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

The Books I Picked & Why

Portia: The World of Abigail Adams

By Edith B. Gelles

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.


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Storm of Witchcraft: The Salem Trials and the American Experience

By Emerson W. Baker

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.


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The Winthrop Woman

By Anya Seton

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.


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Not All Wives: Women of Colonial Philadelphia

By Karin Wulf

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.


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

By Kathleen M. Brown

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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