Marietta Messmer
Georg-August University Göttingen (Germany)

Women in Colonial British America

Course Description

Drawing on a wide range of (predominantly) pre-Revolutionary texts written by and about women, (including some of the "classic" narratives and poems as well as some lesser known journals, letters, court records, wills, or medical reports), we shall explore the various ways in which women in colonial British America had to negotiate a socio-cultural and/or literary identity inflected by gender in addition to their diverse economic, ethnic, regional or religious backgrounds. Some striking examples of powerful (and often surprisingly "modern") negotiations can be discovered in writings by and about Lady Deborah Moody, Ann Hutchinson, Anne Bradstreet, Mary Rowlandson, Sarah Kemble Knight, Elizabeth Ashbridge, Esther Edwards Burr, Phillis Wheatley, Abigail Adams and Judith Sargent Murray.

Required Texts (purchase of one of them recommended):

Myra Jehlen and Michael Warner, eds., The English Literatures of America, 1500-1800;
or: The Heath Anthology of American Literature, vol. 1;
or: The Norton Anthology of American Literature, vol. 1.

Additional materials have been placed on reserve.

Our background readings in critical, cultural, and gender theory will be taken from:

Green, Keith, and Jill LeBihan. Critical Theory and Practice: A Coursebook. London and New York: Routledge, 1996. Assignments:

Active class participation, and, to receive full credit: one 15-minute in-class presentation, and one final research essay.

Introductory Readings:

Berkin, Carol. First Generations: Women in Colonial America. New York: Hill and Wang, 1996.

Clinton, Catherine, and Michelle Gillespie, eds. The Devil’s Lane: Sex and Race in the Early South. New York: Lang, 1997.

Malmsheimer, Lonna M. "Daughters of Zion: New England Roots of American Feminism." New England Quarterly 50 (1977): 484-504.

Mulford, Carla, et al., eds. Dictionary of Literary Biography 200: American Women Prose Writers to 1820. Detroit: Gale Research, 1999.

Schweitzer, Ivy. The Work of Self-Representation: Lyric Poetry in Colonial New England. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1991.

Speth, Linda E., and Alison Duncan Hirsch. Women, Family and Community in Colonial America: Two Perspectives. New York: Haworth P, 1983.

Wilson, Katharina M, and Frank J. Warnke, eds. Introduction. Women Writers of the Seventeenth Century. Athens: U of Georgia P, 1989.

Class Schedule

Week 1 Introduction

Week 2 The Social Construction of Gender

Biblical and Puritan images of women; Eve’s fall vs. "priesthood of all believers"; some contemporaneous male views on gender: Hugh Latimer, Thomas Parker, John Winthrop, Cotton Mather, Samuel Willard, Thomas Paine; concepts of "biological determinism"; "essentialism."   Secondary Readings: Section 6 on "Feminism, Literature, and Criticism" in Green / LeBihan Week 3 Mary Rowlandson, "A Narrative of the Captivity, Sufferings and Removes of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson" The cultural function of captivity narratives; Cotton Mather’s role as editor; constructing "orthodox femininity"; constructing cultural and religious "Others"; portraits of Indians.   Secondary Readings: Castiglia, Christopher. Bound and Determined: Captivity, Culture-Crossing, and White Womanhood from Mary Rowlandson to Patty Hearst. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1996.

Derounian-Stodola, Kathryn Zabelle. The Indian Captivity Narrative, 1550-1900. New York: Twayne, 1993.

Kolodny, Annette. The Land Before Her. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1984.

Logan, Lisa Marie. Captivity and the Subject of American Women’s Popular Narrative, 1676-1865. Diss. Rochester U, 1993.

  Namias, June. White Captives: Gender and Ethnicity on the American Frontier. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1993.
Week 4 Sarah Kemble Knight, "The Journal of Madam Knight" European picaresque tradition vs. Puritan journal writing; travel writing; colonial humor.   Secondary Readings: Bush, Sargent, Jr. "Sarah Kemble Knight (1666-1727)." Legacy 12.2 (1995): 112-20.

