John Winthrop's "City of Women"

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Laurel Thatcher Ulrich

Harvard University

Revised Version, June 2001
John Winthrop's "City of Women"

American history textbooks often use the story of Anne Hutchinson's trial and banishment as evidence of patriarchal domination of women in Puritan Massachusetts. They tell us that John Winthrop "ruled with an iron hand," that religion "endorsed female subjection," and that Hutchinson's judges "were almost as outraged by her 'masculine' behavior as by her heretical beliefs."1 These short-hand accounts of a complex story inadvertently lose one of its most interesting dimensions--Hutchinson's ability to unsettle and potentially unseat the iron-handed governor. It would be hard to find another time or place in American history where the theological speculations of a housewife could carry such political weight. Far from endorsing female subjection, the Puritan movement initially encouraged female assertiveness, not by overt questioning of social norms but by nurturing lay engagement in religious discourse.

English settlers were attempting to put the new wine of dissenting protestantism into the old bottle of patriarchal order. As childbearers, sexual partners, passionate believers, good housekeepers, and fragile sinners, Puritan women both challenged and defined the boundaries of appropriate behavior. Although some succumbed to doubt and despair, others used the demanding doctrines of reformation to refigure their lives. Speaking their minds they provoked a conservative leadership to limit the possibilities of religious and political expression. Because religious ideas mattered in Boston in 1636, a struggle over the meaning of salvation turned presumably subject women into political actors.

John Winthrop's journal reveals the centrality of gender to struggles over social order in the first decades of Puritan settlement. Through his writings, Winthrop not only gave America its first dissenting heroine, he created a panoply of female characters as vivid as those of Boccaccio or Christine de Pisan. Although he wrote more about Zion's troublers than about those who sustained its religious values day by day, his journal is a fuller and more complex document than secondary use of it would indicate. It includes not only the famous story of the Connecticut wife who went mad from too much reading but also pious accounts of a housewife who gave thanks for a fire that destroyed her linen, of a widow who founded her own plantation, and of an aggrieved boarding-house keeper who challenged the wealthiest merchant in Boston over the ownership of a sow. It records Indian war, but its most chilling stories are of violence perpetuated by Englishmen against women and girls.2

Winthrop included stories about women in his history because to him women's activities, no less than men's, mattered in the cosmic scheme of things; because the participation of high status women, older women, and godly women was essential to the establishment of the colony, and because stories about female courage, obedience, rebellion, suffering, or defiance offered powerful evidence for the necessity of firm government. His journal is both an account of salient events in early New England history and a repository of moral tales. It portrays a world considerably less "patriarchal" than secondary accounts might lead us to believe, not because Winthrop himself had any doubts about the duty of women to submit to male authority but because so many women and men seemed willing to challenge him. To take Winthrop's stories seriously is to rediscover the ferment and uncertainty of New England's early decades.

In his journal, Winthrop affected humility, removing identifying markers when writing about his own family and referring to himself throughout as "the governor," but his voice comes through--tentative at first and then increasingly passionate. As Richard Dunn has observed, Winthrop's certainty about the correctness of his own position allowed him to record in vivid detail the disorder and conflict of his time. "Winthrop argued for the correctness of his own position, and then he showed how his adversaries were deservedly punished for their sins." Winthrop may have disliked, even feared strong women, but he could not ignore them, nor could he overlook the behavior of men who abused and abandoned those dependent on their care. Caught unaware by the dislocations of the colonial setting, he inadvertently exposed the power of his adversaries. Seeking providential meaning in ordinary events, he "built lasting significance into the seemingly small-scale actions of a few thousand colonists in early New England"3

Reading Winthrop's journal in the light of recent scholarship helps us to see seemingly fixed categories as contested terrain. According to law, women were civilly dead, subject to the authority of husbands and fathers. Yet the realities of daily life and the opportunities of a new world constantly undercut formal authority. Innocent gatherings of women became politically dangerous. Would-be rulers succumbed to the enticements of female dissenters. Wifehood become a model both for liberty and submission. As freedom of conscience and patriarchal authority collided, John Winthrop struggled to assert control, winning political battles that left a lasting mark on Puritan institutions. Reading backward, historians have tended to see patriarchal authority as invincible. The journal, written in the heat of events, shows a world bursting its bonds.

