Summer Reading List!

Summer is upon us, and that means fun in the sun and a summer reading list!

Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, A Midwife’s Tale (Sarah)

Martha Hodes, A Sea Captain’s Wife (Amber)

Lori Ginzberg, Untidy Origins (Michelle)

Harriet Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (Amber)

Jean Fagan Yellin, Harriet Jacobs: A Life (Michelle)

Harriet E. Wilson, Our Nig (Sarah)

Frederick Douglass’s three autobiographies: Narratives in the Life of Frederick Douglass (1845), The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (1881), and My Bondage and my Freedom (1855)

All three of us will be reading:

Bonnie Laughlin Schultz, The Tie that Bound Us: The Women of John Brown’s Family

Leigh Fought, Women in the World of Frederick Douglass

Be on the lookout for our reviews and possibly a discussion or two soon.

We would love more reading recommendations, so feel free to leave a comment or send us an email.

Hope you have a safe and wonderful summer!

Sex Sells: Then as Now

The Murder of Helen Jewett Patricia Cline Cohen (1998)

In her book, The Murder of HIMG_1077elen Jewett, Patricia Cline Cohen reexamined the sensational murder of a young woman, Helen Jewett, in a New York brothel in 1836. Cohen skillfully incorporated the evidence of the murder, evidence not included in the trial, and her experience as a historian of Antebellum America. The Murder of Helen Jewett is a crossroads for the new American experience in the post-revolutionary world; the growth of urbanization, the new “sporting male” culture, and the ideal of the respectable middle class white woman all intersect in the case of Helen Jewett in a manner that makes this book a fascinating microhistory of New York City in the 1830s. Once again, we divided up our reading by section. I will be responding to the last third of the book (chapters 13-Epilogue), which deals primarily with the trial of Richard Robinson, and correspondence from Robinson that was left out of the trial.

Unlike our last reading, Strangers and Pilgrims, Cohen’s narrative is not easy to separate from itself due largely to the fact that the historical characters are well developed and Cohen’s examination of them reveals motivations for their behavior to the reader. In chapter thirteen, “Blowing Up”, Cohen examines letters between Jewett and her suspected murderer, Richard Robinson. With her close analysis of the writing, Cohen attempts to prove that Robinson was in fact the culprit in Jewett’s murder by emphasizing the volatile personal relationship between the two. This is evidenced when speculating about Robinson’s premediated crime “… these last two [letters] sound like the prologue to the weekend of April 9, when Helen Jewett was murdered. The sweet and all-consuming love of 1835 had degenerated into mutual threats and recriminations in 1836” (286). Cohen’s examination of their correspondence forces her audience to question if the letters had been admitted as evidence in the trial, would Robinson have been convicted of the murder? This is a question that I am not sure of, because of the way the defense used the importance of respectability in Antebellum society both to tear down Jewett’s status in society, and to reinforce the probability of Robinson’s innocence.

In modern trials, particularly ones in which the victim may not have the purest life possible, often the victim is blamed in part for the actions taken against them. By putting the victim on trial the defense can move the blame from the accused to the deceased, which is what is seen in the trial of Richard Robinson. “And how many beds do you have in your room? A defense attorney asked [Rosina Townsend] at the trial; ‘But one,’ she replied. In such small ways,” Cohen argues “the lawyers managed to hint at a brothel’s true business without raising indelicate questions about sexual services” (293). This tactic reinforced the ideal of white female purity, and emphasized Jewett’s lack of, while also including the jury in the “respectable” tier of society which Robinson belonged to. This respectable tier of society would not have discussed sexual services; Cohen describes this social group as conservative, and perhaps prudish is one looks at her discussion of the Female Moral Reform Society. No matter their actual acceptance into respectable society, having the defense connect them to those ideal meant that the jury would empathize more with Robinson. This is proved further when Judge Edwards instructed the jury to “weigh the character of the witnesses—and then he told them how much those characters weighed” as Cohen writes, emphasizing the weight to be given to the testimony of a member of a respectable family such as Robinson’s outweighed the testimony of prostitutes who associated with Jewett (360).