Derounian-Stodola, Kathryn Zabelle. "The New England Frontier and the Picaresque in Sarah Kemble Knight’s Journal." Early American Literature and Culture: Essays Honoring Harrison T. Meserole. Ed. Derounian-Stodola and J.A. Leo Lemay. Newark: U of Delaware P, 1992. 122-31.

  Stern, Julia. "To Relish and to Spew: Disgust as Cultural Critique in The Journal of Madame Knight." Legacy 14.1 (1997): 1-12.
Week 5 Ann Hutchinson: Guilty or Not? A Closer Look at Her Trials Calvinism, Arminianism, Antinomianism; John Winthrop’s role at the trials.   Secondary Readings: Cameron, Jean. Anne Hutchinson, Guilty or Not?: A Closer Look at her Trials. New York: Lang, 1994.

Dunlea, William. Anne Hutchinson and the Puritans: an Early American Tragedy. Pittsburgh, PA: Dorrance Publishing, 1993.

Lang, Amy Schrager. Prophetic Woman: Anne Hutchinson and the Problem of Dissent in the Literature of New England. Berkeley: U of California P, 1987.

Week 6 Salem Witchcraft Trials Maleficia; feminists and / as witches?   Texts (on reserve): Richard B. Trask. "The devil hath been raised": A Documentary History of the Salem Village Witchcraft Outbreak of March 1692. West Kennebunk, Me: Phoenix Publ., 1992.
Excerpts from Cotton Mather’s Wonders of the Invisible World.  
Secondary Readings: Boyer, Paul, and Stephen Nissenbaum. Salem Possessed: The Social Origins of Witchcraft. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UP, 1974.

Hoffer, Peter Charles. The Salem Witchcraft Trials: A Legal History. Lawrence, Kan.: U P of Kansas, 1997.

---. The Devil’s Disciples: Makers of the Salem Witchcraft Trials. Baltimore: John Hopkins UP, 1996.

  Karlsen, Carol F. The Devil in the Shape of a Woman: Witchcraft in Colonial New England. New York: Norton, 1987.

Levack, Brian P., ed. Witchcraft in Colonial America. New York: Garland, 1992.

Week 7 Whitsun break — no class You might, however, begin reading Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own as background for our discussion of Bradstreet. Week 8 Anne Bradstreet, selected poems, including "Prologue" and "The Author to Her Book"
Female authorship; epic conventions.
Background reading: Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own.   Secondary Readings: Cowell, Pattie, and Ann Stanford, eds. Critical Essays on Anne Bradstreet. Boston, Mass.: Hall, 1983.

Gilbert, Sandra, and Susan Gubar, eds. Shakespeare’s Sisters: Feminist Essays on Women Poets. Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana UP, 1978.

Nicolay, Theresa Freda. Gender Roles, Literary Authority, and Three American Women Writers: Anne Dudley Bradstreet, Mercy Otis Warren, Margaret Fuller Ossoli. New York: Lang, 1995.

  Rosenmeier, Rosamond. Anne Bradstreet Revisited. Boston: Twayne, 1991.   Schweitzer, Ivy. "Anne Bradstreet Wrestles with the Renaissance." Early American Literature 23 (1988): 291-312.

White, Elizabeth Wade. Anne Bradstreet: The Tenth Muse. New York: OUP, 1971.

Week 9 Phillis Wheatley, selected poems, including "On Being Brought from Africa to America," "Philis’s Reply to the Answer," and her letter to Samson Occom
"Double colonization"; European elegiac tradition; cultural hybridity.
Secondary Readings: Chapter 7 on "Writing and Cultural Identity" in Green / LeBihan

Robinson, William Henry, ed. Critical Essays on Phillis Wheatley. Boston, Mass.: Hall, 1982.

---. Phillis Wheatley: A Bio-Bibliography. Boston, Mass.: Hall, 1981.

Sherral James, Elizabeth. Art: Conscious and Unconscious: The Power and the Paradox of Language in Eighteenth-Century African Slave Narratives of Phillis Wheatley and Jupiter Hammon. Diss. U of Mississippi, 1997.

Week 10 Esther Edwards Burr, The Journal of Esther Edwards Burr Cultural functions of journal-writing; Richardson as "model"; "women’s genres," "women’s writing"?; function of "sisterhood."   Secondary Readings: Karlsen, Carol F., and Laurie Crumpacker. Introduction. The Journal of Esther Edwards Burr: 1754-1757. New Haven: Yale UP, 1984.

