Rochelle Johnson
Albertson College of Idaho

Female Transgression in Early America


Lydia Maria Child's Hobomok (1824). New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers UP, 1986.
Hannah W. Foster's The Coquette (1797). New York: Oxford UP, 1896.
Catharine Maria Sedgwick's Hope Leslie (1827). New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers UP, 1987.
Laurel Thatcher Ulrich's Good Wives: Image and Reality in the Lives of Women in Northern New
    England, 1650-1750 (1980). New York: Vintage, 1991.
a course packet (available for copying at the circulation desk at Pfau Library)

Course rationale and theory:

This course originated in my interest in contemporary assumptions, perceptions, and misperceptions about women in early (colonial) America.  Our contemporary literature tells us that we are very interested in early women's lives. Consider recent books such as Angle of Repose, Beloved, Dessa Rose, and The All-True Travels and Adventures of Lidie Newton, and recent movies including The Scarlet Letter and Pocahontas.  America has long been interested in reconstructing the lives of early American women: consider Arthur Miller's The Crucible, Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter, or the three novels on our reading list.  It appears to me that we are interested in understanding what women's lives were like, what women thought, and how many freedoms women had; and it seems to me that we are particularly interested in knowing these things precisely because we have so little to go on.  That is, our sources of knowledge about early American women are limited--and the sources we do have are, largely, mediated by men.  This course aims at exploring the ways in which our
culture has constructed the lives of early American women.  Interestingly, most of this "construction" happens by members of our dominant culture--specifically by white men in power.

Although the land and indigenous peoples of what is now called "America" existed long before European explorers started calling this land "America," the naming of "America" was nearly contemporaneous with the desire to "discover" very specific things on this continent: a land rich in "resources," a land welcoming to various beliefs and personal desires, and a land populated by people willing to lend themselves and their cultures to pursuing the goals of European expansion and Christianity.  As we now know, fairly quickly the "dominant" power in this meeting of many cultures oppressed indigenous peoples and cultures by introducing diseases, guns, its religion, and an ethic of imperialism.  Many of us now see this domination over cultures and peoples as horrifying and
unforgivable.  But this feeling is relatively new--at least among members of "dominant" culture.  Dominant powers come rather quickly to seem like natural powers--or like the powers that should be, and that are right. Therefore, it seems crucial for us to examine and uncover the forces that
shape dominant power structures.

This course is designed to help us challenge our conceptions of women and help us uncover how these conceptions have been shaped by dominant American culture.  Much of what we know, or believe, is myth; some of it is truth. This course attempts to disentangle these two, to teach us how to read women's experiences where few of them are written, and to lead us to a better understanding of the lives of early American women. Maybe, if we're lucky, the course will also give us unlooked-for insights into the lives of women today.

Course requirements:
Explanations of these assignments appear in the next section of this syllabus.

Attendance Class participation (class discussions): 10%
Discussion questions/topics (every Thursday): 10%
Discussion leading (in pairs; on an assigned topic): 10%
Oral presentation: summary and critical analysis of scholarly article (in class): 20%
Final essay (10-12 pp.; theme-driven analysis of our texts): 20%
Reading-response journal (submitted throughout the term): 30%

Policies, requests, and explanations:

Attendance:  As the 1998-2000 Catalog states, "Regular attendance at classes and laboratories is expected of all students." Regular attendance is essential to the success of this course--both for each individual and for the group.  Accordingly, I deduct two points from a student's final course grade for each absence after the first two. Excessive tardiness--or leaving early--also counts as absence. A student who misses more than five meetings will not pass the course. If you miss a class meeting, please talk with me about it.  If you will miss class meetings or essay due-dates because you represent the College in a sport or other sponsored activity, you need to see me early in the term with a schedule of your anticipated absences.

Class participation: Because we will conduct this course as a seminar, our driving force will be our questions, ideas, and concerns about our reading. This portion of your grade will be determined by your degree of participation in our class meetings. Don't let this portion of your grade frighten you:  class participation doesn't necessarily mean making grand, eloquent statements to your peers. Class participation involves active listening and questioning, dialogue, and wondering aloud. Therefore, don't be afraid to ask questions in this course. Ask questions of each other, of the texts, and of me. When you ask questions, you demonstrate your interest in learning and in understanding. Similarly, when your classmates engage ideas, feel free to help refine them, to praise them, or to connect them to other ideas. The format of a discussion-based course allows students to develop oral presentation skills, enables each member of the class to share opinions and ideas, and generally enriches the learning experience for all involved. However, this format may also lead to tensions or disagreements. Remember that disagreement is an important part of our discussion, and that rather amazing learning can occur when we encounter thoughts that we have not experienced before. As we share our good ideas, please be polite to each other, respectful of others' questions, ideas, and experiences, and tolerant of opinions that may differ from your own. Finally, an important note: the quality--not the quantity--of your participation in class discussions will determine this grade. Students who are genuinely and creatively engaged in the material and in our discussions will receive high grades for this portion of their final grades.

Discussion questions/topics: Our discussions every Thursday will be led by and centered upon the questions and discussion topics you bring to our class meeting. For each Thursday, please bring to class at least two questions or discussion topics intended to guide and deepen our analysis of the day's text(s). Your goals in writing your questions/topics are to demonstrate your careful, close reading of our materials and to help us consider more carefully the literature we are discussing. As a means of reaching these goals, you may write reflective, pointed questions--ones rooted directly in our texts but ones that challenge us to think beyond them. You may want to question an author's motivation or intent; you may wish to help us make connections between texts we are reading; you might wonder aloud about an issue that interests you in our text; or you could ask us to help you figure out a particularly troubling or challenging passage. Or you might raise a topic for discussion--leading us to an issue or concern that you have and that you believe is important, but that you perhaps don't know quite what to do with. These Thursday discussions allow you an opportunity to focus our discussion on something that interests or perplexes you. I will collect your questions/topics at the beginning of the class period each Thursday.

