The best books about women in early America

Why am I passionate about this?

Nearly 200 years passed between the first English settlements and the American Revolution. Yet Americans today have a static view of women’s lives during that long period. I have now published four books on the subject of early American women, and I have barely scratched the surface. My works—Liberty’s Daughters was the first I wrote, though the last chronologically—are the results of many years of investigating the earliest settlers in New England and the Chesapeake, accused witches, and politically active women on both sides of the Atlantic. And I intend to keep researching and to write more on this fascinating topic!

I wrote...

Liberty's Daughters: The Revolutionary Experience of American Women, 1750-1800

By Mary Beth Norton,

Book cover of Liberty's Daughters: The Revolutionary Experience of American Women, 1750-1800

What is my book about?

An examination of American women’s lives during the late eighteenth century, Liberty’s Daughters is based primarily on their own writings, especially correspondence and diaries. It describes their experiences before, during, and after the revolutionary war—as wives and mothers, as patriots and loyalists, as single or married, as free or enslaved, as rural or urban residents. It covers white women’s increasing involvement in politics before the war, and their role in managing family property while their husbands were away in the army or serving in Congress. It also looks at how the war affected the lives of enslaved women in the South, allowing some of them to run away to seek freedom.

The book reveals the changes in women’s lives after Revolution, as young women began to attend newly founded academies (high school equivalents) and sought more personal independence in marital relationships. The first American feminist, Judith Sargent Murray, began to write and publish her ideas during and after the war; she was the American counterpart to the more famous Mary Wollstonecraft in England. The book argues that the Revolution had a major impact on women, and women likewise had a major impact on the Revolution.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Portia: The World of Abigail Adams

Mary Beth Norton Why did I love this book?

Gelles has written several books and articles about Abigail (and John) Adams, but this is my favorite. Not a classic cradle-to-grave biography, It examines a series of episodes in Abigail’s life and her relationships with her husband, two sisters, and her children, especially her daughter Abigail junior (Nabby) and her son John Quincy. The series of well-crafted vignettes convey great insight into this important “founding mother,” the wife of the second president, mother of the sixth, and a lively intellect in her own right.

By Edith B. Gelles,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Portia as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

" . . . best-of-all-biographies of Abigail Adams . . . " -American Historical Review

"Portia, a new study of Abigail Adams-modern feminism's favorite Founding Mother-is a refreshing change of pace." -San Francisco Chronicle

" . . . very well done, highly perceptive, and full of fresh ideas." -Wilson Library Bulletin

" . . . Adams's strength, courage, and wit (as well as her bouts of depression and gender conservatism) emerge more fully than they have in any previous work. . . . a well-rounded portrait of a remarkable figure." -Choice

"In this important and fascinating biography, Edith Gelles not…

Book cover of A Storm of Witchcraft: The Salem Trials and the American Experience

Mary Beth Norton Why did I love this book?

Any list of books about women in Early America has to include one of the many books about the Salem witchcraft trials. After all, many of the key accusers and almost all the accused and executed in Salem in 1692 were women. Baker presents a more comprehensive view of the trials than most historians. He does not engage in armchair psychologizing but instead tells a balanced and well-researched story that includes new information about many of the participants in the trials, judges as well as those accused of witchcraft and those who testified against them.

By Emerson W. Baker,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked A Storm of Witchcraft as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Beginning in January 1692, Salem Village in colonial Massachusetts witnessed the largest and most lethal outbreak of witchcraft in early America. Villagers-mainly young women-suffered from unseen torments that caused them to writhe, shriek, and contort their bodies, complaining of pins stuck into their flesh and of being haunted by specters. Believing that they suffered from assaults by an invisible spirit, the community began a hunt to track down those responsible
for the demonic work. The resulting Salem Witch Trials, culminating in the execution of 19 villagers, persists as one of the most mysterious and fascinating events in American history.


Book cover of The Winthrop Woman

Mary Beth Norton Why did I love this book?

One of the best historical novels about a woman in seventeenth-century New England, this “oldie but goodie”—published in 1958--is based accurately on well-documented events in the nearly incredible life of the daughter-in-law of John Winthrop, the longtime governor of the Massachusetts Bay colony. Elizabeth Fones married Winthrop’s ne’er do well son Harry, but was widowed while still pregnant with their child before she emigrated to North America. There, she married Robert Feake, befriended Anne Hutchinson, moved to the New Haven colony and then to New Netherland, and took a lover, William Hallet (her eventual third husband) after Feake went insane. All true, and all stirringly told, by an accomplished novelist well acquainted with the details of life in early New England. A new edition was published in 2006.