Scheick, William J. "Friendship and Idolatry in Esther Edwards Burr’s Letters." University of Mississippi Studies in English 11-12 (1993-95): 138-50.

Week 11 Elizabeth Ashbridge, Some Account of the Early Part of the Life of Elizabeth Ashbridge Quaker women’s role in church / in the community – compared to Puritanism.
Secondary Readings: Levenduski, Christine. Peculiar Power: A Quaker Woman Preacher in Eighteenth-Century America. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian, 1996.
Week 12 Abigail Adams [from her letters to John Adams] and Judith Sargent Murray, "On the Equality of the Sexes" Feminist reform and the New Republic; colonized country = colonized sex?; did women have a revolution?   Secondary Readings: Harris, Sharon. "Judith Sargent Murray." Legacy 11.2 (1994): 152-59.

Skemp, Sheila L. Judith Sargent Murray: A Brief Biography with Documents. Boston, Mass.: Bedford, 1998.

Gelles, Edith Belle. First Thoughts: Life and Letters of Abigail Adams. New York: Twayne, 1998.

---. Portia: The World of Abigail Adams. Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana UP, 1992.

  Levin, Phyllis Lee. Abigail Adams: A Biography. New York: St. Martin’s P, 1987.
Week 13 Final Class


Women in Colonial British America – Possible Essay Topics

Compare and contrast any two captivity narratives. Possible points of comparison can include (but are not restricted to): narrative structure; presentation of protagonist; images of women; images of Indians; hostage experience; conclusion.

Some examples of additional captivity narratives can be found in: Kathryn Zabelle Derounian-Stodola, Women’s Indian Captivity Narratives (New York: Penguin, 1998); Alden T. Vaughan and Edward W. Clark, eds. Puritans among the Indians: Accounts of Captivity and Redemption (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1981).

How do women engage the biblical concept of female inferiority? (Cf Judith Sargent Murray, Esther Edwards Burr, Elizabeth Ashbridge, Ann Hutchinson).

How are gender roles described / presecribed in the texts of at least two writers? What are some of the differences and / or similarities? Why?

Discuss the possible tension between female agency and the concept of God’s providence by drawing on the texts of two female captivity narratives.

Compare and contrast the depiction of Indians in any two captivity narratives and / or Sarah Kemble Knight.

How do different kinds of religious denominations shape the lives of women / women as writers? (Examples: Anne Bradstreet, Mary Rowlandson, Elizabeth Ashbridge, Ann Hutchinson)

Provide a rhetorical analysis of a passage of Hutchinson’s trial records or some of the Salem witchcraft trial records. Which questions are asked at what point in the trial; how are they being asked; how do the women respond?

Discuss the problem of female authorship and publication as it is discussed in the texts of at least two different women writers. Examples may include the Anglo-Americans Anne Bradstreet and Esther Edwards Burr, or their British contemporaries Anne Finch ("The Apology"), Margaret Cavendish ("The Poetess’s Hasty Resolution"; "An Excuse for So Much Writ upon My Verses").

Discuss the link drawn between civil / religious liberty and gender liberty as it emerges in the texts of two of the following writers: Phillis Wheatley, Abigail Adams, Judith Sargent Murray.

Discuss various forms of rebellion and submission in texts by at least two women writers (in which areas do they rebel? where do they draw the boundaries? why?). Examples may include: Anne Bradstreet, Esther Edwards Burr, Elizabeth Asbridge, Ann Hutchinson, Phillis Wheatley, Sarah Kemble Knight.

Almost every author on our list at some point offers a definition of "womanhood" / "virtuous femininity." Compare and contrast at least two examples of the social construction of "womanhood" in early America. What may explain the similarities? The differences?

Compare and contrast one of Phillis Wheatley’s elegies with one of the so-called "classical" British elegies (John Milton’s "Lycidas" or Percy B. Shelley’s "Adonais") or with one of Bradstreet’s elegies. Possible points of comparison may include (but are not restricted to): imagery, structure, form of religious consolation.

Discuss the notion of "race" in some of Phyllis Wheatley’s poems.

