Martha Bradstreet and the “Epithet of Woman”: A Story of Land, Libel, Litigation, and Legitimating “Unwomanly” Behavior in the Early Republic


Drawing upon a trove of recently discovered primary documents, this microhistorical essay reconstructs the life and legal experiences of Martha Bradstreet, a woman of some pedigree but limited means, who emigrated from Ireland in 1799 to recover a lost landed inheritance in central New York. Over the following three decades, in order to pursue her land claims, Bradstreet separated from and eventually divorced an oppressive husband, exonerated herself of malice charges, forcefully defended her credit and her character, launched dozens of law suits, and strenuously debated attorneys and judges both in court and in print. This essay investigates how Bradstreet justified her actions in a period when conceptions of appropriate gender behavior were narrowing. Bradstreet consistently deployed a creative rhetorical strategy that framed her “unwomanly” acts not as transgressions against the gendered order, but rather as consummately virtuous, maternal, and feminine. By subtly manipulating normative gender ideology, the essay concludes, Bradstreet was able to expand the realm of acceptable female behavior in the spheres of law, credit, reputation, and property.