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Chapter 4 Translating Money A sheaf of promissory notes distributed throughout the city marked a woman as a person of credit but not necessarily of wealth. From tax lists with only a sprinkling of female names to poorhouse rolls dominated by them, official city records tell a tale of relative female poverty. These records support conclusions that have guided our understanding of women and money in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries : that most free married women’s wealth was controlled by their husbands ; that many unmarried women were too poor to possess enough property to be taxed; and that those unmarried women who did have taxable wealth tended to have less, overall, than men.1 Legal restrictions and contemporary ideas about gender conspired to make the fully autonomous woman of independent wealth a relatively rare creature and her struggling, dependent counterpart a familiar one in urban port cities.2 Given the laws of coverture (which denied married women economic autonomy) and dower (which granted widows the right to use only a portion of the estate), free female relationships to property and female participation in commercial culture were often contingent and mediated through male capital and male economic activity. Enslaved women lacked even this connection, since under law they had no property rights, and only the use of money permitted to them by their owners. From the standpoint of these structural limitations, it might not even make sense to talk about “women and money,” because rank—membership in a planter family, in a community of artisans, a group of day laborers, a family of slaves—mattered more in placing individuals within the wealth structure of the city than did gender.3 But urban women of many ranks used money every day, because city economies and connections depended upon money. Female city dwellers shared a combination of legal disabilities and fluid occupational identities that meant that women, free and enslaved, were less likely to be wealth holders, but they were regular wealth users. As a group, most women encountered money not as pieces of gold or acres of land but as inked lines in an account book, paper money in hand, or the 102 Chapter 4 value of their own or their laborers’ bodies. In other words, “money” meant “earnings” and “prices” to them, translated into common units of value. Those units of value were in the process of profound flux in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, a period often referred to as the “transition to capitalism.” Banks, paper money, wage labor, and corporations all became common features of the economy and shaped how people thought about the daily use and political consequences of money.4 In the years after the Revolution, private enterprise replaced colonial government control of the economy and commercial banks replaced a public money system. If personal credit—whether book debt, bond, or promissory note—threatened to enslave individuals to the whims of others, cash promised to set them free. The rise of the cash nexus seemed to offer impersonality and uniformity, since the value of a one-dollar note did not depend upon the bearer’s deference to her neighbors. The experiences of urban women clearly demonstrate, however, that the same kinds of ties that made daily use of credit possible bound cash itself to personal considerations. The result was a far less transparent, freeing medium than abstract thoughts about money suggested to men eager to proclaim their “independence.” After all, ten shillings in the pocket of an enslaved woman was no ticket to freedom if she was forced to spend the money on her home plantation. Women’s experiences of money as a product of relationships between individuals rather than between the individual and the state underscore how socially bound cash was. In some cases, cash dissolved hierarchical ties, but in others, it reinforced them, because even this most fungible and transparent form of money was what Viviana Zelizer calls a “socially created currency, subject to particular networks of social relations and its own set of values and norms.”5 New forms of money did not escape their social context; they gained meaning within those contexts. The human intention that moved money from one hand to another also defined it. The fact that social relationships always shaped the cultural significance of money was an important continuity in women’s lives from the colonial through the early national period. What changed was that ideas about money became a central way for...


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