Discuss the use, function, and / or possible subversion of the so-called "humility" topos in selected poems by Anne Bradstreet, Esther Edwards Burr, Phillis Wheatley.

Discuss the use of domestic imagery (childbirthing, marriage, etc) in texts by at least two of the following authors: Anne Bradstreet, Esther Edwards Burr, Elizabeth Ashbridge.

Nature vs. Nurture: How does education manifest itself in the works of Anne Bradstreet, Sarah Kemble Knight, Phillis Wheatley, or Judith Sargent Murray?

Discuss the function of female literary friendships for Esther Edwards Burr, Abigail Adams, or any of their British contemporaries.

Women in Church I: compare and contrast the journal of a female Quaker (Elizabeth Ashbridge) with that of a male contemporary (John Woolman).

Women in Church II: compare and contrast the different roles in different churches played by Anne Bradstreet, Elizabeth Ashbridge, some of the Salem women, or Ann Hutchinson.

Provide a rhetorical analysis of Judith Sargent Murray’s essay (line of argumentation; strategies of persuasion).


Women in Colonial British America

Handout Week 2

Hugh Latimer: "For a woman is frail, and proclive unto all evils; a woman is a very weak vessel, and may soon deceive a man and bring him unto evil. Many examples we have in holy scripture. Adam had but one wife, called Eve, and how soon had she brought him to consent unto evil, and to come to destruction. How did wicked Jezebel pervert king Achab’s heart from God and all godliness, and finally into destruction. It is a very hard thing for a man to rule well over one woman" (16th-century martyr).

Thomas Parker: "Your printing of a book, beyond the custom of your sex, doth rankly smell" (letter to his sister Elizabeth Avery in England, 1650).

John Winthrop: "[Anne Hopkins] who was fallen into a sad infirmity, the loss of her understanding and reason, which had been growing upon her divers years, by occasion of her giving herself wholly to reading and writing, and had written many books. Her husband, being very loving and tender of her, was loath to grieve her; but he saw his errour, when it was too late. For if she had attended her household affairs, and such things as belong to women, and not gone out of her way and calling to meddle in such things as are proper for men, whose minds are stronger &c. she had kept her wits, and might have improved them usefully and honourably in the place God had set her" (Journal 1630-1649).

Cotton Mather: ". . . the daughters of Eve, having tasted the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Christ, should use their seductive powers for the good of Christ’s church, and thus prove that the Tree of Knowledge is a Tree of Life" (Ornaments for the Daughters of Zion, 1692).

Samuel Willard: "‘Of all the Orders which are unequals . . . [husband and wife] do come nearest to an Equality, and in several respects they stand upon even ground. These do make a Pair, which infers so far a Parity. They are in the Word of God called Yoke-Fellows, and so are to draw together in the Yoke. Nevertheless, God hath also made an imparity between them, in the Order prescribed in His Word, and for that reason there is a Subordination, and they are ranked among unequals.’ . . . The husband-wife relation must never be confused with the master-servant or child-parent relation. A husband ought to be able to back his counsels with the word of God, ‘and lay before her a sufficient Conviction of her Duty, to comply with him therein; for he hath no Authority or Compulsion.’ While in any relation it is the duty of inferiors to obey superiors unless a command is contrary to God, ‘a wife certainly hath greater liberty of debating the Prudence of the thing’" (A Complete Body of Divinity, 1726).

Thomas Paine: "If we take a survey of ages and of countries, we shall find the women, almost – without exception – at all times and in all places, adored and oppressed. Man, who has never neglected an opportunity of exerting his power, in paying homage to their beauty, has always availed himself of their weakness. He has been at once their tyrant and their slave . . . . [A] severe legislation has, at all times, kept [women] in a state of dependence. One while, they were confined to their own apartments, and debarred at once from business and amusement; at other times, a tedious guardianship defrauded their hearts, and insulted their understandings . . . . ‘The most virtuous woman,’ says a celebrated Greek [i.e. Sophocles], ‘is she who is least talked of.’ That morose man, while he imposes duties upon women, would deprive them of the sweets of public esteem, and in exacting virtues from them, would make it a crime to aspire at honour" ("An Occasional Letter on the Female Sex," 1775).