Virtuous & Vicious: Two Types of Women in Colonial American Newspapers
One of the joys in writing historical fiction is the research I get to do. When I started to write Major Deception, I was surprised to discover that there were nearly as many newspapers circulating in 1730’s Boston as there were in London. While my main character, Hannah Turner, could not read, I learned that Boston newspapers had a lot to say about women.
Virtuous vs. Vicious
In 1760 the New York Gazette received a letter from a man who was worried that women had “left the duties of their own sex to invade the privileges of ours.” Afterall, he believed that the place of a virtuous woman was to serve of her husband, to train up children, and to serve as a general moral guide for those around her. Sixteenth-century theologian John Calvin likely would have agreed with him given the following assertion: “Let the woman be satisfied with her state of subjection, and not take it amiss that she is made inferior to the more distinguished sex.”
The virtuous woman who serves and loves those around her is set opposite to the vicious woman who “was lazy, ignored her family’s needs, and often was absorbed in evil. She might steal, commit adultery, or even murder.”
Ultimately, these dichotomous views of women are each well-represented in colonial newspapers. Afterall, although “the female world of the eighteenth century included children, education, and the relationship between husband and wife... when colonial newspapers focused upon the female world, the concentrated upon the dualistic understanding of women as instigators of the fall of humankind and the bringer of its savior.”
Such reporting further entrenched women in the categories of virtuous and vicious.
Although she was largely confined to the domestic sphere, the eighteenth-century woman had many important responsibilities. In addition to carrying and birthing babies, women were tasked with raising up children to be literate and moral members of society. By the latter half of the century, single women even began to realize that by working a trade (such as teaching or domestic service) they could make their own money and retain the rights usually stripped from married women.
While it is not known exactly how many newspapers were for or read by women, some women did read newspapers or, like my character Hannah, had someone read the newspapers to them. Newspapers published poems, short stories, and more all with a clear message – good and happy wives are subservient above all else. Essentially, virtuous women “had to meet the needs of their husbands and society” to achieve the promise of a satisfying life.
While my character Hannah Turner was a sex worker, colonial American newspapers assured her that virtuous women could fulfill this obligation to society by having many children, obtaining enough education to teach the children and be intellectually interesting conversationalists with their husbands. In fact, virtue and children were often the only two things that colonial women were remembered for after their deaths.
There were a number of examples that survive in the record. A remarkable New Jersey woman in only seventeen years of marriage bore "her husband 18 sons and two daughters, and is now to appearance in the very bloom of life.” Newspapers called the attention of their readers to "fruitful Dames" who delivered twins and triplets to help populate the colonies. When Anne Pollard died in 1725 outside of Boston, all that was noted about her were her husband's name, her remarkable age of 105, and the fact that she left behind 130 children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren.
On the other hand, women who refused to fully submit to male domination were labeled vicious.
The vicious women “did not have to be a cold-blooded killer or commit any other horrendous crime... all she had to do was breach the concept of the virtuous woman held by society.” Despite praise of the virtuous woman, the vicious woman appeared in colonial newspapers far more often.
Such stories frequently harken back to Eve and reiterate that women are the weaker sex. They also paint the vicious woman as one who forsakes “her daily duties in the home for the pleasures of gaming and idle chatter with other women” and even one who “rises late in the afternoon, drinks, gambles, and plays cards all night and then crawls into bed next to her hard-working husband just before sunrise.”
The life of leisure that the vicious woman leads is demonized because it takes away from her ability to properly mother her children. Some newspapers even go so far as to report that women who are anything less than totally submissive to their husbands will inevitably fall into abuse and neglect of her children. Admittedly playing card games and abusing children are not one-in-the-same, but both fell under the category of the vicious woman who was supposedly to blame for the ills of society.
Quest for Independence
Unsurprisingly, women began looking for a way out of “the narrow confines of the female world” and the opportunity to “gain some control over their own lives.” Colonial newspapers told stories of such women who successfully widened their world by posing as men. Such a phenomenon is important because although most newspapers continued to produce content about virtuous women, these stories suggest that “if women wanted to be free of the burdens of the virtuous women, they had to cease being women.”
A woman who chose this method of independence had to be extremely careful and a bit lucky not to be discovered. Newspapers reported several instances of women who successfully enlisted during the War with Spain in 1740. But the most famous woman to pose as a man during the period was probably Hannah Snell. Snell served seven years as a Marine in His Majesty's service under the name James Gray, fighting in the East Indies, before petitioning the government to be released from service. Snell was a decorated soldier and in one battle "received twelve Wounds, six in her right Arm, and five in her Left, and the other in her Groin, from the last of which she extracted the Ball, and herself perfected the Cure, in order to prevent her Sex being discovered." When the King acted on Snell's petition to leave the service, she was granted a pension of 30 pounds per year for life. No one ever suspected that Snell was a female, not even when she was publicly whipped, naked from the waist up.
Generally, “women’s efforts at attaining a certain amount of independence and equality in society may not have met with men’s approval when those actions threatened the security of the male position within society,” such as with the rising divorce rates, “but many independent acts by women were approved by the male-dominated eighteenth-century American culture.” These approved acts were typically related to independent efforts that sought to free America from England. Anything for the good of the country, right?
All in all, the good versus evil dichotomy was alive and well in the portrayals of women throughout the eighteenth century. As the century rolled along a small, but growing, number of colonial newspapers began presenting the case for increased female autonomy. While such stories were not met with universal adoration, they represent an important development in the colonial reporting on women.
Virtuous and Vicious: The Dual Portrayal of Women in Colonial Newspapers by David A. Copeland American Periodicals, 1995, Vol. 5 (1995), pp. 59-85