- Entangled Lives: Labor, Livelihood, and Landscapes of Change in Rural Massachusetts by Marla R. Miller
Massachusetts, Women’s history, Labor, WorDking women, Rural capitalism
Marla Miller’s latest book is a deeply researched and nuanced microhis-tory of working women in Hadley, Massachusetts. Grounded in the papers of Elizabeth Porter Phelps and the family’s surviving house, now the Porter-Phelps-Huntington House Museum, Miller links Phelps’s often cryptic observations about her everyday life and the people in it to build compelling stories about the town’s social and labor relationships. She synthesizes her observations and interpretations with the findings of scholars who have studied the Connecticut River Valley, colonial America, and the early republic. The results celebrate the achievements of those scholars, revise some popular and academic assumptions, and add detailed perspectives about the varying conditions and struggles women faced.
The book rewards patience. Miller uses Phelps’s writings to surface patterns in the social lives and labors of a variety of women. Her subjects include those who were poor, privileged, industrious, slothful, healthy, addicted, pregnant-out-of-wedlock, widowed, emotionally drained, and busily in motion during episodes of their life courses. While readers catch glimpses of them, the records are too fragmented to build longer biographies or fully grasp what caused most of them to do what they did and why. Weaving back and forth, Miller works her web of entangled relationships but the evidence leads inevitably to a certain amount of repetition in diff erent chapters as she sorts out patterns of work. Skimmers will miss the subtleties; patience with the repetition allows readers to understand better the choices people made. [End Page 497]
Miller divides the book into three broad categories: Women, work and community; Livelihoods; and Topographies. Although she includes many of the men in these women’s lives, they play a supporting role in the book’s analytic armature. The book explores the usual themes of female labor in managing child care, food preparation, laundry, and cleaning. But she also reminds readers that many women used whatever extra labor they commanded to intensify various forms of household craft production—dairying, spinning and weaving, and clothes production— and critical service industries, including teaching, health care and nursing, storekeeping, and hospitality. Like others in the Western world, Hadley residents participated in what Jan de Vries has referred to as the “Industrious Revolution.”
These activities required considerable organizational and people skills. As a member of one of Hadley’s elite families, Elizabeth Porter Phelps commanded greater resources than most others in town, but responsibility of managing them taxed Phelps’s emotional well-being, energy, and patience. Her workers included enslaved Africans, young women, single mothers with young children, widows, women with specialized craft and service skills, and a shifting workforce of day laborers. A few lived with the family for years but most arrived and departed according to their individual situations. Recruiting and keeping good workers was a recurring problem. She endured female workers who got pregnant from intimacies with the farm’s hired hands, and seemed to have limited success enforcing work discipline short of dismissing the help she regularly and anxiously sought. The detailed analysis of Phelps’s work force is an outstanding contribution because it forces readers to compare interpretive generalizations about labor relationships with the specific choices and circumstances of historical actors.
Equally important are Miller’s sharp-focused chapters on production strategies and services in which women held critical craft and procedural knowledge. Scholars have studied some of these topics such as spinning and weaving or midwifery. Others such as cheese-making and tavern/inn-keeping have received relatively less attention. The book also does an excellent job exploring the labor contributions of Native Americans and people of color. This level of inclusion is one of the book’s finest achievements.
The book raises a number of questions about the timing and causal factors that shaped Hadley’s cultural landscapes. The author introduces the Hadley landscape and the Porter...