Developing Power, Gender, and Race

78959Kathleen Brown’s, Good Wives Nasty Wenches & Anxious Patriarchs: Gender, Race, and Power in Colonial Virginia (1996), is a tremendous reexamination of the sources of power in colonial Virginia. Brown’s idea of power focused on the racial and gendered frameworks which developed over time to support the wealthy white patriarchy in colonial Virginia which, as she points out, include many of the nation’s “founding fathers”. Brown’s approach begins with pre-colonial English ideals of labor and gender divisions, highlighting the reign of Elizabeth I as a time of changing concepts of appropriate gender performances which would be transmitted across the Atlantic into Virginia. I appreciate Brown’s attention to early documented discussions surrounding gender, and the division of labor, as it strengthened her argument later on that the injection of gender and racial divisions were unnatural in the colonies and needed to find legal support to become fully incorporated. Several of Brown’s choices for demonstrating these fluctuating ideas of labor and gender seem forced in her larger narrative of white patriarchy; the exploration of Irish labor and gender divisions while a nice parallel to Native American gender constructs and English imperialism seem to not be carried beyond the earliest part of European interaction in the New World, leaving Native Americans virtually invisible in the rest of the discussion of forced labor and gendered oppression.,

Brown’s main argument that there is a direct correlation between a society’s increased dependence on female labor, whether physical, specialized, domestic, or reproductive, and that society’s growing desire to create and enforce strict gender roles to protect the production of that labor fits very well within the framework which she established for the book. I do believe that this argument begins to break down as the population of Virginia grows and continues to diversify, which is hinted at with the discussion of Virginia after the English Civil War. As more people began to come into the colony greater restrictions on gender and racial freedom were put in place by the Assembly, but we do not hear from Brown about how well this is enforced. We are shown how the patriarchy is supported by dividing women into categories based on class and race, but I remain unconvinced that these laws or taxes were wholly successful in policing gendered behavior. I had expected more discussion of masculinity in colonial society, rather than simply the men who helped to create the idealized white English woman stereotype which persists into modern culture. I realized after finishing the book that Brown’s work is really on the forefront of the current flood of gender theory within historical narratives, of which the discussion of masculinity is still a fledgling topic. With that said, Brown does pay special attention to both the outward concepts of masculinity and femininity within Virginian society, though more work has been done since which I think would strengthen some of Brown’s arguments.

Detailing the legal and cultural shifts which took place in colonial Virginia to inculcate racial slavery in the New World, Brown provides a clear path from fellow pilgrims to slaves which laid the foundation for dialogue on women’s experiences within slavery such as Morgan’s Laboring Women. I found this part of Brown’s book to be the most fascinating, especially as she skillfully emphasized the slow progress of creating an economy dependent on the labor of enslaved Afro-Virginians. Brown documented the shift in language, concepts, and state involvement in race and gender in such a way that her book will remain essential to future American and Women’s historians for a long time. I might be biased, as I spent a great deal of my undergraduate time researching race and gender in early Virginia, and still love to read and research about it.

I really am having a hard time finding much to be critical of in Good Wives Nasty Wenches and Anxious Patriarchs; the approach of combining so many sources and narratives, along with the topic have moved Brown’s book into my top twenty favorite books. With that said, no book is perfect. It seems to me that Brown tried to balance her discussion of race, gender, and power in a way that covered as much of Virginian society and history as she could without really addressing the ways that this approach leaves groups out of her analysis. Obviously when one attempts to cover a few hundred years and topics which intersect and diverge as much as race, gender, and power sacrifices must be made to what can be included. I suppose Brown left the door open for subsequent historians to flesh out those who were not included and to expand on the framework which she created.


2 thoughts on “Developing Power, Gender, and Race

  1. I’m glad you liked the book! I think you are right that Brown was doing something quite innovative at the time. I’m intrigued by your questions about enforcement. Do you suspect that women were not conforming to the roles assigned to them? What would be the significance of this transgression? Your question reminded me of the case of Thomas/Thomasine Hall that we discussed in HST 222. How slippery was gender? And how much “race” also a moving target?


    1. In our discussion on Thursday Michelle and I talked about how Brown, and Morgan as well, emphasized that in early America race was a fluid thing, which really only became a categorization tool once laws were put in place to secure white supremacy. I think to a certain extent the same could be said about gender. The case of Thomas/Thomasine Hall which Brown also uses, I think emphasize that the problem with her fluid gender identity was that she was moving back and forth between male and female roles which threatened the security of the town. I think, as we also discussed last semester, that had Hall acted consistently within a certain gender role there would not have been such an issue. Brown’s evidence shows how gender was performed, making it something which could be fluid, rather than something which was inherent. This is something which is much more aligned with modern concepts of gender. Colonial American society rested on the performance of gender roles much more than it rested, according to the evidence provided by Brown, on the sexual nature of individuals; men had to perform the role of patriarch to be considered participants of the society, though this was less about sexual virility and more about economic strength and success.


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