Junto Summer Book Club: Interview with Kathleen Brown

brown We at The Junto would like to thank everyone who read along with us for the Junto Summer Book Club. To bring the book club to a close, we caught up with Kathleen Brown, the author of Good Wives, Nasty Wenches, Anxious Patriarchs, via email. Brown is a professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania. Her most recent book is Foul Bodies: Cleanliness in Early America.

In our interview, Brown reflects on Good Wives, Nasty Wenches, Anxious Patriarchs eighteen years after its publication, assesses the state of women’s history and gender history, and shares her current project.

JUNTO: In the acknowledgments of Good Wives, Nasty Wenches, you write that an “excellent seminar on early American history convinced me of the need for more research on gender in colonial America.” Can you say more about what motivated you to undertake the dissertation that became your first book?

Kathleen Brown: This tongue-in-cheek comment was meant as a gentle criticism of both a dynamic field and a wonderful professor, Charles L. Cohen. Both appeared not to have grappled in any profound way with the history of women—or at least that is how it seemed when I was a 25 year old graduate student enrolled in the Women’s History Program under the guidance of Gerda Lerner. Having read works by Rhys Isaac, Peter Wood, and Edmund Morgan for the first time, I felt inspired to join the conversation about early America. I believed there was a way to write about gender, race, and slavery together that might help gender historians to rethink their approach to the history of women and at the same time help historians of race and slavery to bring gender into their analyses.

JUNTO: When reading Good Wives, Nasty Wenches today, it can be easy to overlook how novel its arguments were in the 1990s. As you were completing your research for the book, what sources or findings were most surprising to you? In what ways did you see yourself as breaking new methodological ground?

KB: I hoped my research would allow me to document a complex process of racialization and sexualization, but I really did not know what I was getting into. Scholars were beginning to talk about what we now call intersectionality—the ways that race, gender, and class were socially constructed and mutually constitutive—but I had yet to read any work of history that dealt with intersectionality as a truly historical process. I did not want simply to declare that these categories were intertwined, but to show it actually happening. The biggest surprise to me was how much work was involved. I read county court records for years; I was too obsessive to sample the long runs of records from the three counties I examined because I was afraid I would miss a really great case! So I just read everything I could from all three counties, plus all the manuscript sources and newspapers I could find. I was surprised by how gender and race seemed to be everywhere; I was genuinely fascinated by white men’s lived experiences in colonial Virginia as meanings for manhood and for whiteness transformed. But sometimes it seemed that gender and race were nowhere; there were weeks in which I read microfilm for hours and felt like I had learned little about the lives of enslaved people or white women.

JUNTO: Several of our summer book club discussions have touched on teaching. How do you teach the concepts and arguments of Good Wives, Nasty Wenches to your own undergraduate students?

KB: I always use the 1662 law (defining children as slave property belonging to their mother’s master) and the 1691 law (prohibiting interracial marriage and punishing white servant women who crossed the color line sexually) to get students thinking about the politics of property, sexuality, family formation, and gender that lay at the heart of racial slavery. I also remind them that everyone has ways of both expressing and feeling socially defined by their gender, race, and class (although in most contexts there are other important social categories and communities that contribute to experiences of belonging or exclusion). Learning about the history of gender is not simply a matter of investigating women’s lives, nor is the history of race simply about African Americans. I emphasize that race and gender are historical processes that occur in specific contexts as much as they are categories we can use to analyze power.

JUNTO: An ongoing conversation among gender historians—taken up most recently at a lively SHEAR session entitled “The Politics of and In Women’s History in the Era of the Early Republic—concerns the extent to which scholars of early America are suitably attentive to the methods and findings of gender historians, and the extent to which gender history remains a marginalized subfield.

Good Wives, Nasty Wenches contends that power relations of gender, class, and race were not only inextricably linked to one another, but also that they were central to the development of Virginia society. In making these arguments, you took on some long-influential texts, most notably Edmund Morgan’s American Slavery, American Freedom. Can you comment on the reception of Good Wives, Nasty Wenches and, more broadly, on whether gender history is sufficiently incorporated in the major narratives of early American history?

