Download
Action Filename Size Access Description License

Abstract

This work explores women’s acts of violence in colonial Massachusetts, from the mundane to the extraordinary, within the unique cultural environment of Puritan New England. A continuum of violence appeared in almost all aspects of women’s lives in this period and place, extending from the household to larger society. That such behavior was both practically and morally possible—even acceptable—for women reveals in new ways how pervasive violence was in this Puritan culture. Tracing the acceptable limits of women’s violent behavior also places into stark relief the underlying, yet oftentimes unspoken, priorities that shaped this society. A unique confluence of social, cultural, and religious forces was at work in seventeenth-century Massachusetts, and the push and pull of these elements determined how women conducted their lives. Pressure to conform to the ideals of Puritan womanhood—and thus preserve their reputation in the eyes of the community and authorities—existed alongside women’s imperative to protect the interests of their households and kin groups. The interaction between these forces was neither straightforward nor one-sided. The uncertainties of life and the ubiquity of everyday violence in early New England encouraged some women to act aggressively, bolstered by an English cultural tradition of female violence that lingered in the colonies. Yet, women risked exposing themselves to community censure and official condemnation. My research shows that the good wives of colonial New England could use moderate physical aggression in their roles as mothers, mistresses, and even neighbors without challenging these societal expectations for their gender. They could maintain the “dignity of anonymity” while ensuring the obedience of servants and children, or protecting family property from unscrupulous neighbors, by force if necessary. Most colonial women who engaged in violent behavior were not asserting individual power or challenging structures of authority. Even in its dramatic forms—when women’s actions dragged them into the public eye—violence by colonial Englishwomen rarely functioned as social protest or rebellion, regardless of how it was interpreted by authorities. Instead, most aggressive actions by women had conservative aims, dedicated to ensuring household security, property, or social standing. Seventeenth-century Massachusetts was a routinely violent world. Hangings, whippings, brandings, and other forms of public corporeal punishment took place in the village square. Communities relied on such practices to maintain order, and they established a baseline acceptability of violence that informed the rest of colonial life. The tasks to which most seventeenth-century colonial women dedicated their lives also brought them into intimate contact with many forms of violence. Women, including mistresses of households, commonly slaughtered pigs and other livestock when preparing food. Necessity dictated that women were also very familiar with blood and bloodshed in the colonial period. The household functioned as an old people's home, hospital, and welfare institution in early American life. Women took responsibility for the care of the very young, the aged, injured and afflicted. Especially in more remote frontier areas, a housewife’s abilities were essential for the survival of her family and that of her neighbors. My work focuses on Essex County, Massachusetts, which possessed a diversity of settlements in terms of size, development, wealth, and religiosity. This enables me to explore a wide swath of women’s experiences, and I have discovered that women were involved in an array of violent deeds, from attacking Indians to abusing magistrates, fighting with husbands, over-correcting children and servants, and quarreling with neighbors. A minority in the criminal record, women nonetheless also committed acts of deadly violence against neighbors and intruders, as well as some of the most vulnerable members of their own families. While the wealthiest and most prominent women in the colony were rarely brought to court as violent offenders, for women of more common means and social standing, property and attendance at meeting did not prevent them from committing violent actions. In order to avoid underestimating the extent of physical violence in this society, my definition of “violence” is both broader and narrower than what was used in the seventeenth century. I define violence as the deliberate exercise of physical force against a person or property. In early modern societies, “violence” was used to refer not only to a physical altercation, but also to vehemence or intensity of emotion, behavior, or language. The term was used to delegitimize particular actions. In colonial New England, physical aggression was labeled as “violence” when it was seen as disorderly, or opposed to the public order. Colonial authorities’ willingness to tolerate women’s violent behavior on behalf of the interests of their families or kin groups varied significantly depending on how visible and overt their actions were, and whether those interests aligned with the needs of society as a whole. While women’s motivations for a variety of violent actions remained consistent, how their actions were received differed greatly. Open unruliness was seen as particularly disruptive when perpetrated by a woman. However, a mother beating a child behind closed doors, even brutally, was often deemed a necessary course of action to preserve household order. An act like infanticide, however, reflected Puritans’ concerns about the crime as a signal of both sexual wantonness and alienation from the community and, thus, could never be rectified with community standards of behavior, regardless of the women’s motivations behind it. Some more visible acts of violence could be acceptable, within specific contexts. In the eyes of Essex County magistrates, attacking an Indian enemy in a time of war, for instance, could be regarded as beneficial to the colonial community at large, and thus, worthy of praise. Magistrates judged violence against colonial officials, however, to be against the interests of the community in general, and, thus, disruptive, and unacceptable. Puritans’ militant brand of reformed Protestantism contributed to a cultural milieu of tolerance for physical violence. This emerged most strongly in the context of anti-Indian violence during the seventeenth-century Indian Wars, but acceptance of more everyday violent behavior by women extended beyond battlefields. While the Puritan leadership of seventeenth-century Massachusetts took a strong stance against unruliness, my research shows that authorities were loath to intervene in response to violent action alone, even