Women in Early America ed. by Thomas A. Foster (review)
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Women in Early America. Edited by Thomas A. Foster. New York: New York University Press, 2015. 306 pages. Cloth, paper, ebook.

Women in Early America, edited by Thomas A. Foster and featuring essays by eleven authors, as well as a foreword and afterword by Carol Berkin and Jennifer L. Morgan, is purposefully and unashamedly a work of women’s history. Women’s history can mean many things, but in this case, the authors, contributors, and editor intend for their collection to continue and expand upon the work of the pioneering historians of women who first began to write and publish in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s. These scholars, Foster argues in the introduction, “ignited a field and helped to establish the history of early American women as integral to the history of the nation’s founding” (2). This collection, the editor assures, “features new approaches to [the] older project of recovering women’s lives and experiences from a historical record that has until relatively recently focused on men” (1).

To this end, the book has several objectives: to unearth, recover, and showcase the lives, mentalities, and experiences of premodern American women; to challenge the historical ubiquity and normativity of male voices and perspectives; and to help to correct the imbalance in current early American scholarship, which focuses overwhelmingly on men’s businesses, politics, actions in war, literary creations, legal battles, sociability, and educational practices. Foster presents alarming evidence that such work is still needed. Citing an authoritative 2011 study undertaken by Sharon Block and David Newman in which the authors analyzed 513,259 substantive history article abstracts from more than 3,000 scholarly journals (including but not limited to women’s studies publications, in both English and other languages, and on the history of North America and the wider world), Foster shows that in 1985, during the “first wave” (271) of women’s history, merely 4 percent of articles focused on “women’s lives, experiences, and the societal beliefs that surround them”; this is perhaps to be expected of a field that was just beginning to take shape.1 But fifteen years later, when historians supposedly had become more aware, more welcoming, and more accepting [End Page 745] and encouraging of studies of women, this number had risen a meager four percentage points: in 2000, only 8 percent of articles focused on the lives, experiences, and perspectives of women. Eight percent. This is a shameful statistic by any measure, and it should prompt all scholars, regardless of their specialty or their topic of study, to ask: what are we doing wrong? Why don’t we read and write about women? And how do we redress this imbalance?

Women in Early America works to solve this problem by showcasing the diversity as well as the ubiquity of women in North America and the Caribbean in the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries. The eleven essays offer a broad geographic scope, presenting work on women who lived in Algonquian, Genízaro, Haudenosaunee (Iroquois), Massachusetts, and Pueblo communities, as well as discussing the histories of women whose enslavement and forced migration brought them from their West and East African cultures and homes, and analyzing the experiences of Dutch, French, and Spanish colonizing women. But much of the book’s attention focuses on Anglo-American conquest and colonization, with seven of the eleven essays featuring British colonial subjects. The essays are not organized according to geographic region, but instead range widely across the continent of North America and the islands of the Caribbean. Readers encounter histories of women in New Netherland in Kim Todt’s “‘Women Are as Knowing Therein as the Men’: Dutch Women in Early America,” which is structured around the life stages and life cycles of girls, wives, mothers, and widows. They can then turn to an account of female slave owners in Christine Walker’s “Womanly Masters: Gendering Slave Ownership in Colonial Jamaica,” which explores how many different kinds of free women—of lower and higher status, of different races and cultures—both exploited and dominated a system that allowed them to own human property. Chapters on female traders in French America and Detroit sit next...