- The Ties That Buy: Women and Commerce in Revolutionary America, and: First Lady of Letters: Judith Sargent Murray and the Struggle for Female Independence
When the late Jeanne Boydston published Home and Work in 1990, she not only proved that women’s work was essential to the development of America’s industrial economy but also revealed how the growing invisibility of women’s work sustained the operating assumptions of political economy in the early nineteenth century. This dual contribution revolutionized scholarship on gender and economy in the early republic. Boydston’s work ripped down the veil that had obscured women’s role in the American marketplace. Two decades later, historians are still responding to Boydston’s challenge, and the results continue to be fascinating and important.
The two books under review here, the first by Ellen Hartigan-O’Connor and the second by Sheila Skemp, both have taken on Boydston’s task of exploring female economics in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, albeit in very different ways. Hartigan-O’Connor creates an intricate and richly detailed picture of the commercial culture of Charleston and Newport, arguing as she does so that “women were not exempt from [commercial] aspects of urban life; they were central to them” (12). In contrast, Skemp examines just one woman’s life: that of Judith Sargent Murray. But this portrait looks beyond Murray’s public accomplishments and literary aspirations and painfully exposes her daily financial woes as well as her not insignificant economic savvy. As Skemp herself points out, Murray did “business like a merchant” (316). Although it may not have been Skemp’s initial purpose, what these two books do together is make us question precisely what doing business really meant in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.
Hartigan-O’Connor’s The Ties That Buy provides a captivating answer to this question. In each chapter she provides a nuanced exploration of a particular aspect of commercial culture as experienced by the women of Charleston and Newport. She starts with “the smallest knot in a web of economic ties,” the “houseful.” Unlike the more conventional unit of the household, the term “houseful” describes the assorted groups of people who crowded into a house to work, live, or do both at the same time. The combinations are too varied to describe in full, but Hartigan-O’Connor [End Page 648] skilfully unravels the ways that these arrangements provided women with economic opportunities from subletting space, to running a business, to having access to child care. The scene she sets is a salutary reminder that the trope of domesticity cannot be used to describe the home life of many urban early Americans. The renters and boarders, the laborers and laundresses, the slaves and serving girls all formed part of a “revolving door of local labor” that defined the service economy of Atlantic port cities (28). It is a striking picture, reconstructed for us with great care.
The houseful is only Hartigan-O’Connor’s starting point. From here she goes on to discuss women’s flexible and highly adaptable market participation, their abilities to use and manipulate credit, debt and cash, and their collaborative efforts as consumers. Above all she paints a picture of women who were highly attentive to the risks and rewards of the Atlantic economy, and whose activities helped to grease the wheels of the urban commercial machine. Each chapter offers a further insight on the economy of the early republic, but of these, it is her decision to collapse the old dichotomy of production and consumption that is most useful.
Pointing to the ways in which women turned their labor into commodities and their consumer goods into cash, Hartigan-O’Connor reveals a highly fluid marketplace. In it, women acted neither as producers or consumers but as individuals...