Atlantic History Gender in North America
by
Karin Wulf
  • LAST REVIEWED: 11 December 2015
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 January 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0225

Introduction

Gender, in Joan Scott’s famous formulation, is “a constitutive element of social relationships based on perceived differences between the sexes, and gender is a primary way of signifying relationships of power (Joan Scott, “Gender: A Useful Category of Historical Analysis,” American Historical Review 91.5 [December 1986]: 1067). Scholars who have taken issue with aspects of Scott’s definition include Jeanne Boydston, who noted the Eurocentric character of Scott’s depiction of gender and called for more scrutiny of the ways that using gender “as a category of historical analysis has stymied our efforts to write a history—or many histories—of gender as historical process” (Jeanne Boydston, “Gender as a Question of Historical Analysis,” Gender & History 20.3 (November 2008, p. 559). Nonetheless, key features of Scott’s theory about the place and function of gender remain central to historical writing about North America in the period c. 1400–1800. The scholarship focused on gender in North America c. 1400–1800 is primarily concerned with explaining the relationship of women to the societies and cultures in which they lived. Gender is a key component of that explanation, whether looking at labor, law, sexuality, religion, or politics—or even biography. A secondary thread is the impact of ideas about gender, mostly femininity but also masculinity and, more rarely, their mutual constitution in shaping those societies and cultures. Many of the works that have focused on women as subjects and have analyzed gender have looked primarily at the experiences of white women. These patterns reflect the relative dearth of textual sources written by and about women, but especially by and about women who were not middling or upper status and white. More recent studies look to Native American and African American women. Gender is also more recently analyzed as critically connected to race, class, and sexuality. In North American scholarship on the era of European colonization, these multiple elements of identity were ideological in that they were formed in the context of relations and exercise of power, whether through colonialism more broadly or slavery more specifically. The first generation of sustained attention to women in early America focused most heavily on European women in British America, but more recent scholarship is often formulated in an Atlantic context. Connections to Europe, Africa, and the Caribbean are regular features in this work. Topics such as labor, law, marriage, and religion have remained important in understanding the role and impact of gender, although many of the works listed here might reasonably fit into more than one category.

General Overviews

No one volume can tell, or tries to tell, the history of gender in early North America. Rather, the books and articles included here each try to give a sense of the diversity of women’s experiences, and the diversity of gender systems, in this place and time. There is a clear imbalance, with more attention paid to European women or women of European ancestry than to Native American or African American women, or women of mixed race. It is also the case that efforts to speak of “women” collectively or of gender singly must fail because of the complex diversity of women’s experiences and systems of gendered power. The two historiographical essays Haulman 2003 and Snyder 2012 survey the field of early American women’s history making clear connections between women’s and gender history. Texts with a sampling of the most recent and influential work in this field are Norton and Alexander 2007 and Kerber, et al. 2010. The edited collection Stoler 2006 indicates new directions in thinking about gender as it relates to the history of empires in North America. Stoler’s own scholarship, in this volume and elsewhere, on the making of gender and racial hierarchies with the intimate relationships of colonial households in the Dutch East Indies helped to stimulate thinking about how such domestic relationships, even as they were highly regulated, were central to the creation and perpetuation of status hierarchies beneficial to imperial aims. Brown 1996 is one of the most regularly cited examples of scholarship that analyzes the mutuality of race and gender as systems of power.

  • Brown, Kathleen M. Good Wives, Nasty Wenches, and Anxious Patriarchs: Gender, Race, and Power in Colonial Virginia. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press for the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture, 1996.

    E-mail Citation »

    Brown’s book, though it focuses on Virginia, has become required reading for anyone interested in women, race, and gender in early America and well beyond. Articulating and demonstrating the connection between hierarchies of race, class, and gender, Brown’s reconceived the history not only of Virginia, but of early America.

  • Haulman, Kate. “Room in Back: Before and beyond the Nation in Women’s and Gender History.” Journal of Women’s History 15.1 (2003): 167–171.

    DOI: 10.1353/jowh.2003.0026E-mail Citation »

    Haulman reflects on the small percentage of women’s and gender history devoted to the early period. Haulman suggests that, like other aspects of colonial history, women’s history is often tied to a narrative about the American nation and thus the earlier period is difficult to synthesize or connect with modern concerns.

  • Kerber, Linda K., Jane Sherron De Hart, and Cornelia H. Dayton. Women’s America: Refocusing the Past. 7th ed. Vol. 1. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010.

    E-mail Citation »

    The first part (of four) includes excerpts from some classic and some newer scholarly books and articles as well as primary sources focused on women and gender in the 17th and 18th centuries.

  • Norton, Mary Beth, and Ruth M. Alexander. Major Problems in American Women’s History. 7th ed. New York: Cenage, 2007.

    E-mail Citation »

    The first five chapters (of sixteen) are a combination of essays, most excerpted from longer works, and primary documents.

  • Snyder, Terri. “Refiguring Women in Early American History.” William and Mary Quarterly 69.3 (July 2012): 421–450.

    DOI: 10.5309/willmaryquar.69.3.0421E-mail Citation »

    This essay reviews papers delivered at a 2011 conference on the topic as well as surveys the field of early American women’s history, concluding that studies of women can and should contribute to the study of early America more generally. Snyder reiterates Boydston’s point that focusing on women as historical subjects is critical to understanding gender.

  • Stoler, Ann Laura, ed. Haunted by Empire: Geographies of Intimacy in North American History. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2006.

    E-mail Citation »

    A set of essays that apply the insights of postcolonial theory to early America and the United States, including the ways that race, family, and sexuality were scrutinized by authorities within disparate but “intimate” settings and relationships. Maintaining cultural hierarchies led to the regulation, for example, of marriage across a range of American social and cultural contexts.

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