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When it comes to figures in United States history, who typically comes to mind? Out of curiosity, how many women can you name?

Turns out that U.S. history is chuckabuck full of significant woman. I wonder why we don’t know about more of them?

Mary Johnson, an African, immigrated to the colony of Virginia and became an indentured servant, a maid, to a Virginia planter in 1620. In 1618, Virginia planters were desperate for labor to work their labor intensive crop of tobacco. The Headright System allowed the planters to gain 50 acres of land for each indentured servant they contracted. In the mid 1600s, Jamestown was not an ideal place to live. Life there was often considered “nasty, brutish, and short,” due to malaria, typhoid, and good old dysentery or “bloody flux” in the colonial vernacular. But Mary and her husband both earned their freedom after finishing their terms as indentured servants. They acquired a 250 acre farm and even contracted five indentured servants of their own. The free black population that thrived in both the north and south stands as a compelling counter-narrative to the vague and unexamined ideas that all Africans were slaves and that Africans and African-Americans could not possibly survive or thrive outside of the system of slavery.

Margaret Brent, her sister Mary, and two brothers arrived in the colony of Maryland, as Catholic immigrants, in 1638. Margaret did not marry, which was quite unusual in a time where women were so scarce.  As an unmarried woman, Margaret could manage her own property instead of legally relinquishing all rights to her property upon marriage under legal coverture (women did not legally exist apart from her father or husband). Margaret was given property from Lord Baltimore and established her own estate and became active in business and particularly in lending money. As an unmarried woman, Margaret could also petition and testify in court, which she did on many occasions when her debtors failed to meet their obligations. Governor Calvert named Margaret the executor of his estate and Margaret also demanded the right to vote in the colonies. I wonder why so many people assume that women never thought of themselves as “political” or wanted the right to participate as voters?

Of course Anne Hutchinson is one of my favorites. A daughter of clergy and happily married to William, who encouraged discussions of theological ideas, Anne mothered fifteen children. Anne was well known as a healer and midwife in the colonial community of Boston and became known for her discussions of religion and the merits of faith. Her bible studies became very popular and then notorious as she questioned the clergy’s emphasis on works over faith. Governor Winthrop believed her to be “a woman of haughty and fierce carriage, of a nimble wit and active spirit, a very voluble tongue, more bold than a man.” This quote says a lot. When hauled before the General Court, Anne, all alone, faced the governor and panel of man and matched them Bible citation for Bible citation. Anne was charged because she did not believe works to be a sign of salvation and she asserted the Holy Spirit directly communicated with believers. Furthermore she was charged “you have maintained a meeting and an assembly in your house that hath been condemned by the general assembly as a thing not tolerable nor comely in the sight of God nor fitting for your sex.” For many colonists, free assemblies were not yet considered a right, and for Christian communities, women were not fully valued as fellow believers.

What is gained and what is lost by reducing a complex and nuanced history to a list of certain kinds of leaders and events?

Rebecca Koerselman

Rebecca Koerselman teaches history at Northwestern College in Orange City, IA.

4 Comments

  • Marilyn Paarlberg says:

    Thank you for this, Rebecca. Having just returned from a family reunion, I’m thinking again about a book by historian Gerda Lerner which came out in the 70’s, relatively early in gender studies, which features rather obscure stories of strong women in the American experience (“The Female Experience: An American Documentary”). Full disclosure, my paternal grandmother, Rena Rietveld Verduin, is included in the book for a feisty 1907 speech on the need for women to get an education. The book is out of print, but can be found in most academic libraries, and used copies are on Amazon. It’s an inspiring read, written by a notable figure in women’s studies.

    • Rebecca Koerselman says:

      Thanks, Marilyn, for the recommendation. I have read a lot of Gerda Lerner’s work, but not this one – and I am always looking for more ways to correct these long omissions of women from US history.

  • George E says:

    You’d be amazed at how many people who have contributed to society get ignored by historians. A great place to get acquainted is Tara Ross’ FB page — every day (at least) she posts a new thumbnail on an American historical figure. If you’re only interested in women, thru Ms. Ross’ pages you can discover Rose O’Neal Greenhow, the women of Huck’s Defeat, Helen Herron, and many others.

  • Lou Roossien says:

    Rebecca, thank you for paying due attention to these women created and gifted to re-present our Creator in ordinary and extraordinary ways. Perhaps not an unusual person, my mother birthed seven children, was de facto the ‘go-to’ parent for us, was variously employed outside our home, including becoming a Librarian in the Kent County system, through on the job training, and she grew to become a not-so-quiet spiritual leader in our home and community. As a pastor, some of my most helpful scholars and biblical commentators include Megan McKenna and Barbara Brown Taylor.

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