Gatherings of Women

One of the earliest entries in Winthrop's journal records the complex manipulations required to bring a midwife from the Jewell to the Arbella during the Atlantic crossing in 1630. "A woman in our shippe fell in trevayle & we sent & had a midwife out of the Iewell: she was so farre a head of us at this tyme, (though usually we could spare her some sayle) as we shott of a peece, & lowed our topsayles, & then she brayled her sayles & stayed for us."4 That Winthrop used feminine pronouns for the ship as well as the woman in labor added unintentional poetry to the story. Winthrop's ship was named for a woman; it carried women--childbearing women--to the new colony. The Puritan adventure, unlike most early New World settlements, would be an emigration of families. Six days later the journal provided the denouement to the story: "A woman was delivered of a Child in our shippe still borne: the woman had diverse children before, but none lived, & she had some mis[c]hance now which caused her to come neere a monthe before her tyme. but she did verye well."5 This mother would reach port without her cargo.

The summoning of a midwife on the high seas provided a dramatic interlude in an otherwise dreary succession of days. It gave the women involved a rare opportunity to exchange news from one ship to another. They could not know the ways in which it foreshadowed later gatherings of women and childbirth disasters that would not seem so benign. Anne Hutchinson's story, too, involved the comforts and the sorrows of labor and birth. Hutchinson arrived in Boston in 1634, four years after Winthrop's company. She first appears in the journal in October 1636, when Winthrop described her as "a woman of a ready wit and bold spirit" who "brought over with her two dangerous errors.1. That the person of the Holy Ghost dwells in a justified person. 2. That no sanctification can help to evidence to us our justification."6 These seemingly abstruse concepts had explosive power because in elevating spirit over outward behavior they undermined formal religious authority and exposed cotnradictions in Puritan theology.

Hutchinson's leadership had begun innocently enough. She was a charitable neighbor who frequently attended women in childbirth. She was also a talented exegist who enjoyed opening out the mysteries of scriptures in gatherings of women. Her initial meetings were fully consonant with Puritan emphasis on lay prophesying and the practice of religiously gifted women, especially elite women, giving counsel to their sisters. As the informal gatherings in her house attracted larger and larger crowds and as she began to critique, as well as explicate, the sermons of John Wilson, the pastor of Boston's First Church, his supporters became alarmed. Even more disturbing, the new governor of the colony, Sir Henry Vane, embraced her teachings. The division for and against Wilson became so intense that in the colony-wide election of 1637 produced, in Winthrop's words, "great danger of a tumult; for those of that side grew into fierce speeches, and some laid hands on others." With the help of deputies from outlying towns, Winthrop defeated Vane for the governorship.7

Some scholars have argued that Hutchinson's ideas about the indwelling power of grace were "particularly appealing to women, who were systematically denied education and formal training in theology," and that both her success and her downfall "resulted largely from the combination of her high rank and her identity as a woman."8 This argument understates the unsettling power of her religious radicalism. Hutchinson was not only a respected member of the female community, with all the powers accruing to her as a mother, a mistress of a household, and a good neighbor, but also a gifted religious leader whose teachings appealed to male leaders as well as women--at least if we can believe John Winthrop. In a remarkable entry in which he characteristically referred to himself in third person, Winthrop described the continuing resentment of Boston men when deputies from country towns restored him to the governor's chair: "Upon the election of the new governour, the serjeants, who had attended the old governour to the court, (being all Boston men, where the new governour also dwelt,) laid down their halberds and went home; and whereas they had been wont to attend the former governour to and from the meetings on the Lord's days, they gave over now, so as the new governour was fain to use his own servants to carry two halberds before him; wheras the former governour had never less than four."9 [A halberd was a shafted weapon carried on ceremonial occasions.]

