- Goodnight Ladies
What is women’s relationship to the state? This question has been the meat of modern U.S. women’s history for generations, but most early Americanists have proved to be stubbornly disinterested in the intersections of traditional political and history and women’s lives. This was not always the case—in fact, two of the pioneering studies on women in early America were propelled by this question. More than thirty years ago, both Mary Beth Norton’s Liberty’s Daughters and Linda K. Kerber’s Women of the Republic explored the foundational moment of the United States in its Revolution to evaluate free women’s relationship to the emerging American state. In an age of democratic revolutions, both authors concluded that, while free women’s work was important to the success of the Revolution, the women’s revolution had yet to come. Kerber pointed the way toward a new American political history that would have to grapple with Republican Motherhood as a force in nineteenth century U.S. politics, but otherwise Kerber and Norton agreed: by 1820 or so, it was goodnight ladies.1 Their daughters and granddaughters would have to take up the question of women’s relationship to the state at mid-century in Seneca Falls.
But what happened before the hullabaloo of 1765, 1776, or 1787? What have early American historians had to say about that? The exciting avalanche of scholarship on women in early America that followed in the wake of Norton’s and Kerber’s path-breaking books had little to say about women’s relationship to politics or the state, preferring instead to weave a tapestry of local studies and microhistories focused on the micropolitics of colonial households, communities, and kinship groups.2 This [End Page 170] rich historiography explored not just women’s lives and experiences, but embraced gender as a category of historical analysis. In the 1990s, it expanded to include books and articles that explored the intersectionality of race and class, as well as gender, in early America.3 This allowed us to see and recover so many women’s lives—in particular, the lives of women who were erased by English common law and the U.S. state not just by virtue of their sex, but also because of their class or ethnicity. Other recent studies that crossed imperial or national political borders further marginalized the question of women’s relationship to the U.S. state, as the Revolution in Philadelphia was utterly peripheral to women living in Santa Fe, New Orleans, or Fort Michilimackinac.4 Questions about women’s involvement in Anglo-American politics and debates over women’s rights were either marginal or non-existent in these studies.
All three of the books under consideration in this essay return us to the relationship between women and the state, and, read together, they permit us to see how this relationship fluctuates (and doubles back on itself) over the longue durée from 1600 to the middle of the nineteenth century in the English colonies and the early U.S. Republic. On its surface, Elaine Forman Crane’s Witches, Wife Beaters, and Whores: Common Law and Common Folk in Early America appears to be a book more along the lines of the microhistories focused on race, class, and gender, and it is also that, too. In fact, Crane describes the book as a collection of microhistories to serve “as the lens through which aspects of early American legal culture will be explored,” which she intends to be “an engaging way of reimagining the meaning...