Ebb Tide in New England: Women, Seaports, and Social Change, 1630-1800

By Kaufman, Polly Welts | Historical Journal of Massachusetts, Winter 2000 | Go to article overview

Ebb Tide in New England: Women, Seaports, and Social Change, 1630-1800


Kaufman, Polly Welts, Historical Journal of Massachusetts


Ebb Tide in New England Women, Seaports, and Social Change, 16301800. By Elaine Forman Crane. (Northeastern University Press, 360 Huntington Avenue, Boston, MA 02115), $50.00 cloth, $17.95 paper.

Using as her evidence an impressive number of public records and local history sources, Elaine Forman Crane argues that women became more and more dependent on men for their economic survival as the eighteenth century progressed. The author focuses her study on sources in the New England seaports of Boston and Salem, Massachusetts; Newport, Rhode Island; and Portsmouth, New Hampshire. She sets the American story in the context of English and French law and social theory.

The picture she presents is a grim one. She argues that as American society became more and more organized - more legalistic and more capitalistic - women came more firn-dy under the control of patriarchal values. She cites Gerda Lerner's thesis that as a state becomes more powerful, women lose their access to activity in the public sphere; that women have more agency in informal societies where government procedures and policies are more flexible. Crane believes that her study illuminates the roots of the feminization of poverty in the twentieth century.

She examines the role of women in the Protestant churches for her first cluster of evidence. Although women's membership in churches exceeded men's, she sees an erosion of women's power in the governance of those churches. Women received fewer appointments to visitation committees, had less say in the appointment of ministers, and, finally, as the century progressed, were more often referred to as "the wife of' or as a member of a family and not listed with their own names.

In other clusters of evidence, Crane looks at women in the economy and the legal systems of the seaports. She describes women's roles in producing and distributing food and clothing and fists a wide variety of women's occupations, but demonstrates that the percentage of women of wealth (indexed by their taxes) declined during the eighteenth century. The high incidence of widowed or women with husbands at sea in these communities led to an increase in the numbers of women in poverty who were dependent on public resources. As the market economy became more complex and required access to cash and to credit, Crane explains, women's economic independence declined. While women often received favorable settlements in seventeenth century courts, their situation changed in the eighteenth century as the law became more standardized. …

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