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?