Researching and writing about puritan poet Anne Bradstreet

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Married and Puritan, Part 1

It seems funny to me now to think that when I started the Anne Bradstreet project, I didn't really want to get into gender issues. I knew that seventeenth-century puritans would have differing opinions than we moderns on the role of women, but I didn't want to focus on that. I just wanted to tell the puritan story through the lens of Anne Bradstreet. But, silly me; I chose Anne Bradstreet of all people, who offered a challenge to the gender roles of her day. Now, it was a muted challenge, but there it is, so I have to get into those pesky gender roles. Oh, well; it will make a better read if this ever becomes a book.

I've made a New Best Friend lately: William Gouge, a seventeenth-century preacher who wrote a long book called, Of Domesticall Duties. It's all about proper roles within the family: husband/wife, children/parents, masters/servants. It addresses issues like, what qualities make a good husband? How should a wife behave toward her husband? And so on. It was a blockbuster of the time; a sort of 1600s "Dr. Spock" book, I believe running through several editions. Mr. Gouge is nothing if not thorough; he goes point by point in laying out these relationships, and then takes on the "but what if" questions: But what if the husband is bad at business and the wife is really good at it -- can she step up and run the family business? He addresses hundreds of these "what if" scenarios.

Gouge is especially helpful in his counter-examples. For every instruction he gives a counter-example of how something should not be done. So for instance, after talking about how husbands should speak gently to their wives, he might say, the contrary example is that of many husbands, who rant and rave at their wives -- etc. And then historians like me can say, aha, the norm ("many husbands", says Gouge) was for husbands to yell at their wives.

So what is his advice in the marriage relationship? What advice would Anne have gotten as a young bride? By what standard was she expected to conduct herself? What messages would have been coming from the pulpit? Well, let's say off the bat that we are in the seventeenth century, and we must be in touch with that and not be shocked by that. Women are expected to obey their husbands, and husbands to rule over them. Oh, yes, I hear you moaning, and I am not listening, because if you want to read about female equality you are in the wrong century. You must leave at once.

For the questions we need to address is not ones like, "How unequal were women to men?" Answer: very unequal. "How much worse was it to be a woman in the seventeenth century than the 21st?" From the viewpoint of legal and political status: much worse. "What kinds of careers could a woman pursue?" None, mostly. But we know all that and we've known it for a long time. If we're going to hang out in the seventeenth century, we have to get to know the people and find out how it all really worked.

Wives must obey husbands: granted. But was there any nuance in that? Any exceptions? Was it all black and white -- "Obey me, ignorant corrupt woman!" or were there shades of grey? As it turns out, there were shades of grey, plenty of them. Oh, women were hindered by a myriad cultural and legal barriers, but they were not slaves or serfs. Domesticall Duties makes it clear that there were cracks in the wall of discrimination because real life demanded it, but also because the Bible would not have it any other way. I will talk about those cracks next time.

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