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Gender in New England Puritans & Pilgrims

Mary Rowlandson's Three Months with the Wampanoags

In 1682, seven years after the Wampanoag Indians had taken her from the then-frontier town of Lancaster, Massachusetts to live with them for three months, Mary Rowlandson published her captivity narrative. Her story, The Sovereignty and Goodness of God,was only fifty pages long. Its publication was sponsored by ministers, and was supposed to shape the meaning of Metacom's War according to Puritan standards. Instead it exposed the internal rift between the Boston ministerial elite and the frontier settlers. Rowlandson's husband Joseph, Lancaster's town minister, was in fact in Boston at the time of the attack, pleading with the Massachusetts General Assembly to send troops in order to defend the town. Both the English and the Indians had mounted violent attacks against each another during the war. Twelve people in the village of Lancaster were killed on the day that Mary was taken captive, along with 24 other captives, three of whom were her children and one of which-five-year-old Sarah, who had been wounded in the struggle—died a week after the attack. Mary traveled some 150 miles during her captivity, mostly on foot, across the Connecticut River for a meeting with Wampanoag chief Metacom (known to the colonists as King Philip) himself, and then north to New Hampshire.

Rowlandson's successful survival in the wilderness undermined orthodox tenets about communal settings as necessary prerequisites for salvation. Ministers like Increase Mather warned their flocks not to roam beyond the "Hedge" (the frontier) of New England; but Mary had (if unwillingly) and proved that survival was possible. Cotton Mather (Increase's son) even praised her heroism. Mary paved the way for future settlement in Lancaster and beyond by emboldening a new generation of frontier settlers who, in turn, demanded the services and protection of the colonial leaders.

Her narrative contained the potential for what proved to be a future tendency: the reversal of Puritan leaders' condemnations of the wilderness as a savage wasteland, and the emergence of a new conception of the wilderness as a lush land of opportunity and abundance. In describing her captivity along the trajectory of a quick descent, a prolonged wandering, and a final ascent into salvation, she paralleled her story with the classic experience of Puritan conversion.

Rowlandson also suggested that salvation was possible through individual agency, which bordered on sacrilege according to a Puritan orthodoxy that said one could not be saved outside of the community of saints (that is, you had to receive a sign from God that you were saved; you could not earn this or work towards it). Her story was part sermon, part spiritual autobiography, and part historical narrative. It proved so popular that it was republished thirteen times in its first decade and went through over thirty editions since, all the way into the twentieth century.

Indians and Indian Women in the Rowlandson Narrative

Rowlandson also inadvertently exposed some of the complications underlying Puritan stereotypes of the Native Americans. Though she initially described her captors as "black creatures in the night" who sang and danced and roared, her sustained interaction with the Wampanoag Indians revealed a much richer diversity of descriptions. Her narrative recalls the matron Weetamoo, who was "a severe and proud Dame...bestowing every day in dressing herself neat as such time as any Gentry of the land: powdering her hair, and painting her face, going with Neck-laces, with Jewels in her ears, and Bracelets upon her hands." Weetamoo, as recent research has uncovered, was by birthright the squaw-sachem (or warrior-leader) of the Pocassets. She exercised substantial power in the Wampanoag and Narragansett communities, and she was Metacom's sister-in-law. In his History of the war, Puritan minister Increase Mather (who also wrote a preface to Rowlandson's narrative) described Weetamoo as an enemy of similar or equal stature and power as Metacom himself. After she died of an accidental drowning, the Puritans beheaded her body and displayed her decapitated head on a pole as a lesson to others. Increase declared it an act of divine intervention; Weetamoo had "furnished Philip with Canooes for his men" during the war, and she drowned—according to Increase—because she "could not meet with a Canoo."

"Deputy Husbands"

Puritan farm women performed a number of daily tasks that would later be defined as "unladylike" to the middle-class Victorians of the nineteenth century. In such a rugged environment, the sheer demands of survival dictated that seventeenth century New England women could perform the butchering, dairying, gardening, and daily operations of an entire farm when their husbands were unavailable or away. Only later would industrialization and technological development free women from the need to toil in the fields, allowing them to assume what we now assume to be a "traditional" role indoors as the passive, domesticated mistresses of their households. The household was the center of production in New England, and since women played such integral roles in that sphere, they were bound up with a substantial economic role and responsibility, though they probably would not have understood or enjoyed the significance or potential power in such a role.

The Female Role

Puritan women were saddled with heavy responsibilities, and their ministers recognized them for carrying out this role while still asserting the authority of their husbands. Some Puritan ministers acknowledged that "tho the Husband be the head of the wife, yet she is an head of the family," and stated that "of all the orders which are unequals, these [between husbands and wives] do come the nearest to an Equality, and in several respects they stand upon an even ground." Others, such as John Winthrop, argued that the definition of liberty for a woman involved embracing her role as wife and mother and her "subjection to her husband's authority." New England's women spent most of their lives bearing and caring for children, spending an average of more than 20 years of their lives either pregnant or nursing. Though women were deemed the spiritual equals of men and could gain full church membership, some "correction" was deemed appropriate if wives violated their husbands' sense of suitable conduct.

Anne Hutchinson

Anne Hutchinson, a midwife and the daughter of a Puritan minister, had come to Massachusetts from England in 1634 with her husband. She soon began holding meetings in her home where men and women could discuss religious issues. Like most Puritans, she believed that salvation could not be earned by one's acts but could only be bestowed by God. Yet Anne quickly developed a name for herself with her outspoken behavior; she also began to charge most ministers in the area with flawed or faulty preaching because they used human activities such as church attendance and moral behavior to distinguish the saved "saints" from the condemned. Because she challenged the authority of a closely aligned church and state, Hutchinson was branded an Antinomian—one who puts his or her own judgment above that of church doctrine and the law. She was charged with sedition (expressing thoughts and opinions hostile or dangerous to authority) and went to trial before a civil court in 1637. The transcripts of her trials are the only extant records of her words; in them, she proves herself capable of sustaining an engaged and sophisticated debate on equal terms with the presiding magistrates and the ministers who testified against her.

Despite her display of intellectual vigor and religious knowledge at the trial, Hutchinson condemned herself by testifying that God spoke to her directly (without the usual intermediaries such as the Bible or ministers). Her testimony violated Puritan doctrine, and the elders banished her and several followers from the colony. The exiles journeyed to Rhode Island and then to Long Island, where Hutchinson died during an Indian war.

In the 1960s and 70s (and as early as the 1940s), many scholars celebrated Hutchinson as a feminist figure in history who dared to challenge the male power structure and speak her mind. Yet interpreting the past through the lens (and the politics) of the present is always tricky business. More recent historical interpretations have taken Hutchinson at her word, that she saw herself merely as a vessel for articulating the "correct" version of God's message. If anything, she sought to strengthen the power and the credibility of the church by speaking out for what she believed was a more accurate and faithful representation of God's message. Yet, as a woman, she was easily targeted and exiled. Church elders could thus dispense with the threat to their authority that she represented. In the process, they could also condemn the public role that she assumed as inappropriate for a woman; as Governor John Winthrop stated, her popular house meetings—which were attended by several prominent merchants and public officials—were neither "comely in the sight of God nor fitting to your sex."

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