when women were the perpetrators. Puritanism in the New World allowed such inter-personal violence to continue in the midst of rhetoric urging obedience and order because women’s violent actions were frequently in service to these ideals. More pressing concerns—such as such as dissent, sexual indiscretion, and slander—overshadowed Puritan apprehensions regarding women and physical violence. My research makes a significant contribution to the field by constructing a more multi-faceted, if not necessarily attractive, image of colonial women’s interests, struggles, and capacity for violence. It also reveals the everyday acceptance of violence in their society; “violent” women could still be “virtuous,” and vice versa. Another goal of this project is to demonstrate commonalities between women’s various acts of violence. Upon closer examination, types of violence by women that appear completely different—such as over correcting children, attacking Indians, even infanticide —can be placed on a continuum, distributed by the circumstances in which they appear and the extremity of force used, but connected by common motivations. Scholarship has brought greater attention to women’s lives in colonial New England, but has not placed violence as a significant part of their realities. When scholars have examined violence, they have seen it as an anomaly or only as a product of a flawed system of social relations. When women have been portrayed as violent actors, their actions have been interpreted as chaffing against the restraints of a repressive system. My research pushes back against an interpretative model that defines men’s violence as “normal,” and thus, women’s violence as less important. In glossing over women’s violence as an aberration, we miss what can be learned by examining its cultural significance. In order to explore the motivations behind and responses to female violence in the colonial period—in women’s daily lives and in the context of war—my project has a chronological focus that spans most of the seventeenth and into the first few decades of eighteenth-century New England. It begins during a period of relative calm for Essex County, the 1630s, which enables me to understand how women experienced and employed violence in the course of their everyday lives. King Philip’s War (1675-1678) was a major event in the lives of New Englanders, male and female alike, and exploring women’s expressions of violence during that conflict, and the continuing conflicts in the northern regions of New England—King William’s War (1688-1697) and Queen Anne’s War (1702-1713)—allows me to demonstrate the far-reaching implications of those wars. Trends in Puritan rhetoric as the seventeenth century came to a close, and the Puritan leadership regrouped in the aftermath of war and political upheaval, need to be examined from the perspective of the early decades of the 1700s. Court records provide one of the few avenues through which historians can understand women’s place in the functioning of this society. Therefore, I rely on records and files from the Essex County Quarterly Court, the Massachusetts General Court, the Court of Assistants, and the Superior Court of Judicature as the frame on which I hang other historical documentation filling in personal and cultural contexts, like letters, sermon literature, and narrative histories. Seventeenth-century legal realities make measuring rates of violence difficult, particularly household violence. The evolution of its treatment by the courts makes charting instances of abuse that appeared before the court problematic as a reflection of actual rates of violence. By the time the seventeenth century came to a close, courts in Massachusetts, as elsewhere in New England, had lost interest in prosecuting cases of household violence. In addition, the criminal records of early New England are incomplete. Physical violence between spouses, or directed against children and servants, was frequently handled—when handled at all—by local justices of the peace whose records have failed to survive. When cases reached the courts, clerks were also casual in recording the victim’s age and relationship to his or her assailant. While it is difficult to calculate an accurate quantitative measure of the rates of female violence in seventeenth-century Massachusetts, exploring why and how women appeared before the court provides invaluable evidence of societal and personal standards of behavior. Changes in colonial laws, and how those laws were enforced, reflect how authorities’ concerns evolved in the seventeenth-century. Scholars’ focus on charting statistics to discern the larger societal effects of violence has meant that the lived experience of violence can often be overlooked. To try to capture women’s experiences, I have utilized women’s depositions as much as possible. These are some of the only evidence historians have of colonial women’s voices in the historical record. What women said about their own actions, and about their neighbors, sheds light on the priorities and codes of conduct that shaped their lives. The chapters of this dissertation are organized thematically. Chapter one, “The Limits of Household Violence: Order and Disorder” examines “household violence” by women. Both men and women were violent actors, but women’s violence appeared to be more consistently used to advance family needs and protect their interests. Also, this chapter reveals that community members and Puritan authorities hesitated to get involved in household affairs in response to violent actions alone. Chapter two, “From ‘That wicked house’: Women and Infanticide” explores the religious and social forces that led some women to conceal their illicit pregnancies and kill their infant children. In a society in which worth was measured by sexual reputation, infanticide was a terrible, but pragmatic, choice made by some women in a desperate effort to remain a part of society. How colonial Englishwomen used violence to protect their families’ interests during the turbulent period of the seventeenth-century Indian Wars is the subject of chapter three, “Englishwomen and Indian War.” Women on the war-torn frontier frequently had no choice but to respond to their Indian enemies with violence. Tired of the personal and financial costs of war, some women in southeastern communities attacked a less obvious foe: constables and tax collectors. Chapter four, “The Utility of Female Violence,” looks at how Puritan authorities repackaged women’s expressions of violence as literary tools in order to address the more news-worthy events of the moment, and reassert the authority of the colonial leadership during the political upheavals of the late seventeenth-century.

Details

Additional Details

Actions

from
to
Download Full History