Date of Award

Fall 1998

Project Type


Program or Major


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy

First Advisor

Laurel Thatcher Ulrich


Through analysis of about one thousand cases that appeared before the Middlesex County, Massachusetts, court between 1649 and 1679, this dissertation asks how authority, derived from patriarchal power, operated on the day-to-day level in colonial New England society. It argues that women were integral to colonial communities and to the effective maintenance of social order. While gender determined the roles people played in colonial society, and women were subordinate to their husbands and fathers, women and men shared agency in efforts to maintain social order.

The dissertation begins by tracing the process by which cases came to the county court, describing the judicial system and its links to the informal social control that occurred in communities. Examining those communities, it concludes that both women and men had prominent roles in community networks, working to resolve conflicts and control behavior. Turning next to the specific roles that women played in the day-to-day regulation of behavior, it argues that white, middle-status, and middle-aged or older women held significant authority in Middlesex county's patriarchal culture as mothers and mistresses, as neighbors, and as midwives and skillful women, who inspected other women's bodies for signs of witchcraft or pregnancy and childbirth. Women were thus critical to the enforcement of the gender and racial hierarchy.

A close look at two towns enmeshed in conflict reveals that disruption spread among the interdependent levels of the society: the male realms of town, county, and colony government; the realms males shared with females, household and community; and the female-watched realm of sexuality. As Middlesex rulers perceived a loss of order in the 1660s and 1670s, they responded with an increased effort to control behavior through gendered authority. Fornication cases, laws, and family government prosecutions demonstrate that the county court and colony government emphatically reiterated the commitment to gendered authority. However, an increasing reliance on minor male officials may have incidentally de-emphasized women's informal roles in a foreshadowing of future changes.