The Murder of Helen Jewett is not just about Helen Jewett or the trial of Richard Robinson. Cohen rests a good deal of the narrative on newspaper editor Bennett, and the media circus that followed the story from the discovery of Jewett’s body to the acquittal of Robinson. The media coverage allows Cohen to delve into the world of sporting male culture, rogues and dandies, and the Magdalen Society and Female Moral Reform Society which appeared to be at odds with each other in New York City during the period. “Curiously, the Female Moral Reformers made no original contribution to the debate over the murder of Helen Jewett. They publicized the crime, naturally, since the murder of a prostitute so perfectly fulfilled their warnings about the wages of sin” (312). I found the exploration of the media particularly intriguing given my readings last semester of The Flash Press: Sporting Male Weeklies in 1840 New York (2008) written by Patricia Cline Cohen, Timothy J. Gilfoyle, and Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz. The Flash Press contains weekly newspaper issues geared towards young men who were flocking to cities in the 1830s and 1840s because of urban growth, and the decline of family farms/property; which nearly perfectly de2302980-_uy400_ss400_scribes Robinson and his fellow clerks. This added

dimension to the narrative makes, in my mind, The Murder of Helen Jewett more than a social history or a microhistory, but makes it an important piece of gender history.

I think all three of us were in agreement that this was a quick read because it was written so well, and the topic was so very interesting. I read a New York Times review that compared this case to the OJ Simpson case, and it drove home the point that sex sells, then as now.

In case you missed it, we added a new page to our site! It is home to our podcasts (we have one on Helen Jewett) Please give us a listen when you can.

Work It: Women Preachers

Strangers and Pilgrims: Female Preaching in America 1740-1845 Catherine Brekus (1998).418poabb7zl-_sx329_bo1204203200_

For Strangers and Pilgrims, Michelle, Amber, and I continued to break up the responses by each taking the responsibility for responding to one of the three sections in Catharine Brekus’ book on female preachers in early America. I am not particularly familiar with, or comfortable with, the expanding branches of Christian theology during this period, which made me hesitant to take on this book. Lucky for me, my partners allowed me to take the first section of Brekus’ book entitled “There is Neither Male Nor Female” which examines the connections between evolving concepts of gender and its correlation to changing religious and social rhetoric.

I found the first chapter, “Caught Up in God: Female Evangelism in the Eighteenth Century Revivals” incredibly informative and helpful in understanding (to a certain degree) the transformations of religious thought in colonial and revolutionary America. I particularly appreciate the chronological breakdown highlighting the shift in both secular and non-secular beliefs regarding gender and religious roles in society. This structure is absolutely necessary to be able to understand the complexities of gender and religion which Brekus lays-out.

Through narratives of female preachers, Brekus demonstrated the changes in attitudes towards women and their roles in religious experiences. For example, the use of Mary Dyer (pg 30) to demonstrate the tensions between Puritan and Quaker theology was effective; Dyer highlights the threat to the patriarchal familial hierarchy of Puritan society and church authority which Quaker radicalism and egalitarianism posed. The emphasis on Puritanical beliefs in women’s inherent inferiority to men and later discussion of the feminine nature of the soul was reminiscent of Elizabeth Reis’ Damned Women.  This tension makes the shift in the 1740s from rational and institutionalized preaching to a more emotional and “heart-centered” approach easier to understand; if the soul is feminine then it would need to be courted in a similar fashion to a woman- through the emotions (35-37).

The new language of religion, as something to be felt with the heart as well as understood with the mind, served to democratize religion. Putting an emphasis on feelings allowed more people to claim authority over their religious experiences and understanding. This is particularly crucial for women at the time, as the language of religion allows them to become empowered. My understanding boils down to this, a feminine soul, as we are led to believe Puritans viewed the soul, is twice as likely to be taken by the devil (according to both Reis and Berkus)  if the soul belongs to a woman, because she is weaker than a man. So when a woman is able to give herself over wholly to God and feel His presence, then that exhortation becomes even more powerful than if it had happened to a man; because of both women’s inherent proclivity to sin and her hyper-emotional fluids. This makes Brekus’ argument that women were able to preach more openly during the Awakening, quite compelling.

In her second chapter, “Women in the Wilderness: Female Leadership in the Age of Revolution”, Brekus argues that the Revolution was the most restrictive point for female preachers as the focus of the time was on supporting the patriarchal hierarchy which shaped American society to support the revolution and then new nation. I struggled to place this argument and evidence in with the readings from Branson, Kerber, and Zagari who all argued that women’s roles expanded during the revolution, even in the home as the “Republican Mothers”. While I appreciated Brekus’ detailed examination of the accounts of Jemima Wilkinson’s and Ann Lee’s struggle to preach and balance their gender identity, I felt a bit lost myself. Perhaps I missed it, but did Brekus provide a definition of preaching? (That is not meant to be snarky). If women in the revolutionary era, as Brekus points out, were laying the foundations for future female preachers through the “new” language of Republican Motherhood, how is Brekus able to discount moral and religious instruction provided by women in the home as forms of preaching? I may be completely wrong in questioning this, but I had expected her to address this as she had made such a point in the preceding chapter to highlight that in colonial society the home was considered to a certain extent a “public” sphere rather than a wholly “private” sphere. I actually would like to spend some more time exploring shifting ideas of public vs private spheres.

