Date of Award

Spring 1980

Project Type


Program or Major


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy


This dissertation describes the productive, sexual, and public roles of married women living in the province of New Hampshire and the two Massachusetts counties which bordered it, Essex County to the south and York County (now Maine) to the north and east. Because there are no female diaries for the period and few letters, the study depends upon an accumulation of evidence from court records, account books, probate inventories, church records, paintings, embroideries, gravestones, genealogical records, captivity narratives, sermons, and the letters and diaries of husbands and sons.

The discussion is organized around three Biblical archetypes frequently employed in early New England. "Bathsheba" explores the distinct and often competing roles of housewife and deputy husband, suggesting that it was not the work which wives performed which mattered so much as the social context of that work. Although the ability to at least temporarily perform male work was a key responsibility of wives, economic power was always contingent upon personal relationships. For most women the primary focus of productive life was in their kitchens and yards, though interaction with other women was crucial in defining and enforcing boundaries of authority and responsibility.

"Eve" examines the sexual and reproductive roles of consorts and mothers, noting contradictory elements in folk, Puritan, and genteel images of female sexuality. Through their roles as midwives, helpful neighbors, and gossips even more than through their access to the formal authority of county courts, women upheld sexual mores in early American communities. Although the roles of "fair consort" and "godly mother" undermined the traditional denigration of Eve, they did not deny the physical nature of women, idealizing both sexual attractiveness and biological fruitfulness.

"Jael" looks at the role of frontier heroine as it developed in the ministerial literature of Metacom's Rebellion and in the French and Indian wars of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. When the fighting viragoes, godly captives, and saintly wives of the literature are placed in a larger context, they point toward limited tolerance for female aggression in northern New England as well as strong identification with religion, though not always in the form described by the ministry.

The status of women in early New England was not determined by work, by Puritanism, or by a frontier setting, but by the interrelationship of a series of complex roles--housewife, deputy husband, consort, mother, mistress, neighbor, and Christian.