Despite this humiliation, Winthrop moved to reassert his authority. As the journal explains it, "The court also sent for Mrs. Hutchinson, and charged her with divers matters, as her keeping two public lectures every week in her house, whereto sixty or eighty persons did usually resort." Winthrop's concept of Hutchinson's conventicles as "public lectures" was crucial to the case against her. When she retorted, "I teach not in a publick congregation," she acknowledged the inability of a woman to be a "publick" teacher and at the same time denied the authority of the state to interfere with informal gatherings in her house. In Winthrop's view any large gathering constituted a public meeting, regardless of the composition of the group or the place of meeting.10

After losing both a state trial and a church trial in which she was excommunicated from Boston's First Church, Hutchinson and her followers founded a new colony at Aquidneck (now Portsmouth, Rhode Island, in the s[romg pf 1638.) Even there, they remained too close for Winthrop's comfort. Until her death, Winthrop tracked her disturbing influence over men who unaccountably abandoend Massachusetts. "Mr Collins and one Mr. Hales (a young man very well conceited of himself and censorious of others) went to Aquiday," he wrote, "and so soon as Hales came acquainted with Mrs. Hutchinson, he was taken by her and became her disciple." In his effort to discredit his former associates, Winthrop no doubt exaggerated the gender and social reversals in Rhode Island, but he undoubtedly feared the disruptive power of Hutchinson's ideas. He used the language of captivity ("taken by") and of illness ("infected") to describe her religious influence.11

Nor did Hutchinson represent the only female carrier of infection. "At Providence things grew still worse, for a sister of Mrs. Hutchinson, the wife of one Scott, being infected with Anabaptistry, and going last year to live at Providence, Mr. Williams was taken (or rather emboldened) by her to make open profession thereof, and accordingly was rebaptized by one Holyman, a poor man late of Salem. Then Mr. Williams rebaptized him and some ten more. They also denied the baptizing of infants, and would have no magistrates." 12 Given the fury in Winthrop's accounts of Hutchinson and her cohort, the journal is surprisingly dispassionate in its references to the "lady Moodye, a wise and anciently religious woman," who "being taken with the error of denying baptism to infants, was dealt withal by many of the elders and others, and admonished by the church of Salem." Perhaps Winthrop had less to say about this case not so much because it took place in another town but because, unlike Hutchinson, Moody quietly removed herself from Massachusetts, to "avoid further truble." He used the disease metaphor once again, however, in describing her followers: "Many others, infected with anabaptism, removed thither also." 13 In contrast, Mary Oliver of Salem attracted few followers. Winthrop attributed her failure to her social status: she was "(for ability of speech, and appearance of zeal and devotion) far before Mrs. Hutchinson, and so the fitter instrument to have done hurt, but that she was poor and had little acquaintance."14

Winthrop ridiculed the dissenters' belief in the indwelling power of the holy spirit, recording in his journal a hearsay account of their response to an earthquake in Rhode Island: "Mrs. Hutchinson and some of her adherents happened to be at prayer when the earthquake was at Aquiday, etc., and the house being shaken thereby, they were persuaded, (and boasted of it,) that the Holy Ghost did shake it in coming down upon them, as he did upon the apostles."15 Winthrop alluded to the experience described in the second chapter of Acts when on the day of Pentecost the sound of rushing wind and "cloven tongues like as of fire" filled the house where Peter and the apostles lodged. Possessed with the power of the Holy Ghost, they began speaking "as the Spirit gave them utterance." When onlookers mistook religious enthusiasm for drunkedness, Peter answered them with the prophecy of Joel:

And it shall come to pass in the last days, saith God, I will pour out of my Spirit upon all flesh: and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams: And on my servants and on my handmaidens I will pour out in those days of my Spirit; and they shall prophesy. (Acts 1-18)

Winthrop surely understood the social implications of this scripture. The example of Pentecost allowed religious dissenters of many stripes to claim that the indwelling spirit of Christ dissolved all distinctions of age, gender, and status.16

Social conservatives contained the radical implications of Pentecost by focusing on the next section of the same chapter, in which listeners "pricked in their heart," turned to Peter and the Apostles to ask, "Men and brethren, what shall we do?" The answer was obvious, "Repent and be baptized." Rather than celebrate the liberating potential of the Holy Spirit, they emphasized its capacity to convict men of sin. Repentance was the salient act. Thomas Hooker said that in the original Greek "pricking" meant "a shivering and pulling all asunder" as in the body of a laboring woman "wounded with the sorrow of Childbirth."17 The birth metaphor was central to Christian doctrine. In his last instructions to his disciples, Jesus foreshadowed his own death and resurrection by analogy to a woman in labor: "A woman when she is in travail hath sorrow, because her hour is come: but as soon as she is delivered of the child, she remembereth no more the anguish, for joy that a man is born into the world. And ye now therefore have sorrow: but I will see you again, and your heart shall rejoice, and your joy no man taketh from you." (John 16:21-22) Religious radicals emphasized the joy of spiritual birth, their opponents the labor of repentance.

