages asserting feminine strength and ability. Tamara Harvey writes that “Bradstreet mounts a feminist challenge to sexist hierarchies through direct engagement of debates and conventions of her time” (25).

While Bradstreet and Hutchinson are widely recognized as having promoted an early feminist mindset, there are other women that were perhaps even more influential in the cause – whether they intended to or not. Indian (Native American) captivity narratives were some of the most popular works published during the colonial years. Mary Rowlandson’s The Sovereignty and Goodness of God  “went through four editions… and sold more than a thousand copies combined in American and England” (Captivity 3). The stories of other women, such as Hannah Dunstan and Elizabeth Hanson, were widely printed and disseminated as well. Given that these stories were reaching such a wide audience, it’s important to consider the effect of their content on the readers of the time.

Rowlandson’s tale is one of grit and survival. She holds back no details when describing the slaughter of the people in her village. She describes one man as having been “chopp’d into the Head with a Hatchet, and stripp’d naked, and yet was crawling up and down” (Rowlandson 14). This description seems more akin to a soldier’s recollection of battle than to the memoir of a Puritan woman. Likewise, Hannah Dunstan describes how the when captives became tired on their journey “Salvages would presently bury their Hatchets in their Brains and leave the Carcasses on the Ground for Birds and Beasts to Feed upon” (Dunstan 59). Later, Dunstan further sheds her femininity by scalping the Indians during her escape and forcing the Legislature to pay her for them.

The ability of these women to not only survive such brutal conditions, but to escape and relate the story later, implies a certain strength that was not often spoken of in regard to the “weaker sex.” It’s hard to believe that women reading these stories would not be somehow endowed with a sense of empowerment, or at the very least, the belief that given the right circumstances, a woman could embrace traditionally male qualities such as strength and power. Dunstan became so widely regarded as a hero that in the nineteenth century, not one, but two statues were erected in her honor. These women may not have intended to empower women, but their narratives certainly detailed the incredible strength women were capable of. 

Works Cited

Barker-Benfield, Ben. “Anne Hutchinson and the Puritan Attitude Toward Women”. Feminist Studies. 1.2 (1972): 65-96. Web. 30 July 2013.

Bradstreet, Anne. “The Prologue.” Puritans in America: A Narrative Anthology. Eds. Alan Heimert and Andrew Delbanco. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1985. 131. Print.

Harvey, Tamera. “‘Now Sisters Impart Your Usefulnesse, and Force’ Anne Bradstreet’s Feminist Functionalism in The Tenth Muse (1650).” Early American Literature. 35.1 (2000): 5-28. Web. 29 July 2013.

Derounian-Stodola, Kathryn Zabelle. Women’s Indian Captivity Narratives. New York: Penguin, 1998. Print.

Dunstan, Hannah. “A Notable Exploit; wherein, Dux Faemina Facti.” Women’s Indian Captivity Narratives. Ed. Kathryn Zabelle Derounian-Stodola. New York. Penguin, 1998. 58-60. Print.

Rowlandson, Mary. “The Sovereignty and Goodness of God.” Women’s Indian Captivity Narratives. Ed. Kathryn Zabelle Derounian-Stodola. New York: Penguin, 1998. 3-51. Print.

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