Ultimately, Brekus’ examination of female preachers in early America is compelling, informative, and quite important to understanding the complexities of gender and religion in the revolutionary era. I think that for me the most important part of Brekus’ book is her repeated point that we must understand that the idea of continuous forward “progress” through history is a total fallacy. While as historians, this may be evident to us, the larger audience which Brekus is addressing with her book needs to be reminded (and sometimes we as historians do too) that more often than not, the historical narrative is “broken and disjointed” (p 340).

You’ve Got to Fight for Your Right (to Vote)

Revolutionary Backlash: Women and Politics in the Early American Republic, Rosemarie Zagarri (2009).


This week we tried a different approach to our readings, each of us read and will be responding to a different book. I read Rosemarie Zagarri’s Revolutionary Backlash, which builds on the work done by the other two books read this week (Fiery Frenchified Dames-Susan Branson, and Women of the Republic- Linda Kerber) to explore the ways that women tried to use politics as a means of gaining agency outside of the home. It is important to note that Zagarri, like Kerber and Branson, are only addressing the roles of white women who would have been enfranchised had they been male, by meeting the requirements of land and income of the time. This is a welcome approach given my frustration with Revolutionary Conceptions and the way African American women were dropped into the narrative but not fully explored; however it would have been beneficial I believe for Zagarri to address why this approach works best for her examination.

Zagarri begins by outlining her argument, during the Revolution women were encouraged to participate openly in support of the colonists through boycotts, supplying troops, wearing homespun, and even attending public political events. This was possible both as politics moved out of pubs and taverns (inappropriate venues for a respectable woman) and into the streets where everyone was able to view and participate. This encouragement to participate in the new nation was embodied in Republican Motherhood, though as Zagarri is quick to point out, only as long as women continued to be the moral center of the family. Zagarri writes that “in many ways the story of postrevolutionary America is the story of how American women and men sought to define- and ultimately limit and restrict- the expansive ideals they had so successfully deployed against Britain” (4); this definition of ideals shifted shortly after the revolution and was completed by the 1820s.

It is at this point that Zagarri argues that the extreme division of the nation along the lines of Federalist and Republican caused women to become more partisan in their political ideology, no longer deferring to the men in their lives for guidance. This, along with the growing fear of enfranchising free blacks, led to the “backlash” for which the book is titled. Women began to be pushed back into the home. I particularly like the way that Zagarri highlights the way that women of the time responded to the “backlash” by changing their focus to civil society, “provid[ing] a conceptual middle ground between the extremes of party and electoral politics, on the one hand, and politics defined as all unequal power relations, on the other” (8). By participating in charitable societies, reform organizations, and benevolent societies women were able to “contribute to the polity in different ways…Thus at the same time women’s ability to participate[ate in party politics and electoral affairs began to decrease, women began to find venues for participating in politics by another means” (8-9). This is of particular interest as it relates to my research this semester on the women of the American Colonization Society, reinforcing my working theory that the women joined the Society as a means of participating in politics and escaping the private sphere.

Zagarri’s book is admittedly not one that I would have chosen for myself outside of this course, but I am so glad that I was able to read it. Her discussion of the ways women were able to retain their political agency inspire of the “backlash”is very compelling.

Historiography(ish) Discussion of Family Planning

Revolutionary Conceptions: Women, Fertility, & Family Limitation in America 1760-1820. Susan E. Klepp (2009).

In Revolutionary Conceptions, Susan Klepp builds upon the work of historians who specialize in women’s history, early American history, and medical history. Of particular note here is the ways that Klepp builds upon the works of Jennifer Morgan, Sharon Block, Laura Thatcher Ulrich, Deborah Gray White, and Linda Kerber; all women’s historians who we are utilizing as part of our survey of women in American history. Klepp rests her argument, that the Revolution catapulted women’s desire to control their lives and bodies through controlling their fertility, within the framework of the existing discussion of how women exerted agency over their lives. Klepp’s approach relies on a large amount of quantitative analysis, which may be off-putting for some in her audience as the mixing of large data and history seems to fade out of fashion in history as quickly as it reappears. Nevertheless, Klepp approaches the meat of her argument by sorting through the numbers that animate birth rates, average family size, and changing trends over time; a method which is not seen much in women’s history. Klepp also relies on the established historiography of legal history and literary history in the early republic. While some of her argument becomes muddled in the combination of these approaches, as my peers will discuss in their posts, Klepp is successful in demonstrating the depth and breadth of analysis that can be done to understand silenced topics such as controlling fertility during the Revolutionary period. It is in the combined approach, grounded in data analysis, which I believe provides a good guideline for my future research and analysis.