Winthrop mistrusted those who appeared too certain of their own salvation. An earthquake should inspire humble contemplation of God's power, not an assertion of a prophetic calling. In his view, the religious demonstrations at Aquidneck exemplified false pride. His use of the verb boast, like his earlier reference to Hutchinson as "a woman of ready wit and bold spirit" and his dismissal of her follower Hales as a man "very well conceited of himself," shows the value he placed on submissiveness.18 The image of a woman in travail modeled the condition of sinful humanity. Persons who resisted the labor of repentance, setting themselves above the covenanted authority of ministers and elders, risked God's judgment. When news of a "monstrous birth" to one of Hutchinson's followers reached Winthrop, he had no doubt but what God had spoken through a woman's womb.

On the day of Hutchinson's excommunication in March of 1638, a stranger asked who the young woman was who walked out of the church with her. Somone answered that it was Mary Dyer, "the woman which had the monster." Winthrop pounced on this information, investigating then exposing details of a deformed fetus that Hutchinson and other women present at Dyer's stillbirth had kept secret since October (though they had confided it to Wilson's rival in the First Church, John Cotton.) Winthrop gleefully reported the condition of the supposed monster. It had a face, but no head," four horns over the eyes "hard and sharp," on the body "sharp pricks and scales," and other deformities. The body "had arms and legs as other children; but, instead of toes, it had on each foot three claws, like a young fowl, with sharp talons." He reported that when the infant died, "the bed whereon the mother lay did shake, and withal there was such a noisome savor, as most of the women were taken with extreme vomiting and purging." Little wonder that Jane Hawkins, the midwife present at this delivery, was soon banished from the colony. Winthrop exulted: "indeed it was time for her to be gone, for it was known, that she used to give young women oil of mandrakes and other stuff to cause conception; and she grew into great suspicion to be a witch, for it was credibly reported, that, when she gave any medicine, (for she practised physic,) she would ask the party, if she did believe, she could help her." In retrospect, Winthrop found it significant that "the father of this monster, coming home at this very time, was, the next Lord's day, by an unexpected providence, questioned in the church for divers monstrous errors, as for denying all inherent righteousness, etc., which he maintained, and was for the same admonished." Hutchinson's own delivery of a "monster" three years later confirmed the power of God to write women's errors on their bodies.19

While current scholarship tends to discount the notion that female healers, including midwives, suffered more accusations of witchcraft than other women, Winthrop's stories suggest that midwives and healers may have faced particular scrutiny in early Boston. Perhaps the association of religious deviance with "monstrous births" called attention to practices that might otherwise have been kept within the community of childbearing women. Or it may be that the same reforming impulses that created conflicts over the nature of religious conversion shaped perceptions of what constituted appropriate behavior in childbirth or illness.

Ordinary women and men as well as magistrates were involved in the prosecution of a female healer named Margaret Jones who was executed in 1648. Like Hawkins, she employed methods that prompted suspicion. As with Hutchinson and Dyer, authorities found evidence of her sinfulness on her body. Winthrop said that she had "such a malignant touche, as many persons (men woemen & children) whom she stroked or touched. . . were taken with deafnesse, or vomitinge or other violent paynes or sickness." Normally "harmlesse" remedies such as "Aniseed, liquoris, &c: yet had extraordinary violent effectes." She also had an unfortunate gift of prophecy: "some thinges which she foretould came to passe accordingly: other thinges she could tell of (as secrett speeches &c)." Even more damning was the presence on her body of an extraneous nipple "in her secrett partes, as freshe as if it had been newly sucked."20