By Anya Seton,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The Winthrop Woman as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

From the bestselling author of Katherine, this is the richly detailed story of Elizabeth Winthrop and her struggle against hardship and adversity in the new American colonies of the 17th Century. 'A rich and panoramic narrative full of gusto, sentimentality and compassion' (Times Literary Supplement)

In 1631 Elizabeth Winthrop, newly widowed with an infant daughter, set sail for the New World. Against this background of rigidity and conformity she dared to befriend Anne Hutchinson at the moment of her banishment from the Massachusetts Bay Colony; dared to challenge a determined army captain bent on the massacre of her friends the…

Book cover of Not All Wives: Women of Colonial Philadelphia

Mary Beth Norton Why did I love this book?

A well-written study of Philadelphia’s single women in the eighteenth century, this book offers an unusual view of women’s lives by focusing on the unmarried female residents of an urban middle-colony environment. (Most works on colonial women have studied married women in rural New England.) Each chapter highlights an individual woman and the diverse experiences of others like her, including poor women, dependents in siblings’ households, female shopkeepers and other tradeswomen, and women who form organizations with other women. Remarkably comprehensive, it presents a counterpoint to more familiar narratives.

By Karin Wulf,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Not All Wives as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Marital status was a fundamental legal and cultural feature of women's identity in the eighteenth century. Free women who were not married could own property and make wills, contracts, and court appearances, rights that the law of coverture prevented their married sisters from enjoying. Karin Wulf explores the significance of marital status in this account of unmarried women in Philadelphia, the largest city in the British colonies.
In a major act of historical reconstruction, Wulf draws upon sources ranging from tax lists, censuses, poor relief records, and wills to almanacs, newspapers, correspondence, and poetry in order to recreate the daily…

Book cover of Good Wives, Nasty Wenches, and Anxious Patriarchs: Gender, Race, and Power in Colonial Virginia

Mary Beth Norton Why did I love this book?

A path-breaking study of Black and White women in seventeenth- and early eighteenth-century Virginia, this book shows what can be learned about the origins of slavery in the Chesapeake region from a focus on women--free, enslaved, and indentured alike. Life on early Chesapeake tobacco plantations was very different from the image of “classic,” semi-mythic nineteenth-century cotton plantations familiar to Americans today. Living conditions were crude, especially in the early settlements, and the demands of tobacco cultivation differed greatly from cotton production. Brown shows how all the women in early Virginia were critical to the colony’s  development.

By Kathleen M. Brown,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Good Wives, Nasty Wenches, and Anxious Patriarchs as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Kathleen Brown examines the origins of racism and slavery in British North America from the perspective of gender. Both a basic social relationship and a model for other social hierarchies, gender helped determine the construction of racial categories and the institution of slavery in Virginia. But the rise of racial slavery also transformed gender relations, including ideals of masculinity. In response to the presence of Indians, the shortage of labor, and the insecurity of social rank, Virginia's colonial government tried to reinforce its authority by regulating the labor and sexuality of English servants and by making legal distinctions between English…

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Book cover of Benghazi! A New History of the Fiasco that Pushed America and its World to the Brink

Ethan Chorin Author Of Benghazi! A New History of the Fiasco that Pushed America and its World to the Brink

New book alert!

Why am I passionate about this?

Author Story-lover Middle East expert Curious Iconoclast Optimist

Ethan's 3 favorite reads in 2023

What is my book about?

Benghazi: A New History is a look back at the enigmatic 2012 attack on the US mission in Benghazi, Libya, its long-tail causes, and devastating (and largely unexamined) consequences for US domestic politics and foreign policy. It contains information not found elsewhere, and is backed up by 40 pages of citations and interviews with more than 250 key protagonists, experts, and witnesses.

So far, the book is the main -- and only -- antidote to a slew of early partisan “Benghazi” polemics, and the first to put the attack in its longer term historical, political, and social context. If you want to understand some of the events that have shaped present-day America, from political polarization and the election of Donald Trump, to January 6, the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, Russian expansionism, and the current Israel-Hamas war, I argue, you need to understand some of the twists and turns of America's most infamous "non-scandal, scandal.”

I was in Benghazi well before, during, and after the attack as a US diplomat and co-director of a medical NGO. I have written three books, and have been a contributor to The NYT, Foreign Affairs, Forbes, Salon, The Financial Times, Newsweek, and others.

By Ethan Chorin,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Benghazi! A New History of the Fiasco that Pushed America and its World to the Brink as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

On September 11, 2012, Al Qaeda proxies attacked and set fire to the US mission in Benghazi, Libya, killing a US Ambassador and three other Americans.  The attack launched one of the longest and most consequential 'scandals' in US history, only to disappear from public view once its political value was spent. 

Written in a highly engaging narrative style by one of a few Western experts on Libya, and decidely non-partisan, Benghazi!: A New History is the first to provide the full context for an event that divided, incited, and baffled most of America for more than three years, while silently reshaping…

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Interested in Philadelphia, Virginia, and witch trials?

10,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about Philadelphia, Virginia, and witch trials.

Philadelphia Explore 80 books about Philadelphia
Virginia Explore 106 books about Virginia
Witch Trials Explore 17 books about witch trials