Thursday, July 18, 2013

The Visible Woman submitted by author Jo Ann Butler


Reposted from Rebel PuritAn Some women left wills; others appeared in vital records.  A few who could write left their own records.  Anne (Dudley) Bradstreet’s book of poetry was published in 1650; the first work penned by a North American woman to be published.  Mistress Bradstreet’s work was notable, and perhaps she was protected by her position.  She was the daughter of Massachusetts’ governor, and no sensible man would criticize such a woman.


The more typical attitude toward educated females is shown by Governor John Winthrop’s comment about a young woman who had “lost her reason” by “giving herself wholly to reading and writing.”  If she had not meddled in “such things as are proper for men, whose minds are stronger, she [would have] kept her wits, and might have improved them usefully and honorably in the place God had set her.”

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Even such towering women as Anne (Marbury) Hutchinson and Mary (Barrett) Dyer left few recorded words.  The educated Mistress Hutchinson held her own meetings to discuss the sermons of Boston’s ministers.  Soon her followers nearly upended the Puritan’s government, leading to the banishment of Anne and her family, and the ouster of many other Massachusetts residents.

Mary Dyer helped bring the Quaker faith to New England.  For that she was also banished from Massachusetts, and was hanged in 1660 for defying that banishment.  But the only written works left by Mary are two letters written to the Puritan government before her hanging.  Nothing at all survives of Anne Hutchinson’s actual words, only a few brief phrases recorded during hearings preceding her banishment and excommunication.

Both Anne and Mary were remarked upon by Governor John Winthrop in his journal.  Anne and her supporters’ near-rebellion filled several pages, and Winthrop remarked upon her life in Rhode Island many times.  When Anne was cast out of the Boston church, Mary left the meeting house arm in arm with her friend, and Winthrop noted that event.  He also wrote about Mary’s miscarriage in gruesome detail – a monster borne by a woman with monstrous notions.


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Thus we see that the most visible women in 17th century New England were those who got into trouble.  Even when they appear in the court records for lesser events we see their names, and sometimes we can learn quite a lot about them.

A significant portion of colonial records is filled with men and women in trouble.  Theft, adultery, social disorder, even murder were fairly frequent occurrences and women were often the criminals in question.  We might not learn a woman’s maiden name from these records, but sometimes they give her husband’s name along with information about her crime and punishment.

Herodias Long is a perfect example of how a woman can become visible.  If it weren’t for her numerous court appearances, we would know her only from a couple of land records.  In November 1664 George Gardner Jr. and his older brother Benoni were granted land in Rhode Island’s Pettaquamscutt Purchase.  That land was bounded on one side by Horad Long, but the deeds do not note that Horad was the mother of the young men, using a shortened form of her first name and her maiden surname.


When John Porter, her third domestic partner, sold land between 1671-74, Horad Porter gave her consent.  Earlier land records for her first husband, John Hicks, and second partner, George Gardner, do not mention her at all.

So, how do we know that Herodias was married to those men?  She requested a divorce from both of them.  In 1644 Harwood Hicks was separated from her abusive husband, John Hicks.  We don’t learn much about her from those records apart from her name, but twenty years later, she petitioned the government for a divorce from her second “husband,” George Gardner, saying that they were not married, and that sin was weighing on her conscience.

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Perhaps looking for sympathy and support for her youngest child, Herodias gave her life history.  Using her maiden name, Horod Long said that she was married at the age of thirteen at the church of St. Faith’s-under-Paul’s in London, that the Hicks family then came to Weymouth, Massachusetts for 2 ½ years, then relocated to Newport, Rhode Island.  She noted her separation from John Hicks, then said that she had not formally married George Gardner, and that omission was weighing on her conscience.

This sort of record is the sort that genealogists and historians dream about, and lets us trace this illiterate woman through most of her life.  If not for her troubled domestic life, Herodias would have remained nearly invisible, just another name written in fading ink on ancient parchment.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for hosting me, Melissa! It's exciting to find another blog about New England, and I look forward to your next posts.

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