KB: The problem of gender history’s insufficient incorporation into the major historical narratives is not unique to the field of early American history. Actually, I don’t think it is a question of incorporation at all, but rather one of reconceptualizing the dynamics of historical change (or what we might think of more colloquially as the “motor” of history). Historians remain very limited in how we comprehend historical causation. We seem unable to relinquish our unacknowledged dependence upon physical science models of causation in which a central disturbance (a pebble dropped in the water, an explosion) creates ripples of energy that move outward. It is harder to imagine historical change as emanating from numerous dispersed sites (households, for example) and converging on central, public locations. Thus we have now entered a period of reversion to so-called master narratives in which politics and/or the economy (both in their more limited, formal meanings) are once again conceptualized as the centrifugal locations of historical change. Public debates, public spaces, public spheres, politics, and the workings of the formal economy seem, according to proponents of this recent scholarship, to be the only locations in which people and events could produced changes that act upon society at large. In my own work, however, including Good Wives, Nasty Wenches, I have found this model of historical change wanting. It is a productive and necessary, but ultimately insufficient model for explaining why people’s mundane and intimate lives and their relationships to politics and the economy have undergone such dramatic changes in the last four centuries.

Until we grapple with our most basic assumptions and models for analyzing historical change, we won’t accomplish a major reconceptualization of the larger narratives. As for my own work, I am always amused when I am asked to blurb a book or review an article or comment on a paper as the “gender” historian but not the “slavery” historian—that role often falls to someone else. Why, I wonder, would my approach to the history of slavery leave me unqualified to engage with other approaches to the topic? Do we imagine that historians who emphasize politics, or economy, or law are equally unqualified to engage fully with a particular topic?

JUNTO: Let’s say, hypothetically, that a publisher asked you to write a second, revised edition of Good Wives, Nasty Wenches today. Taking into account either changes in your own views or subsequent research by other historians, how would that edition look different from the one you published in 1996?

KB: In the last twenty years, I have become more aware of the dynamics of colonial settler societies and their relationships with indigenous peoples all around the world. This leaves me dissatisfied with how I handled the question of Native American manhood, especially during the period of Bacon’s Rebellion, and episodes of violent conflict with white colonials. I think, too, that I would place more emphasis on how elite Virginians who turned to slave labor early in the colony’s history, were part of a broader Atlantic trend. Finally, I would be clearer about my main response to Edmund Morgan’s work. Morgan provides us with a view of how slavery became the foil that made the freedom of white men a useful political bridge across the class divide. I tried to show that racism cannot simply take hold and become part of the political economy unless people believe in the racial inferiority of a subordinated group in some very profound and primal way. Racism simply could not support the political alliance of white men unless beliefs in racial difference were instilled early in life, in the daily routines of households, and in the way ordinary people experienced and navigated through the colonial world. In other words, it isn’t enough to know that white men’s self interests were served by racial slavery; we would need to know about the stake of white women and their investment in producing and perpetuating the racial divide.

JUNTO: Your second book, Foul Bodies, of course deals with similar themes to Good Wives, Nasty Wenches. How did your work on Good Wives, Nasty Wenches lead you to develop your second project on cleanliness in early America?

KB: As I revised my dissertation for publication, I followed the discursive turn and became newly aware of the discursive productions and elaborations of race. But following the publication of Good Wives, Nasty Wenches, I became troubled by the ways a focus on discourse often impeded engagement with or acknowledgment of the material body. The body I wanted to incorporate into my scholarship was neither a natural body nor a universal body, but a historical body. Culture, discipline, manners, fashion, disease, and medical theories about how to care for the body might all leave their mark on a historical body. So might the expectations for cleanliness and decency, particularly during an historical epoch in which people around the Atlantic world came in contact with diverse regimes of body care. I found cleanliness to be a productive topic not only because it allowed me to trace the impact of cultural contact upon the material body, but because it exposed the connections between domestic routines (washing, dressing, housecleaning) and the expectations for participation in public life. Since the publication of Foul Bodies I have pursued my interest in the history of the body in my teaching. In particular, I have been thinking about how poverty, labor, violence, terror, war, and access to education all “get under the skin” in ways that affect the capacities and responses of historical subjects to the world they live in.

JUNTO: Finally, what are you working on now/next?

KB: I am researching and writing a book on abolition as the first global campaign for human rights, tentatively titled Undoing Slavery. I am interested in how abolitionists—beginning with the seventeenth century English writer Thomas Tryon and ending with the advocates of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments—imagined the meaning of “the human” as expansive and multi-dimensional, and including the physical body, the emotions, and the desire for family connections as well as the political visibility of citizenship.

4 responses

  1. Pingback: The Week in Early American History « The Junto

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  3. Pingback: The Junto Enters the Terrible Twos! « The Junto


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