- Theorizing Women's Political Agency from the Margins of Hannah Mather Crocker's Reminiscences and Traditions of Boston
Hannah Mather Crocker (1752-1829) crafted a complex story about women and early American politics in her 459-page manuscript history of her home city, weaving poems by herself and other eighteenth-century women within her Reminiscences and Traditions of Boston (c. 1829). Her Reminiscences underscored the predicament of her fellow educated American women who supported the democratic ideals of the revolution against Britain but who were not always encouraged to share their political ideas in public (Kelley 32, 52, 114; Zagarri, Revolutionary Backlash 170). Taken together, the poems by Crocker and other female Bostonians—Sarah Kemble Knight, Jane Colman Turell, Sarah Parsons Moorhead, and Phillis Wheatley—tell a tale of how women could overcome this predicament by strategically redrawing the gendered lines between public and private in how they engage in political speech. Writing was a time-tested means by which women could productively exercise their agency in politics despite their gender's lack of formal citizenship in the new Republic. Although she lived before the term feminist was coined, Crocker was feminist in the abstract, conceptual sense that she conducted a kind of creative literary activism that criticized patriarchy and male privilege on behalf of the well-being of women as a group (Offen 19-20). By reading her Remniscences, and especially her marginalia at the back of the book, we see that Crocker situated herself within the grand tradition of Boston women who wrote poetry as a political, and often feminist, intervention in the early American public sphere (Bennett 1-39; Eastman 52-82; Gustafson 41-70).
The choice of the genres of poetry and poetic anthology as vehicles for social and political criticism allowed post-Revolutionary American women, [End Page 149] such as Crocker and Milcah Moore of Philadelphia, a long-respected way to be not only morally didactic but also robustly political in the private and public spheres (Bennett 28-31; Blecki 63, 69, 72, 79; Wulf 41, 57). Indeed, such early Republican acts of preserving American women's voices and achievements—in commonplace books, miscellanies, well-circulated manuscripts, women's historical narratives, wax museums, and other (often male-dominated) cultural repositories such as the American Antiquarian Society—confounded the public-private distinction and its gendered implications (Harris; Henle; Stabile). Like the historian Mary Kelley, I interpret Crocker's contribution to this trend in the context of the broader efforts of many post-Revolutionary women to use education (including speech and writing) as a liberating process for their gender (Kelley 32, 52, 114). Crocker's leadership of the late eighteenth-century St. Ann's Lodge (a Masonic women's educational circle) and the 1810s School of Industry for poor girls, both in her native Boston, are concrete realizations of her feminist educational principles (Botting, "Ascending" 977-79; Copeland; Kidd). She publicly defended these principles in their abstract form with her prose essay A Series of Letters on Freemasonry by a Lady of Boston (1815) and her philosophical treatise Observations on the Real Rights of Women (1818).
With the composition of her Reminiscences during the 1820s, Crocker moved into another genre—but with the same feminist principles and goals in mind. Her last major work shared the creative storytelling approach of prominent female historians of the early Republic, as Sharon M. Harris demonstrated in her 2003 anthology Women's Early American Historical Narratives. Perhaps because of the egalitarian educational legacy of the colonial-era Congregationalists, the Massachusetts Bay area produced a sizable group of female intellectuals who wrote rich and artistic historical stories. Drawing on literature, local culture, religious faith, and personal experience, they wrote regional and national histories of epic scale and heroic import as part of the broader post-Revolutionary project of constructing the political identity of the United States and its potentially radical idea of equal citizenship. Prominently working in this narrative genre that defies reduction to either literature or history were the Bay-area women Judith Sargent Murray, Mercy Otis Warren, and Crocker's friend Hannah Adams. As with Murray's Gleaner (1798), which used the story of Margaretta to...