Anxious Patriarchs and the Household Battles they Waged

As Sarah and Michelle have already offered up a great analysis of the gender, race, and class arguments, the power struggle and the difference between the white and African women in Kathleen M. Brown’s Good Wives, Nasty Wenches, & Anxious Patriarchs, I will attempt to focus my commentary more on the men of Colonial Virginia during this time – the anxious patriarchs.

Brown is quick to point out the seeming instability that men felt within their own homes. While men were seen as the powerhouse of the familial, economic, and political spheres, their position was actually quite precarious. Most English societies believed that “unruly women and disorderly houses lay at the root of social ills” (31). Men were expected to control their women and their houses to ensure that chaos did not overpower a community. As Europeans began to leave their homes for new frontiers in the American colonies, they met many other men and women who introduced them to new relationship dynamics. Take for instance, the Cherokees we read about in Theda Perdue’s Cherokee Women. This tribe follows matrilineal lines, and women held an important role in the spiritual, economic, familial, and political operations of the tribe. Until the Europeans decided that the tribe needed to be more like them, women were, in many ways seen as equals, with great power. This was outrageous to the colonials who settled in America. As these new ideas were introduced, it became ever more pressing to ensure that gender lines were clearly defined and drawn and that neither party ever crossed them. To do so, countenanced community intervention and sanction, because it threatened the infrastructure of the working government.

Though Brown does not spend the same amount of time discussing the roles of men, as she does the women, she does a good job detailing the various areas where men insisted on maintaining an authoritative hand. Politics and the running of the plantation were two of the biggest. Women were expected to keep themselves away from the working of the colonial government and any ideas of a political nature. Because so much of the plantation infrastructure was politically based and wrapped up in community politics, women were expected to manage the household and nothing more. Especially the slaves. They fell under the purview of the master.

Because these “anxious patriarchs” had to pick their battles within the household, they needed a way to showcase their power. Slaves became their outlet. Those men who believed they were more powerful than women simply because of their sex, took pleasure in dominating the female slaves. It allowed them an outlet to freely express their male authority. “Far from proving incompatible with the ethos of domestic tranquility, the coercion of slaves may have made such ideals possible, providing planters, with a suitable foil for the serene authority they hoped to wield over wives and children” (366). In other words, they were happy to be harsh with the slaves, in the hopes that they family would learn to fear them just a little and not test their authoritative limits too much.


One thought on “Anxious Patriarchs and the Household Battles they Waged

  1. Excellent post and discussion! I like your focus on male colonists, especially since I just read your post on McCurry right before. Given that McCurry and Brown talk about slightly different time periods, what changed? How did southern society become more or less rigid (re: gender and racial order) from the 18th to the 19th centuries? They both seem to argue for the inherent instablity of the southern slave society.


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