Discussion leading: In one class meeting this term, you and a peer will be responsible for leading us in a discussion of our reading materials. This presents an opportunity for you to focus on issues in the text that matter most to you. Be prepared to explain to the class which issues interest you, why they interest you, and where in the text (find specific passages) you see these issues addressed or raised. Also be prepared to explain why you think an exploration of these issues is important to our
understanding of the text. Crucial to leading a fruitful discussion is having prepared a number of pointed questions for your classmates. Your goal is to lead us to discuss an issue in detail and with direction. Thoughtful, pointed, bold questions can help us do this.

Oral presentation: I will assign each student a scholarly article related to our course readings. This requirement invites you to practice and develop your abilities to synthesize and summarize information, to analyze and evaluate it, and to articulate your summary and critical response to a group of interested listeners. Presentations should be 18 to 20 minutes. I encourage each student to meet with me outside of class time to practice the delivery of his or her presentation.

Final essay: This essay invites you to explore and analyze a theme that you believe is prevalent in--and important to our understanding of--the texts we read this term. Your essay should be thesis-driven, should provide textual support for your claims, and should demonstrate your keen interest in coming to grips with your topic. Your audience consists of your classmates (including me).
You may write about the theme of your choice, but I require that you submit to me a statement of your proposed topic on January 28. I strongly encourage you to take advantage of my office hours as you prepare your essay. I invite you to come by and talk about your ideas, your outline, a draft of an essay, or a revision in progress. I also encourage each of you to visit the Writing Center, where trained peers can assist you at any stage of the writing process. In preparing your final essay, follow the MLA documentation format, and do not include a separate title page. (See me if you need an overview of this format.) Please see the "Essay Grading Standards" sheet, which is attached to this syllabus, for an explanation of my grading criteria.

Reading-response journal: Since a seminar course depends so much on the constant, active engagement of each one of its members, I have attempted to focus the course requirements on fostering students' engagement in the course material. This reading-response journal especially enables students to reflect on our course topic by providing a place for (--and giving credit for!--) daily, sustained, focused thinking about our discussions, readings, and thoughts.  You are required to write for 15 hours in this journal.  (That sounds like a lot of writing, and it is; but imagine how many hours you put into doing research for and writing a research paper.  At least 15 hours, right?) Here's how I suggest you do this: set aside one hour, five days a week, for your journal writing. Use half of the hour to look through your notes and texts, thinking about the issues prevalent in our discussion and those you think need our attention. Then write for thirty minutes. Or, set aside an hour, and write for five minutes, then think for five, etc. You get the idea: your task is to demonstrate your
intellectual engagement in our course subject.  Your writing doesn't need to be polished, and your entries don't need to be as organized as a formal essay. You should, however, write in complete sentences and pursue ideas. Don't search for answers so much as for questions. If you find some
answers along the way, super. Share them with us.

Late Work:  Because of the brevity of Winter Term and the need for me to turn in grades to the Registrar in a timely manner, I cannot grant extensions on your final essay.  Plan accordingly.

Plagiarism and cheating:   Plagiarism is the representation of another person's words or ideas as your own words or ideas. Please acknowledge any outside sources that you use in your writing. If you are uncertain of how to document sources properly, please see me. When I become aware of either plagiarism or cheating, I take deliberate actions for the good of our community. A student who plagiarizes or cheats risks failing this course and having a letter placed in his or her permanent file.

Please speak with me if I can assist in accommodating a special need you have.

Course schedule:


10      Introduction to the course; read and discuss a selection from Michele de Cuneo's
             1495 letter about Columbus's second voyage, a 1645 selection from John Winthrop's
            Journal, and a selection from Cotton Mather's 1692 Ornaments for the Daughters of Zion

11      Women's "Sphere"; or, Economic and Community Life
          Anne Bradstreet [read Bradstreet selections]

12      Bradstreet, continued

13      Viewing of PBS's documentary on Laurel Thatcher Ulrich's A Midwife's Tale: The Life of
           Martha Ballard, Based on her Diary, 1785-1812

14      Good Wives, Part One: Bathsheba [pp. 3-86]

17      The Coquette

18      The Coquette, continued

19      The Coquette, continued; Presentations #1 & #2

20      The "Sanctity" of Motherhood; or, Gender and Violence
          Hannah Dustan [read Dustan-related selections in course packet]

21      Dustan, continued

24      Hobomok

25      Hobomok, continued

26      Hobomok, continued; Presentations #3 & #4

27      Witchcraft and witches [read selections on Martha Carrier and Hannah Jones]

28      Witchcraft, continued; Essay proposals due

31      Good Wives, Part Two: Eve [pp. 87-163]


01      Criminal conversion narratives [read selections from Winthrop's Journal and from Pillars of

02      Criminal conversion narratives, continued

03      Female "Piety"; or, Religion and Aggression
          Anne Hutchinson [read Hutchinson materials]

04      Hutchinson, continued

07      selections from Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter

08      Good Wives, Part Three: Jael [pp. 165-241]

09      Viewing of The Scarlet Letter

10      Viewing of The Scarlet Letter

11      No class meeting (I am at a professional meeting): get ahead on reading and essay 2

14      Analysis of The Scarlet Letter; Presentations #5 & #6

15      Hope Leslie

16      Hope Leslie, continued

17      Hope Leslie, continued; Presentations #7 & #8

18      In-class writing: self assessment and final journal entry; Essay due