Summer Book Club, Week 1

Welcome to the Junto Summer Book Club, where over the next six Fridays we will be reading and discussing Kathleen Brown’s 1996 book, Good Wives, Nasty Wenches, & Anxious Patriarchs. Each week, a Junto representative will write a brief post on that week’s chapters to offer a few opening remarks and raise some questions to get the discussion started. We will then open up the comments section for you to address any topic related to the book—its argument, Brown’s use of sources, the historiography, using it in the classroom or in a public setting, to name just a few. We look forward to a lively conversation and to seeing how it develops over the next several weeks.

This week, we begin our conversation with the Introduction and Chapter 1, “Gender and English Identity on the Eve of Colonial Settlement.”

Good Wives, Nasty Wenches, & Anxious Patriarchs enters into a number of major scholarly conversations within early American history: seventeenth-century Virginia (and, somewhat more broadly, the Chesapeake region); the origins of slavery debate; gender and masculinity; race; class and economic life. (And by way of disclaimer, these ambitions were far more responsible for its selection than its fantastic title.) Each of these debates continues to this day. Historians have in particular continue to debate the origins of slavery in seventeenth-century Virginia, including most recently in books by Rebecca Goetz, John Coombs and Doug Bradburn (as editors), and Lorena Walsh, not to mention countless articles.

One of Brown’s major goals is to intertwine all of these stories into a single coherent narrative in order to understand how Virginia came to be a slave society dominated by a ruling class of elite white men. Brown makes this strategy quite explicit:

Thus, I have not devoted any single chapter solely to race or to class or to gender, nor have I simply added gender to the existing literature on race and class in colonial Virginia. Rather, I treat gender, slavery, and elite dominance as interrelated relationships of power whose histories intersect and mutually shape one another. (4)

For Brown, the discourse of gender was particularly important for the ways in which it defined both women and men (as the title suggests). It strikes me that, in 1996, this was a bolder move than it seems in retrospect, as a host of scholars, including Toby Ditz, Richard Godbeer, Thomas A. Foster among many, many others, have over the past twenty years examined in great detail the role of masculinity in early America.

In chapter 1, Brown begins her exploration by setting the scene in late sixteenth-century England. She argues that Virginia’s settlement occurred at a crucial moment for the history of gender in England, as two divergent currents competed. On the one hand, patriarchy was becoming far more normalized as a model for the political and economic organization of society. On the other hand, to be rather blunt, Queen Elizabeth I. The long reign of Elizabeth, Brown notes, deeply complicated any conception of gendered power that writers and ordinary Englishmen attempted to utilize. Brown also introduces in this chapter the concept of a “gender frontier,” which she defines as “the meeting of two or more culturally specific systems of knowledge about gender and nature.” (33) She explores how the concept worked in Virginia in detail in Chapter 2, which we will discuss next week. In chapter 1, she argues that the first English experiences with such gender frontiers were in Ireland and Africa; in both cases, gender became an explanatory construct for English superiority and the “other’s” inferiority.

Both the introduction and chapter thus open up several lines of discussion that we will be able to pursue throughout the book. Because much of this material is introductory and stage-setting, I’ll pose two broad and relatively open-ended questions to get started: First, what lines of argument do you find most compelling? Second, how convinced were you of the antecedents that Brown posed for her study?

With that, we turn to you. What are your thoughts?

10 comments on “Summer Book Club, Week 1

  1. Sara Damiano says:

    Thanks for this first book club post, Joe. To kick off the discussion–but admittedly avoid the questions that you’ve posted–I’ll say that I agree with your point that integrating gender into the history of slavery and politics in Virginia in the mid-1990s was “a bolder move than it seems in retrospect.”

    On re-reading the introduction this week, Brown’s pronouncements about the novelty of her work stuck out to me. She writes that “Although several scholars have recently begun to define race as a socially constructed entity…no one has connected this process to the to the history of gender relations in colonial America” (2). She also similarly stresses the novelty of linking gender and class. Of course, we could discuss whether (even in 1996) these were overstatements of the kind normally found in book introductions. However, it is striking to me that it would be very hard to get away with making these kinds of statements today. That fact, I think, is a testament to the development of gender history and its integration with other sub-fields.

    Looking forward to other readers’ thoughts!

  2. Tom Cutterham says:

    I’m looking forward to seeing the different ways people engage with this, especially as our reading develops further into the book. What I have to say now is that one of the things that strikes me in this first chapter is the immense difficulty of sketching out something like a world-view. Sentences like this — “Such inexplicable and uncontrollable forces as time, weather, and creation were considered akin to God’s own powers and necessary for cosmic order” — seem somehow both necessary and absurd, in their enormous generality. I may be wrong about this, but I think now, nearly two decades later, historians are more reticent about attempting this kind of thing; which might very well be for the best.

    On similar lines, this opening chapter also got me thinking about the difference between books on early America that begin in England, and those that effectively begin on the ships, or the shore. To me David Hackett Fischer’s book is still the archetype for this kind of foregrounding of transmission, but I may be out of touch here. How much time do historians of early colonisation usually spend on England itself before they make the crossing? It seems to me there are whole libraries of secondary literature in Brown’s footnotes! Chris Tomlins starts with Shakespeare (if I’m not mistaken) in Freedom Bound. His approach could be interestingly contrasted to Brown’s, I think, especially in what I read as its refusal to make the kinds of generalising statements I picked up on above. But by leaving readers with the texts in all their specificity, he sure does make it more difficult to get one’s bearings.

