Researching and writing about puritan poet Anne Bradstreet

Monday, May 23, 2011

"Feminist" Anne Bradstreet

This blog is called “Carping Tongues”, in recognition of one of Anne Bradstreet’s most memorable lines, quoted at the top of this blog:

I am obnoxious to each carping tongue

Who says my hand a needle better fits . . .

Anne got flak from her community for pursuing poetry, both because of the it might be taking that should be spent in her household duties, and in her presumption of pursuing a “male” calling.

If what I do prove well, it won't advance,

They'll say it's stol'n, or else it was by chance.

Occasionally in her poetry, she “called out” her detractors in heart-warming defiance to the male dominance of her time. She also chose topics that frequently had a pro-female spin to them. So was Anne a seventeenth-century feminist? Let’s explore that idea.

First off, you must understand that historians get very cranky over expressions like “seventeenth-century feminist.” Feminism was a 20th-century movement, and it is unfair (and unprofessional) to project backwards our own advances and demand to know why, for instance, George Washington didn’t come out against driving while drunk. And it tempts us to divide the history of the world into two categories: Good and Bad. So women’s history might run something like this: “Women were always repressed and not allowed to vote or own property. Then the Civil Rights movement happened and everything got to be the way it was supposed to be from the start. Now women are free. The end.” There is truth in this statement, but it is such a vast oversimplification and hugely unhistorical proposition, that – well, my head is exploding, can you tell?

Let’s start over. In Europe and America, women have gotten the shorter end of the stick in many areas: education, civil rights, professional opportunities, health care, and others, many others. But if you imagine the women of 400 years ago as ignorant drudges or caged canaries – be careful. Women’s history has much more texture to it than that. Remember that the male-dominated society of 16th century England came to accept a powerful female leader in Queen Elizabeth.

Or here’s another example, a more humble one from our own history in which Puritan women used their influence to get their way after legal means failed. As New England towns grew, they would divide – or rather, those who lived furthest from the church (one church per town in that time and place) would want to divide. These would petition the selectmen to form their own church and town. The selectmen would inevitably say, “No, no, you can’t afford to support a church and we can’t afford to let you go.” On at least one occasion, the womenfolk of those families who wanted to split off took matters in their own hands, requisitioned the building supplies for the meeting house, and began the work themselves. Guess what? The selectmen reconsidered, and they got their town.

Why did the women especially want to split off? Probably because they were tired of missing church. Church might be miles off, and to walk that far carrying an infant while Dad carried the toddler, or the two of them on horseback somehow balancing the kids between them, or even everybody in a cart or wagon in January – we had enough trouble remembering to restock the wipes in the diaper bag when we went out with the little ones. It’s not like Puritan families were less busy and distracted. So usually Mom stayed home and missed church. And then one day when she was sewing with her friends: “Wouldn’t it be great if we had a church right here . . . " And then they started working on the husbands.

Women’s history is often a grim, sad story, but it is not monochromatic. A couple of excellent books on the subject of women in early America are Good Wives by Laura Thatcher Ulrich and Founding Mothers & Fathers by Mary Beth Norton. We’ll get back to “feminist” Anne next time.


  1. If feminism isn't an appropriate label to describe women who advocate for themselves or other women in time periods other than the 20th century, what label is appropriate?

  2. Great question. And you got me there. Maybe my colleagues over in women's history have an appropriate label to describe those persons, or the greater process of which feminism was the capstone, but I don't yet. As I go through this process, I'll keep my ear open for some useful descriptor.