Winthrop's voice was powerful and his assumptions widely shared. But it would be a mistake to assume that everyone agreed with his interpretations. Hutchinson's brother-in-law and sometime ally, John Wheelwright, turned Winthrop's own metaphors against him, dismissing the governor's published account of Hutchinson's heresy as a "monstrous conception of his brain, a spurious issue of his intellect."21 Margaret Jones also had her defenders. Her friend Alice Stratton warned that those responsible for Jones' prosecution would be punished after death; Stratton's husband went further, charging that the magistrates would "do anything for bribes and [church] members." These were seditious words, and the Strattons eventually recanted, but they retained their influence among a dissenting faction in Watertown's church. When Stratton herself faced charges of witchcraft, a jury of local women defended her, finding no sign of a witch's tit on her body.22 Although Winthrop and his fellow magistrates succeeded in expelling Jane Hawkins from the colony, petitions signed by 217 Boston and Dorchester women rescued midwife Alice Tilly, who was imprisoned, presumably for malpractice, in the year of Winthrop's death. The petitioners spoke from experience. Assuring the magistrates that they had no desire "to interrupt the Corts proceedeing as God shal giude them," they neverthless begged the court to return Mistriss Tilly to her office, knowing that she would perform well, as she had already done "in or owne various Cases."23 The voice of women proved powerful when the mysteries of childbearing were not entangled with the mysteries of faith.

For historians, Dyer's and Hutchinson's obstetrical disasters exemplify the intersection of culture and event. Like the seemingly providential epidemics that killed New England's Indian inhabitants, the disordered birth experiences of female dissenters reinforced preconceived notions of female inferiority. There is no question but what Winthrop believed that God had spoken through Mary Dyer's and Anne Hutchinson's wombs. His ferocious interpretation of their births contrasts markedly with his gentle account of a stillbirth on the Arbella during the Atlantic crossing.

2. Religious Despair

The first twenty years of Massachusetts Bay differed considerably from the last years of the seventeenth century. There were a few prosecutions for witchcraft in Winthrop's lifetime but no examples of demonic possession, psychological disturbances being attributed to victim's own indifference to the ordinances of God rather than to the machinations of other persons. There was also far less attention than in later accounts, such as in the writings of Cotton Mather, on exemplary female piety, household industry, and maternal influence. Women were not yet celebrated as "good wives" nor denigrated as witches.24 Any woman or man could be captured in Satan's snares. Yet the forms depravity took differed for women and women.

The female sinners who appear in Winthrop's journal often succumbed to religious despair, perhaps because, as Elizabeth Reis has argued, women, more than men, internalized the "discourse of depravity" that emanated from Puritan pulpits.25 Recounting the dramatic story of a woman's death in childbed, Winthrop intertwined the sins of rebellion and despair. "The wife of one Onion of Roxbury died in great despair: she had been a servant there, and was very stubborn and self-willed. After she was married, she proved very worldly, aiming at great matters. Her first child was still-born, through her unruliness and falling into a fever." The woman's sinned not only through her worldliness and her lack of attention to spiritual matters, but through her attempts to transcend her position in life. Although she had "been a servant," she aimed "at great matters," violating her god-given station. When the tremors of childbirth brought her to a recognition of sin, she was unable to seize upon salvation.

She fell withal into great horror and trembling, so as it shook the room, etc., and crying out of her torment, and of her stubornness and unprofitableness under the means, and her lying to her dame in denying somewhat that in liquorishness she had taken away, and of her worldliness, saying that she neglected her spiritual good for a little worldly trash, and now she must go to everlasting torments, and exhorted others to take heed of such evils, etc., and still crying out O! ten thousands worlds for one drop of Christ, etc. After she had then been silent a few hours, she began to speak again, and being exhorted to consider of God's infinite mercy, etc., she gave still this answer, 'I cannot for my life,' and so died.

Winthrop's achieved his dramatic effect by foreshortening the story. The child was born in April; the mother died on June 2. For Winthrop the storyteller these details didn't matter. Collapsing many weeks into a single crisis, he used the terrors of delivery to mirror the terrors of a stillborn soul.26

