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A stable society required stable families, and familial disruptions threatened social order.

Therefore, family life was of paramount concern to colonial leaders; there was no discussion, as today, of a separation of private and public. That foundation was inherently authoritarian and patriarchal, inspired by the writings of English political theorist Robert Filmer, who viewed the family as a "little monarchy.

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But, as the book's title suggests, colonial women were not powerless; the 'founding mothers' played an important, if seldom acknowledged, role in family and community life. Women who wielded power in their own homes, as mothers or as supervisors of servants, for example, were more likely to hold sway in the community in such positions as midwives. Encountering in her research many more strong women in New England than in the Chesapeake, Norton surmised that demographics played a major role in the divergent status of women living in the regions.

She writes that very few women lived in the Chesapeake during the period; the area was populated almost solely by men, brought in to work the tobacco fields.


Chesapeake households were more likely to be populated by groups of men than by married couples. As a result, Norton believes, women had little presence or power within or without the home, and Chesapeake communities tended to be modeled on contractual relationships among groups of men rather than on the traditional family unit. This is one of the few books that compares life in the two regions. Pinion family members were prosecuted 26 times over two generations, for offenses ranging from profanity to gossip, theft, absence from church and infanticide.

Cornell Chronicle

Especially egregious, in the colonists' eyes, was Pinion's inability to control his wife. One of Pinion's daughters was charged because she tried to leave her own husband. When he ordered her to return home, according to court transcripts, she, "contrary to the duty of a wife," refused to do so, thus "casting contempt upon Authority whoe had enjoined her returne to him.

With intriguing parallels to contemporary discussions on sexual identity, Norton describes the case of Thomasine Hall, who as a young adult in London cut her hair and joined the army. In , Hall traveled to Virginia as "Thomas;" the colonists quickly grew curious about their new neighbor, who had a penchant for switching gender identities.

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They would examine Hall while he slept, undress him on the street and issue court-ordered examinations. Few American scholars are more equipped than Norton, a member of Cornell's faculty since , to make sense of these complex legal cases, made even more inaccessible by their period spelling and punctuation and their reliance on a calendar that is now obsolete. Norton, a former student of political theory and intellectual history at the University of Michigan and of colonial social history at Harvard, is one of the nation's leading scholars of American women's history. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.

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Synopsis In Colonial America, the lives of white immigrant, black slave, and American Indian women intersected. Economic, religious, social, and political forces all combined to induce and promote European colonization and the growth of slavery and the slave trade during this period. This volume provides the essential overview of American women's lives in the seventeenth century, as the dominant European settlers established their patriarchy.

The Role of Women In the American Revolution

Women were essential to the existence of a new patriarchal society, most importantly because they were necessary for its reproduction. In addition to their roles as wives and mothers, Colonial women took care of the house and household by cooking, preserving food, sewing, spinning, tending gardens, taking care of sick or injured members of the household, and many other tasks.

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Thomas A. Foster, ed. Women in Early America

Students and general readers will learn about women's roles in the family, women and the law, women and immigration, women's work, women and religion, women and war, and women and education. O'Shea Praeger, Read preview Overview. Cutlip Lawrence Erlbaum Associates,