The Polite Americans
John Winthrop, meditating upon the evils of educating women too much, noted the sad case of Ann, wife of Edward Hopkins, Governor of Connecticut, and aunt of Elihu Yale. She meddled 'in such things as are proper for men.' Although she was 'a godly young woman and of special parts' she went out of her mind 'by occasion of her giving herself wholly to reading and writing.' The Massachusetts Spy fired a double-shotted broadside at both male pedantry and feminine deficiencies when it recommended to the 'fine gentleman,' ironically of course:
'Whenever you are in company with ladies, endeavour to show your sense and learning. Select as many hard words as possible, and quote passages out of Horace and Homer. Praise the former as a fine Grecian, and the latter for excelling in Latin. If you meet with a lady who knows more than yourself, be always of her opinion, and exclaim "Gad's curse, you have taken them words out of my mouth."'
Not every man was frightened out of his wits by the learned ladies. Dr. Ramsay adored his brilliant Martha and was proud of her achievements. Aaron Burr considered it a far more likely peril that his daughter, Theodosia, might become merely a woman of fashion rather than a bluestocking and so had her, at the age of ten, well into Terence and Lucian and starting the study of Greek. A few women broke through the barriers, not content with a bit of lace, a bottle of snuff and the drawing room chit-chat which Colonel Byrd characterized as 'like whip-syllabub, very pretty but nothing in it.' Jane Golden, daughter of Cadwallader Golden, Lieutenant Governor of New York, philosopher and scientist, was herself a distinguished botanist. Mercy Warren, daughter of James Otis, sister of the more famous James, and her musical friend, Hannah Winthrop, exercised their classical learning in an intimate correspondence. Mercy wrote as 'Honoria,' Hannah signed herself 'Philomela,' in Greek mythology the daughter of a legendary king of Athens who could sing like a nightingale. Mrs. Samuel Meredith, wife of the Philadelphia financier, knew European history, delighted Chastellux with her ability to compare Francis I and Henry IV, Richelieu and Mazarin, with grace and understanding; while aristocratic, fragile, romantic Elizabeth Graeme, sometimes saluted as the Philadelphia Sappho, became celebrated as a poetess, translator and patroness of the arts. Miss Graeme received special marks of favor in London from George III and returned home to preside over America's first authentic salon. Around her gathered a group that included Francis Hopkinson, Thomas Godfrey and Nathaniel Evans.
Even a brief glance at women who escaped the submissive pattern must include Anne Bradstreet, the first American woman poet, Anne Hutchinson, the seventeenth century religious liberal, and the tiny, formidable aunt of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Mary Moody Emerson, learned in the poets and philosophers, herself a diarist and stylist of such pith and force that Emerson borrowed as freely from her as from Plutarch and Montaigne. Aunt Mary's behavior, in the view of more conventional women, left much to be desired. She was 'not nice in her habits,' one disapproving contemporary said, but 'would do for these days better than in the time when women were retired and modest in manners, and had great reverence for the stronger sex.'
There were also women who managed successful business enterprises in the eighteenth century. Eliza Lucas Pinckney was not only an ornament of Charleston society, a woman who had studied law in her spare time and was more deeply read in the Latin authors than the parson of the parish, but the manager of several plantations who developed indigo as a staple crop and revived silk culture in South Carolina. Mary Salmon shod horses in Boston. The phrase 'she merchants' occurs in old documents, referring to such a woman as the widow of Rudolphus De Vries of New York, who continued her husband's shipping ventures after his death and often went to Holland as supercargo on her own ships. Anne, the widow of James Franklin, managed a printing and publishing business. Madam Martha Smith of St. George's Manor, Long Island, was in whaling. She left one memorandum which said: 'Jan. ye 16, 1707. My company killed a yearling whale made 27 barrels.' Margaret Brent, to round off this account of women who managed their own businesses, was an aggressive accumulator of land in Maryland in association with her sisters, Mary and Anne. A historian of the province, George Alsop, said of the Brent women that they preferred 'Plain wit' to 'Complemental Courtships' and warned, 'he that intends to Court a Maryland girle, must have something more than the tautologies of a long-winded speech to carry on his design.'
The decisive battle over what women were or could become was fought out in the next century. But the natural-rights philosophy incorporated in the Declaration of Independence opened the way for a new approach. The opinion gained currency that if women had brains, and it appeared that they did, perhaps the Creator had placed them in their heads to be used. English and French conservative theorists declined in influence. Life as it was lived under American conditions was moving steadily toward legal, economic and political freedom for women. This topic has been so thoroughly explored that it is now often overlooked how many nubile young women were content to confine their sphere to the vigorous pursuit of husbands, as one may surmise from a last example of New England's distinctive art form, the epitaph:
Sacred to the Memory of Mr.
Jared Bates who Died Aug. the 6th
1800. His Widow Aged 24 who mourns
as one who can be comforted lives
at 7 Elm street this village
and possesses every qualification
for a Good Wife.