Researching and writing about puritan poet Anne Bradstreet

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Anne Hutchinson: Too Smart to Get Along?

I was at my kid's school this week for conferences, and as I was sitting in the hallway on my uncomfortable chair, waiting for the conference before mine to end, my attention was drawn to a butcher-paper display across the hall.  The students had apparently been asked to design a utopian societies, and they had made lists of the principles that would govern them.  Along with the predictable elements ("equality for all," "no murder", etc.), one group had put:  "Those who break these rules must leave."

Ha, I thought.  Do that and you'll end up on the wrong side of history.  The Puritans had a vision for the sort of society they wanted to create. We can't call it a utopia because the Puritans were much too realistic to believe in perfection in this world, but it was idealistic:  live out a simple, purified Christianity; to base church and society, as much as possible, on the New Testament.   If you want to live in Massachusetts Bay, that's the program.  If you don't like the program, there are other settlements in the New World that you are welcome to emigrate to.  And if you want to stay here but not be part of the program, and you kick up a fuss  -- "Those who break these rules must leave."

Four hundred years later, we're still not over the fact that Roger Williams and Anne Hutchinson were kicked out of Massachusetts Bay Colony.

There is much we don't know about Anne Hutchinson.  The only actual words that we have of hers are those quoted by her enemies.  The largest amount we have is her testimony in court, where she stared down John Winthrop and bested him, two theological falls out of three.

I think there's no question that part of the outrage around her was that she was a woman; that a woman was doing the things she was doing.  It's not that women were held to a higher moral standard in this place and time; it was rather the sense, that to sin as much as she did, she had to be very boldfaced about it, and put herself and her views forward aggressively -- and this was a problem in a culture that valued submission in its women.  It was bad enough when a man adopted a view that was deemed heretical and tried to push it on the whole colony, as did Roger Williams.  But it was worse when a woman did, since she was supposed to be submissive and under the leadership of men.  She was supposed to accept male direction.  So if a man in leadership advocates heresy -- that's bad.  But for a woman to do it -- she's not only advocating heresy, she's also stepping out of her submissive role and behaving in a forbidden way by promoting it.  That's double bad.

It is clear she was an intelligent woman who was able to keep her head and defend herself when she was surrounded by her enemies.  She was also a leader in the community; she held midweek meetings in her home to discuss the sermon, and these had a wide following.

So:  did she get in trouble because she was a smart cookie?  And, did she get in trouble for being a female leader?

It was not her intelligence that got her in trouble.  Massachusetts Bay had any number of intelligent, educated women in its ranks.  Let's take the example closest at hand:  my good buddy Anne Bradstreet.  Bradstreet wrote long, complex, scholarly poetry, and did the Male Hierarchy shut her down?  Nope; a group of them conspired behind her back to copy her poems and send them off to England to be published.  That conspiracy included ministers and a former governor.  It's clear from the laudatory verses that they wrote as a preface to her book that they were proud of her, and part of the source of that pride was that she had excelled where few women had.

Seventeenth-century English people (puritan and otherwise) would say that this sort of intelligence in a woman was unusual, as they believed that women's minds in general were weaker than men's.  Quick intelligence might be a special danger to a woman, though, as it might tempt her to pride, or tempt her to step out of her God-given place in life to take on a man's role.  This was one of the charges laid to Hutchinson.

But it was not because she was intelligent that she got in trouble; it was because she set herself up as an arbiter of the spiritual condition of the colony's members.

Next time, we'll take on the issue of the role that the exercise of her leadership skills had in her banishment.

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