My historical novels Rebel Puritan and The Reputed Wife, Herodias (Long) Hicks Gardner Porter, colonial New England, travels, and whatever else seizes my fancy...

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

The Invisible Woman

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No, not the Visible Woman, which was one of my favorite educational toys in the 60s.  Though she is most revealing, I am talking about Invisible Women.

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Do you see any women in this painting?  Just that lady hovering off to one side.  In real life, she wouldn't even have been in the room,  because women played no part in colonial New England governments.  Information about individual women in those days can be hard to find.  Anyone who has researched their genealogy knows what I’m talking about.

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Let’s look at a page of Clarence A. Torrey’s “New England Marriages Prior to 1700.”  This genealogists’ reference lists names and marriage dates for men and women who wed in New England, or before they crossed the Atlantic.  These couples fill 848 closely-spaced pages.

I conducted an experiment, using page 443 for a (hopefully) typical example.  On that page we find 56 New England men who were wed to 46 women between 1620 and 1700.  If you wonder why there were 56 men and 46 women, I counted  second and third marriages.  Of those 56 men, only one first name is questioned.

As for those 46 women, 33 were identified by their first and surnames (3 surnames are questionable).  9 are known by their first name only.  The final 4 women’s names are completely unknown.  So, on that page of his master work, Torrey could fully identify 98% of the men, but only 77% of their wives.  About 17% of the women are known by their given names only, and nearly 9% are completely unidentified.  Why such a difference?

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Women and men led different lives.  Both worked hard every day of their lives, to be sure, but it was men’s names which filled the record books.  They paid the taxes, served in the military and government, voted, and owned the land.  In most places women could not own land if they were married; their husbands did.

Wives might be found in church records - if those books survived four centuries to be read by genealogists.  Women were mentioned in wills, but few left wills of their own.  Their names might be entered on their babies’ birth records, but often it was just the father’s.  If the family was affluent enough, you might find a gravestone.

Vital records were kept in many New England towns from the start.  Combined with church and probate records, they provide genealogists and historians with names and dates for births, marriages, and deaths of most of the women on page 443 of Torrey.  Many of New England’s precious records have survived.

Some towns weren’t so lucky.  Newport, Rhode Island, watched its vital records, deeds to land, and probate records sail away in British hands during the Revolutionary War.  Those records were returned to Newport years later, soaked and illegible after they were accidentally sunk in New York City’s harbor.

Consequently, many of Newport’s pre-Revolutionary women simply disappeared.  In the Rhode Island Genealogical Dictionary by John O. Austin, I examined 56 Newport men who were known to have married 63 women.  (I have no doubt that many of them made second and third marriages which were lost along with Newport’s records)

52 of those women’s first names have been found, but surnames of only 17 are known.  Therefore, only 27% of those 63 women can be traced to their parents by today’s genealogists.  Sadly, 11 of those 63 wives are completely unknown.  Nearly 20% of our pre-Revolutionary ancestresses from Newport are lost.

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Birth records everywhere once have linked a girl child with her father – and perhaps - her mother.  The entry of a marriage in the church or town books may have recorded the union of husband and wife.  Men left legacies to their beloved wives, but if those records are lost we may never know the identities of these women.

That is how some women become invisible in colonial New England.  How do they become visible beyond mere vital statistics?  That is another story, and will be my one of my next topics.

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