Generations: Women in Colonial America," by Carol Berkin.
This book, "First Generations," discusses the lives of women who immigrated to America from other countries, and Native Americans that were here when the immigrations started. It then follows through two centuries of life in America, to show how women's lives changed, improved, and/or degraded during this time. It tells in detail how people lived in the 17th and 18th centuries, and particularly how women lived.
It is a compelling picture of everyday life in Colonial times, and of what women had to endure during their short lives. These are women of different ethnic backgrounds, financial circumstances, and areas. Berkin weaves them together to form a tapestry of what life was like for early American women, and it is a fascinating book.
For the first time, we can catch a glimpse of Colonial America from the women's point-of-view, but not just colonists, Berkin also writes about powerful Native American women, black women, and immigrants from several countries, not just England. It is a more complete picture of early women's lives, and an interesting book to read.
The author's arguments are not as much about the women as about their rights, or lack of them. She makes it clear that life was difficult for all these women, indeed for their entire families. "The short and often brutish life these immigrant women faced was not a uniquely female experience" (Berkin 7). Women's rights changed from century to century, and the author follows these everyday rights, allowing us to understand just what women faced as they aged, had children, and remarried in this society.
In 17th Century America, single women retained their rights, and were able to make contracts, sue, and keep their possessions. This seems normal to us today, but then, it was quite an achievement, because as soon as these women married, they lost everything, even the clothing on their backs became the property of their husbands. When their husbands died, women retained property and rights through the "dower right," unless of course, they married again, and then the property reverted to their new husband, and husbands often stipulated this specifically in their wills. "After her death or remarriage the Land is to return to my son Wm. Marriott" (Berkin 19).
Most women enjoyed good relationships with their loved ones, but there were some men who looked at their wives as their personal property, to use or abuse as they wished. One man, found beating his wife said she was "his servant and his slave" (Berkin 31). However, most families worked hard together, and enjoyed their leisure time together too.
Berkin shows us the difference between societies through a Dutch woman who moved to New Amsterdam when she was a young woman, Margaret Hardenbroeck. "Hardenbroeck moved to New Amsterdam from the Netherlands in 1659. She served as agent for a cousin who was an Amsterdam trader, and quickly became engaged in the colonial fur trade. Even when Hardenbroeck married, under the Dutch legal system she preserved both her legal identity and economic independence; as partners, she and her second husband, Frederick Philipsen, built a transatlantic packet line. But while the English takeover of the colony did not restrain the Philipsen firm's economic growth, it did destroy Hardenbroeck's legal rights" (Johansen).
By the 18th century, women's rights had deteriorated, and many women did not even enjoy their own rights before marriage. Eliza Lucas, from South Carolina, ran her father's plantations from the age of sixteen, after her mother died. She was unusual, because her father not only trusted her with the running of the "family business," he also encouraged her to create new enterprises, which she staunchly defended as "hers." She created a "large plantation of Oaks," and "asserted her right to any profits in timber it generated" (Berkin 131). This was extremely unusual at a time when women had no rights politically, and few rights under marriage.
Another feature of this book is how the author follows history through two centuries, to show how lives changed from early colonialism, to "the rise of gentility." Women began to have more leisure time, and people were no longer "puritans," they were "yankees," and the economy changed from "moral" to "capitalism." (Berkin 139). It was not just that the country was changing from agricultural to urban, and from religious to economic, people were acclimating to the "new world," and becoming natives themselves.
Still, "...the household...remained the primary setting for white women's activities in the eighteenth century" (Berkin 139). This tells us that women still worked in the home but had more time to enjoy quilting bees, sewing sessions, and spent less time in the fields.
Berkin did indeed produce new information in her field, because she used sources other than the traditional "letters, diaries, sermons, newspapers and political tracts" (Clarke 26). However, many critics believe that Berkin did not do additional research, that she instead accumulated research from a variety of sources, that had never been put together before. "Academics will note that Berkin doesn't present any new research of her own here. Rather, she gathers the work of 'many talented scholars who have... recovered for us the... experiences of colonial women,' transforming it into a highly readable narrative history" (Clarke 27).
Berkin herself put it this way: "...historians are perhaps the last of the independent artisans. They write about what interests them and employ the methods and theories they know best or what seems most appropriate" (Berkin viii). In these two sentences, we learn about Berkin's interests, her methods, and how she wrote this book. She did produce new information. She also influenced other historians to look at "non-traditional" documents to help learn more about the past, and how people lived, worked, played, and improved their lives.
Berkin's accounts of everyday life and women in general do agree with other who have written on the subject, but her book adds detail and description to the other accounts. Most "everyday life in colonial times" books tend to generalize about how people lived, but Berkin's book breaks America down by area, and shows how different areas, and their weather, surroundings, and even settlers affected how people lived. She differentiates between frontier households, urban households, and rural households, and shows how women made additional income in each of these areas.
She also discusses leisure time, birthing methods, and more intimate details of early lives. She even discusses menstruation rights among the Native Americans, and how women came together for births, weddings, and funerals. Her book delves deeper into real live, and gives more intimate details of how women interacted with each other, with their families, and in society.
The other thing her book does is bring us first hand experiences of races other than white, so we have a more complete picture of the people that populated the early American colonies. Mary Johnson, a black slave, lived as a free woman with her husband in Maryland after their marriage. Her experiences with her white neighbors were positive, and she and her husband enjoyed a good life, but that would change.
Also, as free blacks, the Johnsons made court appearances and were free to hire both black and white bound servants. But by 1672, policies and laws passed by a new generation of English colonists would ensure that the rapidly increasing numbers of Africans in colonial America would be unable to look forward to entering the world of free men and women. Tellingly, when Mary's grandson John died in 1706, the Johnson family disappeared from the historical record" (Clarke 26).
The difficulties of interpreting this subject come mostly from lack of records, and from what Berkin herself noted, historians tend to work in areas where they feel comfortable, rather than trying new areas. Many old records have been destroyed by misunderstanding, family error or disinterest, and natural disasters such as fire. As we are left with fewer historical documents, the study of history will become even more difficult, and more of a science than an art form.
Researchers are relying more and more on non-traditional research materials, like diaries, court records, wills and even linens and sewing records. This is one reason there are still new texts produced on topics that have been discussed repeatedly. Berkin chose to use existing research, but bring it together in a form that had never been done before, which is another way to interpret history, and keep finding and publishing new information. "As Berkin points out in her discussions of Wetamo, leader of the Wampanoag tribe, or Mary Johnson, an African brought to the Chesapeake, we have evidence of only the most public outlines of most women's lives -- often only birth and death dates. For tens of thousands of women in colonial America, we have even less" (Johansen).
Does the author produce good argument? Yes, the author produces an excellent argument, with plenty of examples that prove her points, and add depth to the book. For example, "a…