The Women of Early Modern North America: New Evidence of Vital Roles

By Schwartz, Vanette | Resources for Gender and Women's Studies: A Feminist Review, Summer 2016 | Go to article overview

The Women of Early Modern North America: New Evidence of Vital Roles


Schwartz, Vanette, Resources for Gender and Women's Studies: A Feminist Review


Thomas A. Foster, ed., WOMEN IN EARLY AMERICA. New York University Press, 2015. 294p. notes, index, pap., $28.00, ISBN 978-1479890477.

"[O]ne of the oldest feminist critiques of the field of history ... remains remarkably relevant" today, writes editor Thomas Foster in his introduction to this volume:

   It is still largely acceptable for
   men to be portrayed as the
   universal historical subject.
   Authors still present their
   works as complete histories
   while focusing almost exclusively
   on the experiences and
   writings of male subjects,
   (p. 3)

To challenge that disparity as well as "the imbalance that privileges modernity over the more distant past" (p. 3), Foster has gathered eleven essays that provide new evidence for the vital economic, political, and social roles women played in the early modern North American world. The era of exploration and settlement brought women new roles and challenges as well as new opportunities to exercise power and influence.

The introduction's subtitle, "Crossing Boundaries, Rewriting Histories," is the overarching theme of the contributors' essays as well as of the actions of the women they describe. Each author's use of existing or newly discovered sources reveals how women challenged traditional social, economic, and political authority as well as gendered power relationships.

The book's content ranges geographically --in the nomenclature and the borders of the times--from New France and New Netherland to New Spain and the West Indies. The focus of the essays reaches beyond the often-studied elite to encompass Native Americans as well as slaves and indentured servants. The authors examine their subjects through a range of conceptual and theoretical lenses, from feminist and critical race theory to environmental history and literary criticism (p. 1).

Ramon A. Gutierrez's essay on seventeenth-century New Mexico tells of an elite woman forced to live with the consequences of her husband's political and economic conflicts as well as his sexual exploits. Both Dona Teresa de Aguilera y Roche and her husband ran afoul of the Catholic Church and were imprisoned by the Inquisition. Dona Teresa challenged the Church's power and eventually won her freedom. Gutierrez interweaves Dona Teresa's story with the culture of indigenous people, the power struggles between the upper class and slaves and servants, and the religious practices and discord in what was then called New Spain.

Kim Todt studied the women of colonial New Netherland, finding that "Dutch women ... experienced more economic, legal, and personal freedoms than their sisters in English colonies" (p. 45). Basic Dutch education focused on literacy and numeracy for both boys and girls, and adult women not only maintained households but also frequently managed shops and handled business for their husbands. As the Dutch presence in North America diminished, however, the roles of their women gradually came to resemble those of English women.

Karen L. Marrero explores how, in the Great Lakes and Detroit areas of the region known as New France, "French, Native, and mixed blood women navigated and expressed their authority in the multicultural world shaped by French-Native trade" (p. 160). Haudenosaunee women exercised power in their matrilineal society, especially in matters of peace and war, and French and mixed-blood women developed the skills to move easily between Indian and imperial French cultures. This French-Native culture had "transitional" aspects, with "family and gender arrangements in flux" (p. 164).

Christine Walker's essay looks in detail at slaveholding by women in Jamaica. Both white women and women of color inherited slaves, bought them for their own use, or derived rental income from slave labor. In contrast, Erica Armstrong Dunbar tells the little-known saga of fugitive slave On a Judge, who was owned by President George Washington before her escape. …

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