Two of his stories focus on women who attacked their own children, believing themselves damned. In both cases Winthrop attributed the woman's despair to delusions or "trouble of mind," and in both cases he described the attempts of church members to intervene. In December of 1639, he wrote: "Dorothy Talbye was hanged at Boston for murdering her own daughter, a child of three years old." Talby had "been a member of the church at Salem, and of good esteem for godliness, etc.; but, falling at difference with her husband, through melancholy or spiritual delusions, she sometimes attempted to kill him, and her children, and herself, by refusing meat, saying it was so revealed to her, etc." One wonders what domestic conflict, personal anguish, or psychological disorder lay behind the "etcetera" in Winthrop's account. Winthrop tells us that when "patience, and divers admonitions" failed, the Salem Church "cast her out." Whipping followed excommunication. Although for a time, she "carried herself more dutifully to her husband. . . soon after she was so possessed with Satan, that he persuaded her (by his delusions, which she listened to as reveleations from God) to break the neck of her own child, that she might free it from future misery."27

David Hall has suggested that the Puritan propensity to collect stories of despair shows their "fascination with the extremes of religion." Satan tempted souls with the depths of despondency as well as the arrogance of false hope. Even for true believers faith was "never safe from doubt." 28 In Talby's case doubt sunk into a despair that soared into astonishing feats of rebellion. She turned her back on her ministers when they read the order of excommunication. She persisted in her rebellion when called before the magistrates, refusing even to speak "till the governour told her she should be pressed to death." Winthrop was, of course, the unnamed governor who issued this threat. He was fascinated by her ability to defy authority in its smallest details. When the magistrates read their verdict, she refused to uncover her face or stand up. When they sentenced her to hang she asked to be beheaded. When the hangman covered her head with a cloth, she pulled it off and tucked it between the rope and her neck. "After a swing or two, she catched at the ladder." For Winthrop, Talby was a terrifyingand magnificent sinner.29

The story of Anne Hett had a happier ending. It trails through Winthrop's journal, bit by bit. In August 1637, he reported, "A woman of Boston congregation, having been in much trouble of mind about her spiritual estate, at length grew into utter desperation, and could not endure to hear of any comfort, etc. so as one day she took her little infant and threw it into a well, and then came into the house and said, now she was sure she should be damned, for she had drowned her child; but some, stepping presently forth, saved the child." In the spring of 1642, Hett again tried to drown her child. Taking it to a tidal creek near her house, she tore off its clothing and threw it into "the water and mud. But, the tide being low, the little child scrambled out, and taking up its clothes, came to its mother who was set down not far off." Winthrop drew out the details of the story, exploiting the poignancy of the innocent child returning unawares to the mother who would destroy it. "She carried the child again, and threw it in so far as it could not get out; but then it pleased God, that a young man, coming that way, saved it."30

Despite the darkness of the events, a softness in Winthrop's telling sets it apart from his account of Talby, perhaps because even as he wrote, he knew that this story would have a better outcome. When others asked the mother why she had attempted to kill her child, "She would give no other reason for it, but that she did it to save it from misery, and withal that she was assured, she had sinned against the Holy Ghost, and that she could not repent of any sin.Thus doth satan work by the advantage of our infirmities, which should stir us up to cleave the more fast to Christ jesus, and to walk the more humbly and watchfully in all our conversation." 31 Winthrop understood the mother's misery as the Devil's work, but he did not believe she was helpless to change her situation.

In his final entry, he for the first time identified the woman by name, explaining that Boston's First Church, like their counterparts in Salem, had used excommunication as a means of redemption. This time it worked: "whereas before no means could prevail with her either to reclaim her from her wicked and blasphemous courses and speeches, etc., or to bring her to frequent the means, within a few weeks after her casting out, she came to see her sin and lay it to heart, and to frequent the means, and so was brought to such manifestation of repentance and a sound mind, as the church received her in again." Church records confirm Winthrop's narrative. Anne Hett was excommunicated in August 1642 shortly after her second attempt to destroy her child, and reinstated a year later in July 23, 1643.32 For the governor, the moral was clear. Humble submission to religious authority could rescue a soul from the devil's machinations.

Winthrop drew the same conclusion from a much briefer story about a man who, "being wounded in conscience at a sermon of Mr. Shepherd's," kept his troubles to himself, being unwilling "to discover his distress to such as might have offered him help." Refusing to attend church regularly, he "went out from his wife on the Lord's day at night, having kept at home all that day, and drowned himself in a little pit where was not above two feet water."33 Clearly, men as well as women suffered from the self-loathing that led to despair, but for Winthrop, Talby's and Hett's cases left a more vivid impression. Unlike the man who drowned himself, they assailed their would be rescuers, transforming despondency into rebellion.

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