The best books about women in early America

Mary Beth Norton Author Of Liberty's Daughters: The Revolutionary Experience of American Women, 1750-1800
By Mary Beth Norton

Who am I?

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.

The books I picked & why

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Portia: The World of Abigail Adams

By Edith B. Gelles,

Book cover of Portia: The World of Abigail Adams

Why 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.

Storm of Witchcraft: The Salem Trials and the American Experience

By Emerson W. Baker,

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

Why 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.

The Winthrop Woman

By Anya Seton,

Book cover of The Winthrop Woman

Why 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.

Not All Wives: Women of Colonial Philadelphia

By Karin Wulf,

Book cover of Not All Wives: Women of Colonial Philadelphia

Why 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.

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

By Kathleen M. Brown,

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

Why 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.

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