"Not All Wives": The Problem
of Marriage in Early America
Amid the turmoil of England's seventeenth-century civil wars, women petitioners to Parliament openly questioned the gender distinctions in English legal practice, which treated men as individuals but women collectively as dependents. Should "any of our lives, limbs, liberties or goods to be taken from us more than from men," they asked, except "by due process of law?" 1. Such petitions ran up against the bulwark of early modern English patriarchy: the idea that women, like children and servants, were inherently dependent creatures. Thus Parliament, in those cases when it responded to the women at all, suggested that they go back to their homes, to the fold of their husbands' protection and rule, and that they rely on their husbands to represent the interests of their households in public. The women's varied responses identified a problem that remained central to the battle that Anglo-American seventeenth- and eighteenth-century feminists waged over the relationship of gender to power, state and otherwise. The English petitioners put it most succinctly when they claimed their right to be heard, because "we are not all wives."2.
To conflate women and wives was to assume subordinance and dependence; to distinguish between the two, as these petitioners demanded, was to understand the legal and cultural constructions that bound all wives but not all women. This book sets out to meet the challenge of incorporating into our historical knowledge these seventeenth‐ century petitioners' insight. In particular this study explores how ideas about gender, rooted in assumptions about women's positions as wives,____________________