Sunday, March 13, 2011

Women's History Month.

Since March is Women's History Month, and I'm a woman who loves history, I thought I'd share a few books I've enjoyed lately. Most of them should be available through or your local bookseller.

I'm almost finished with Bold in her Breeches by Jo Stanley, which is a collection of essays by different authors about female pirates. Yes. Female pirates. Many of you have probably heard the legends about Mary Read and Ann Bonny, and they are included in this collection, along with several other rogue women of history. Not only that, the essays explain how women were indirectly involved in the business of piracy without being actual pirates themselves, but serving as washerwomen, tavern operators, prostitutes, etc. The writers also examine the socioeconomic conditions that led some women to serve on pirate vessels.

Women of the House by Jean Zimmerman made a huge impression when I read it a year or so ago. Mister gave it to me one Christmas because it's about a Dutch woman and her descendants, and many of my own ancestors were Dutch. This book follows the family of Margaret Hardenbroeck Philipse from the 17th century until after the American Revolution. What I found most fascinating was that the Dutch way of life for women in the 17th century was unlike everything I'd ever been taught about the women's experience throughout history. Granted, they still couldn't vote, but Dutch women at that time were highly independent. They owned businesses and property and didn't necessarily change their names when they married. Margaret came to America in 1659 as a debt collector for her cousin. She built her own fleet of trade ships and at the end of her life, was the richest woman in New York.

All of that changed in the 18th century when the British took over New Amsterdam and renamed it New York. Under English law, when a woman married, she and everything she owned became her husband's property. Dutch society tried to keep some of their own customs on the sly, but eventually had to give them up. Margaret's great-grandchildren, who remained loyal to the Crown during the Revolution, were forced to flee for England after the war - even though they were born in America had never lived in Great Britain.

I would be remiss if I didn't mention one of my favorite historical women: Abigail Adams. Abigail was tutored at home, as girls often were in the 18th century, but she also educated herself through avid reading. John Adams, being no fool, recognized a smart woman when he saw one, and their partnership is one of the most endearing in American history. Due to his political duties, John spent most of his married life away from home, and Abigail ran their farm and took care of four children in her husband's long absences. Their enduring relationship is revealed best in their letters to one another, which exist in many editions. I prefer the Penguin Classics edition for its historical notes.

I'm sure you are all familiar with Abigail's entreaty that John and his comrades "remember the ladies." I present her comment in context, along with his reply.

Braintree, Massachusetts, 31 March 1776: ". . . I long to hear that you have declared an independency. And, by the way, in the new code of laws which I suppose it will be necessary for you to make, I desire you would remember the ladies and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors. Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the husbands. Remember, all men would be tyrants if they could. If particular care is not paid to the ladies, we are determined to foment a rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we have no voice or representation.

"That your sex are naturally tyrannical is a truth so thoroughly established as to admit of no dispute; but such of you as wish to be happy willingly give up the harsh title of master for the more tender and endearing one of friend. Why, then, not put it out of the power of the vicious and the lawless to use us with cruelty and indignity with impunity? Men of sense in all ages abhor those customs which treat us only as the vassals of your sex; regard us then as beings placed by Providence under your protection, and in imitation of the Supreme Being make use of that power only for our happiness."

John Adams's reply, dated April 14: ". . . We have been told that our struggle has loosened the bands of government everywhere; that children and apprentices were disobedient; that schools and colleges were grown turbulent; that Indians slighted their guardians, and negroes grew insolent to their masters. But your letter was the first intimation that another tribe, more numerous and powerful than all the rest, were grown discontented. This is rather too coarse a compliment, but you are so saucy, I won't blot it out. (Yes. John Adams just called his wife SAUCY.) Depend upon it, we know better than to repeal our masculine systems. Although they are in full force, you know they are little more than theory. We dare not exert our power in its full latitude. We are obliged to go fair and softly, and, in practice, you know we are the subjects. We have only the name of masters, and rather than give up this, which would completely subject us to the despotism of the petticoat, I hope General Washington and all our brave heroes would fight."

So, this month, challenge yourself to learn something new about women's history. Better yet, go out and make some history of your own. And remember the words of scholar Laurel Thatcher Ulrich: "Well-behaved women rarely make history."

Still giggling over John Adams calling his wife "saucy." Till next time ---

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