We are in March, Woman’s History Month. I decided to write a review of the book, “First Generations Women in Colonial America,” by CUNY professor Carol Berkin.
Berkin attempts to present to readers the lives of women in colonial times from a feminist perspective. She uses archives, historical documents, diaries, court records, letters, wills, property titles and the like as sources for her work. With these, she puts together a perspective about particular women in their distinct region and time periods and uses the sources to paint a picture of their lives.
The book in a sense serves as a supplement to history topics discussed in history classes. History courses often offers general details on events while this book gives a more personal look at the history by detailing the lives of several women and how they lived in their respective time and place. The book’s chapters primarily begin by giving a look at the life of a particular woman.
Mary Cole of Maryland is mentioned first. She is a woman living in Maryland in a time where woman had little rights. Women at the time had to basically marry in order to be considered for any social position or wealth. At the death of a husband, women were often left abandoned without anything. They could not inherit their husband’s wealth or property unless a will or instruction was made indicating this transfer. Many times wealth and property were left to widows with some conditions. Some of the conditions called for the possession of lands and other businesses to remain within the family and not passed along to other men a widow might marry. Many times land and wealth were left solely so the widow can care for any children the couple may have had.
The next chapter starts with Hannah Duston of New England. She lives in the time of the “Puritan experiment.” This is when members of the Puritan sect settled in New England and started colonies that were based on fundamentalist interpretations of the Bible. Just like with women in Maryland, women in New England had similar limitations in regards to social status, rights and possession.
Women were not allowed to have much of a say in Puritan religious gatherings, but in a sense did control the leaders. Berkins suggests that gossip and reputation were often used to control the leaders of the town. Being that Puritans were expected to be “pure,” they were very meticulous of their reputation. Some used this to their advantage. The Witch Trials of Salem are an example.
Women of a particular social class and wealth accused others of a different social and wealth class of witchcraft. Duston was seen as a hero after with the help of others, killed her Indian captives and brought back their scalps as a sign of victory.
Wetamo of New England is the next woman mentioned. She is of the Wampanoag people and has a prominent leadership role among them. She struggles for her people in a time where suspicion and friction exist among settlers and Natives. Berkin gives a little background on Wetamo and then on the comparisons and contrasts between how the Natives saw love, marriage, family, sex and other facets of society. The settlers valued marriage, while the Natives had premarital relationships. Marriage was a concept they really did not expound upon in their culture. This is where settlers attempted to convert the Natives in order to assimilate them into their understanding of marriage, sex and so on.
I enjoyed the book. As I wrote in the first paragraph, it gives a personal detailed account of the lives of important women in American history. More personal details are given about the lives of women which is hard to do in a history course. Events and dates are fine to learn, but this book actually gives accounts of real people and how they lived, thought and functioned in Colonial times. It puts a “face” on history. The book puts into perspective the reality of the time and how women in particular were treated and how they were seen compared to men.
If you are a history enthusiast or feminist looking to learn more about woman’s history in early America, then this book is for you. It is well researched and a good read.