Klepp’s book is both overwhelmingly information-rich, and inconclusive. Klepp uncovers many facets of life in the early republic which beg further research, whether she did not have time or resources to further develop them in this book is unknown. The need for further research is evident in the discussion of men’s roles in decisions about family planning; something which Klepp mentions in passing but does not fully flesh-out. How did men perceive their roles in making decisions about reproduction, especially given Klepp’s statement that men viewed their success as a patriarch directly on their ability to procreate? Another path of further research I believe relies on the discussion of the language of fertility during this period. How influential was the use of agricultural terms to describe pregnancy, birth, and family planning to the ways that women viewed their bodies and their roles as procreators? I have said several times in discussing this book with my peers, and the professor, that this work creates more questions than it successfully answers; I do not think that this is a problem as it drives further research and will expand the historiography further. The more I consider the approaches which Klepp used to create this book the more I admire her ability to combine so many different approaches to ideas of family planning in a (relatively) cohesive analysis.

Damned Women

Damned Women: Sinners and Witches in Puritan New England, Elizabeth Reis (1997)413d1ghqx7l-_sx300_bo1204203200_

In Damned Women, Elizabeth Reis asks why women were more likely to confess to being a witch than men were, given that Puritans believed women and men were almost equal in their ability to reach heaven. Reis explores in great detail the ways which fear of damnation and sin were internalized by members of Puritan society from an early age, “New England Puritans more typically focused on what seemed all too likely: their merited descent into the terrors of hell” (19). It is important to understand the level of internalization of this fear, because it gives a glimpse into the psyche of those who would eventually confess to the crime of being a witch when modern society considers this a ridiculous accusation. Reis is successful in emphasizing just how real and tangible the threat of the devil was to men and women within puritan society, through his ability to literally posses a person’s body through shear strength of will, by seducing them through promises of happiness or wealth, or simply through existing close to a weak person (weak of body as Reis points out would make an individual more likely to be corrupted) (75). Reis states that “Satan appeared not as a metaphorical character but as an embodiment of world and spiritual attractions…the genuine, living creature of folklore, capable of entering people’s homes as well as their minds” (65) leaving every person within that society vulnerable to his predations whether physical, mental, or spiritual. The argument that Reis relies on for her analysis is that men were equally as vulnerable to the devil as women; but Reis continues to argue that women were viewed as inherently more vulnerable because of their physical weakness compared to men, in addition to their greater original sin. In the chapter entitled “Devil, Body, and Feminine Soul” Reis implies that every woman would have been considered a witch until proved otherwise or as she writes “A woman was damned if she did and damned if she didn’t” (94). I struggled a great deal with this concept, particularly given the evidence which Reis provided that men were nearly as likely to be seduced by the devil as women were.

Additionally, I found myself struggling to follow Reis’s logic with the use of primary sources. Most of the evidence which Reis provided was in the form of trial documents or sermons given during the time period, which makes sense. However, Reis fails to provided sufficient context (for me at least) to allow these sources to carry us through the historical narrative. What could have been an engaging examination of the pervasiveness of religious beliefs about damnation and gender became a repetitive and discordant trek through sermons and random court hearings. Perhaps most frustrating to me was the repeated reference to folk culture throughout the book; which Reis never defines or expounds upon. There is a lack of clarity here which makes the book difficult to follow at times. Perhaps Reis would have been better served by beginning her argument by defining what was understood as witchcraft in the “folk” meaning, and the clerical meanings to provide her readership with a stronger framework in which to place her evidence.

I do appreciate the approach that Reis took to accusation of witchcraft within Puritan New England, focusing on the role of religion in convincing women of their inherent sinfulness. I think that a little more historiography on the other influences on women within Puritan society would have helped me to grasp the argument which Reis makes a little better. By couching her argument within the larger historical frame, Reis could have spent more time on creating a narrative within her work to carry us through each of her points. I would have enjoyed following two or three women (or men) who confessed to witchcraft through her thesis, rather than bouncing through sermons and disconnected court cases. I do realize that this may be overly harsh criticism given that the sources available for this project must be incredibly limited, so I hope that I am not overly criticized for my criticism, but Reis demonstrates her mastery of the source material throughout, leaving me to think that she could have made the work more accessible in this way.