    • Sentences like this — “Such inexplicable and uncontrollable forces as time, weather, and creation were considered akin to God’s own powers and necessary for cosmic order” — seem somehow both necessary and absurd, in their enormous generality.

      I think that’s a great observation, Tom, and it’s related to the real strength (and risk-taking) of this book: even in the first chapter, it’s hard to say at any moment whether we’re reading about “gender,” “labor,” “race,” etc., because Brown is completely committed to the principle that these concepts are interrelated. Their interpenetration makes it hard to avoid dangerously broad statements like that, even if Brown were less interested in providing a full backstory to her Virginia study; she’s discussing these concepts as features of a nebulous cultural understanding rather than clearly delineated aspects of legal, religious, or philosophical practice. But I do worry about the standard “by whom?” question when I see statements that sweeping, especially in the passive voice. Are we not at risk of defining a worldview that didn’t really exist in the wild, or at the level of any particular person’s thought? … But on the other hand, don’t the standard ways of protecting against that—to stick to especially crisp sources and narrowly defined terms—also fail to capture thought as it really existed?

      I think it’s impressive, in the end, how well the book steers between those dangers.

      • I think this sentence would bother me more if it came later in the book. That is, seeing it in a contextual chapter on what you note was a “nebulous cultural understanding” is somewhat bothersome, but ultimately the worst crime seems to be (perhaps!) oversimplification rather than outright misstatement. And when it comes down to it, I’m not sure I want to ask Brown to master all sorts of primary sources on English gender constructs for a book about Virginia (nor do I want as a writer to be held to an analogous standard for my work). That’s what secondary literature in another area is supposed to help you do.

        It doesn’t help in this case (as I learned when I did my own field in early modern British history) that the history of women and gender in England lagged somewhat behind the work done on colonial America and the United States. So Brown may be facing a lack of literature on which to draw. (And I disclaim here that I do not have my copy of the book with me this weekend, so I can’t go back to her notes to see.)

    • I was struck in reading your comment in tandem with Sara’s above that another broad area that seems to be missing in retrospect is the Atlantic world. Again, the book was published at a moment in time in which the Atlantic was not yet trendy, paradigmatic, or overdetermined in scholarly circles. The first chapter is a strong nod to that trend, in particular through its discussion of Ireland and Africa, but once the crossing has occurred, the narrative and argument seem strongly grounded in Virginia. I suspect that’s the right way to tell this particular story even with an Atlantic frame, but I wonder how the book might look differently today in that regard.

  3. Roy Rogers says:

    I’m very much glad that we’re reviewing this book over the summer, particularly considering I am working working in the archives at the moment with sources pertaining the eighteenth century Chesapeake planter class. Just today I stumbled upon a letter where a planter described how he used his slaves to prevent his depressed sister from running off with a potential suitor. The questions Brown raises in her book continue to shape the Chesapeake well past her chronological cut-off.

    Digression aside, one of the more useful features of the first part of “Good Wives” is Brown’s conceptualization of the idea of “gender frontiers” – as Joe helpfully highlights. It is a very teachable concept because it applies not just to the English but to Native Virginians and Africans as well. All three groups used gender norms to sharply differentiate themselves from each other. I’ve found students can really latch on how the collision of gender norms can both sharping and blur identities.

    • I agree about the concept of gender frontiers – in fact, I held back a bit because I think the discussion will be even more fruitful next week when we discuss Chapter 2 (which I used last year in my Native American history course). Looking forward to it!

  4. It is a very good idea to run this summer book club . . . and to do it in this way so that we can discuss short readings around research, writing and other things.

    The opening of the book suggests that the Anglo-Atlantic – specifically the North-Atlantic connection between England and colonial Virginia – will be the main focus for what follows. It would have been difficult to break out of the colonial-American mould to more fully incorporate West African and Native American antecedents at the time Brown wrote, but there have (of course) since been efforts to do this. One of the boldest and most creative (I think) – drawing on ideas from Caribbeanists about creolisation – is James Carson’s book about making an Atlantic world in the colonial south.

    Brown’s choice of Virginia as the main point of focus also seems, to me, to position the book firmly within a colonial American framework. It is predicated, quite reasonably, on the fact that Virginia was one of the oldest and richest colonies in mainland America and had been the focus for extended debates about the origins of North American slavery. From the point of view of the British empire though, and – indeed – of the British Atlantic world, Jamaica would be a clear candidate for attention: the richest colony with the wealthiest and most politically powerful inhabitants (before 1775). It struck me that we still need these sorts of rich and imaginative studies for the seventeenth and eighteenth century Caribbean before we can have a fuller understanding of British colonial America. Recent work by Susan Dwyer Amussen and Trevor Burnard takes impressive steps in these directions.

    As I read on, I want to think a bit more about that definition of ‘class’ on p. 4 and see how Brown relates this to her other two main categories (which she seems to prioritise, judging from the title). And I am interested and so far convinced by the idea of a ‘gender frontier’ (although it does also occur to me from what we’ve read this week that questions of property and relationships between people and the landscape figured as strongly as gender within the cloudy processes of defining ‘others’ at the edges of Atlantic Englishness).

  5. […] and first chapter of Kathleen Brown’s Good Wives, Nasty Wenches, and Anxious Patriarchs during Week 1. This week we’ll consider Chapters 2 and 3. With these chapters, Brown transports us across the […]

  6. […] the first week, we discussed Brown’s ambition to “treat gender, slavery, and elite dominance as […]

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