Founding Mothers and Fathers: Gendered Power and the Forming of American Society.

Founding Mothers and Fathers: Gendered Power and the Forming of American Society. – book reviews

Kenneth A. Lockridge

At first glance, the argument of Mary Beth Norton’s Founding Mothers & Fathers seems plausible, and appears to be a nice hook on which to hang a great deal of material about gender and power in seventeenth-century America. In her view, early New England was characterized by a “Filmerian” world view usually associated with Sir Robert Filmer, the great English theorist of paternal and above all of monarchical power. To Norton, Filmer’s close analogies between paternal power in the family and monarchical power in the state implied, for complex reasons, that women who had some form of familial power, such as mothers, widows, and women of high social status, also in some limited but real sense, had power in civil society at large and in the state. The early American South, on the other hand, was nascently “Lockean” before Locke, presumably tending to separate family life from the civil society and the state, so keeping these latter spheres more exclusively male. The author then proceeds to pack four hundred pages of rich evidence on gender and power in early America into this interpretive framework.

As someone who has taught courses in gender and has treated Filmer and Locke, I found this distinction clever and potentially valid. The problem is that it really doesn’t work. Norton is an honest scholar and her sections on Filmer and Locke, found interspersed, often too late, in the narrative, make it abundantly clear that these were two English gentlemen with rather similar underlying views on gender and the family who simply used the metaphor of family in opposing ways in their considerations of the monarchical state. In using the family as a metaphor for the state (Filmer) and in rejecting it absolutely as analogous to the state (Locke), both men got themselves into unintended positions in the area of women, gender, etc., positions their various opponents frequently ridiculed. For the truth was, where gender issues were concerned, Filmer himself was no Filmerian, in Norton’s sense, and Locke not entirely a Lockean. “Filmerian” gender offered potential positions Filmer himself would have rejected, and “Lockean” gender likewise offered positions Locke didn’t fully embrace either.

Norton’s frame doesn’t work in another vital sense: the evidence from early America offered in the book often neither sustains nor always seems in any detectable way relevant to a “Filmerian” New England or to a precociously “Lockean” South. There is some very interesting evidence, as others have noted, that in certain senses the New England Puritans did incorporate women more fully into religious and civil society than did the southern colonies, or at any rate more fully than the worst constructions of Locke would someday imply. But this streak in Puritanism is not “Filmerian” (Filmer was, after all, their political opponent), and to call it so is to obscure the need for more appropriate terms. As for the southern settlements, evidence can be glimpsed periodically which might indicate women were more excluded from civil and religious society and power here than in New England, but other evidence in this book and the work of others both indicate plenty of other ways in which women were in fact involved and powerful outside the family in the early South. So here, Norton’s precociously “Lockean” South is also an obscuring concept. And, as noted, many of the cases of gender and power presented in this voluminous book do not seem to relate to, and indeed sometimes contradict, a “Filmerian” New England or a “Lockean” South, and furthermore do not always relate very clearly to the particular rubricks within this larger frame under which they appear and reappear.

In some ways, this book reminds me of Nicolas Venette’s L’Amour Conjugal (Paris, 1687) – a rich, wandering, only loosely ordered but often delightful collection of facts and vignettes about love, sex, and reproduction, posing as a medical text or moral sermon. In this spirit, I would suggest a new title for Norton’s work, something along the lines of Neighbors, Gossip, Sex, and Power in Early America. For I like the book, in its wonderful variety, and would take as its real thesis a sentence in Norton’s introduction: “The intimate link between gender and power in the minds of early Americans is revealed in a variety of ways.” Yes, and it is a tribute to the author that she avoided the worst reductionisms of current discourse, and merely tacked on Filmer and Locke as a loose, suggestive blanket over her collection of sprawling, brawling kittens of evidence. For in truth – wanderings, repetitions and all – her real theme is the teeming richness and complexity of gender and power in the early colonies. The life ink of this book defies facile generalization, save that women found a thousand ways to metaphorical and to real power. In fact, if we focused Norton’s evidence on Massachusetts Bay circa 1635-1645 into an integrated treatment, we might see that they had the male establishment on the run, in a crisis of gender unparalleled before or since.

Kenneth A. Lockridge University of Montana

COPYRIGHT 1997 Journal of Social History

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