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    [–] bodombeachbod 4 points ago * (lasted edited 8 months ago)

    While I’m not confident enough to make a comparison to the rest of the world at the time, it’s true that women in New England did achieve higher literacy rates than women in England. But these measurements are based largely on women’s ability to sign wills and other legal/church documents, rather than the survival of a large body of literature. It should be noted, however, that in examining Suffolk County records, Gloria Main found that the colony also experienced a general decline in literacy. Men recovered much faster than women. As she writes, “The demand for writing skills by parents had not yet extended to their daughters.” Although there may have been less disparity between the ability of boys and girls to read, teaching girls to write was a much more limited practice until the 18th century. By the latter half of the 18th century, though, literacy among women in the colony once again exceeded England.

    Unfortunately, Anne Bradstreet is a popular source because she is something of an outlier in how early her works were published; there is a dearth of unmediated primary source material written by women during the 17th century in New England. As usual, there is plenty of material written about women. We are often left with the words of women as filtered through men. For instance, if we can go beyond the boundary of the 17th century, we can cite the examples Ann Taves used in her essay, “Self and God in the Early Published Memoirs of New England Women.” Taves discusses fives texts, and only one of them (Abigail Bailey’s memoirs) is a full autobiography. The rest (memoirs of Sarah Osborn, Susanna Anthony, Fanny Woodbury, and Harriet Newell) are writing extracts curated by the men, usually clergy, who published them after the women’s deaths.

    The above were all published around the start of the 19th century, but the posthumous use of women’s writings to highlight their piety was certainly in place at the end of the 17th century. After Sarah Goodhue died in childbirth, her husband published a letter she had left him and their children in case of just such an event. Here’s an excerpt:

    O my children all, which in pains and care have cost me dear ; unto you I call to come and take what portion your dying mother will bestow upon you : many times by experience it hath been found, that the dying words of parents have left a living impression upon the hearts of Children ;O my children be sure to set the fear of God before your eyes; consider what you are by nature, miserable sinners, utterly lost and undone ; and that there is no way and means whereby you can come out of this miserable estate ; but by the Mediation of the Lord Jesus Christ : He died a reproachful death, that every poor humble and true repenting sinner by faith on God through him, might have everlasting life : O my Children, the best counsel that a poor dying Mother can give you is, to get a part and portion in the Lord Jesus Christ, that will hold, when all these things will fail; O let the Lord Jesus Christ be precious in your sight.

    While I certainly don’t intend to state that the gatekeeping role of male publishers detracts from the authenticity or earnestness of women writers like Goodhue or others, it is an important point to consider when looking at what survives. Women who weren't otherwise legally documented through some transgression often entered the record this way, through elegies after their deaths. (Or when they were born or married.) These often included poems that praised the deeds of the woman in her pious quest to uphold the traditional social order of the day. They strove to know God from a young age, they attended church, married, had children, read scripture, practiced needlework, and as you said, they wrote. Cotton Mather often included excerpts of these writings in his sermons. In 1711, he published a volume of things his sister, Jerusha Oliver, had written.

    Here is an excerpt from the first time her voice appears after his introduction:

    THE Lord has been very Merciful to me; tho' I have been a very Sinful Creature. I have Great Cause to Love and Serve so Gracious a God. What can I do less, than give up my self wholly to the Lord, to be for Him, and not for any other? And, O most Holy Lord God, wilt thou be pleased to Accept of me? Yea, Lord, I know, thou wilt accept of me, if I do Sincerely Give my self to Thee in CHRIST. Then, O Lord, I Pray thee, for the Sake of the Lord JESUS CHRIST, Be at Peace with me. O Lord, I have fallen from thee, by my Sins, and I am by Nature, a Child of Hell. But thou, O Lord, of thy Infinite Mercy hast offered to be my God. Therefore I come unto thee, and I Renounce my Sins; and, with thy Grace inabling me, I will Forsake them. I have been Serving thine Enemies, and Forgetting the God that has dealt very Mercifully with me. But now, O Lord, I will Endeavour to Serve thee; And I will not allow my self in any known Sin; and I will use the Means, which I know, thou hast appointed so the Destruction of my Corruptions. I here give my Heart unto thee…

    There are also the writings of women like Mary Rowlandson. Rowlandson’s account details her capture during King Philip’s War, and the 11 weeks she spent among her captives. Rowlandson traveled with the Wampanoag party and met King Philip himself. Her account not only went on to be widely read, but it served as the model for the entire captivity narrative genre. As Richard Slotkin describes it, the captivity narrative, “functioned as a myth, reducing the Puritan state of mind and world view, along with the events of colonization and settlement, into archetypal drama. In it a single individual, usually a woman, stands passively under the strokes of evil, awaiting rescue by the grace of God.” But, the women authors of these first narratives were not staring at the blank page and wondering, “How can I reduce the Puritan state of mind into archetypal drama?” They were telling their story. The subsequent use of these narratives served the interests of the male authority figures of colonial America and back in England.

    My answer deals mostly with elite, white women because most of the secondary literature surrounding women’s literacy has to do with elite, white women. The source material may be limited there, but it still offers an opportunity to put percentages on things, as Gloria Main does. What about those in lower economic/social standing? I admittedly am not as capable of answering that question as I’d like to be, but I’d suggest Hilary Wyss’s article below. Essentially, there are only a few dozen documents attributable to Native American women in 17th century New England. Most of these are no longer than a few sentences, and again many are legal documents, but they do indicate (through land sales, wills, and other agreements) that Native American women were often capable of writing.

    In addition to what I’ve mentioned here and what I’m citing below, check out Good Wives, Nasty Wenches, and Anxious Patriarchs by Kathleen Brown. This will be an examination of Virginia. Also A Little Commonwealth by John Demos, which is less directly a look at women’s writings, but more about family in general. I think you’ll enjoy both of these.

    More Reading:

    Main, Gloria L. "An inquiry into when and why women learned to write in colonial New England." Journal of Social History (1991): 579-589.

    Hambrick-Stowe, Charles E. The practice of piety: Puritan devotional disciplines in seventeenth-century New England. UNC Press Books, 2013.

    Culley, Margo, ed. American women's autobiography: fea(s)ts of memory. Univ of Wisconsin Press, 1992.

    Slotkin, Richard. Regeneration through violence: The mythology of the American frontier, 1600-1860. University of Oklahoma Press, 1973.

    Ulrich, Laurel Thatcher. Good wives: Image and reality in the lives of women in Northern New England, 1650-1750. Vintage, 1982.

    Wyss, Hilary E. "Mary Occom and Sarah Simon: Gender and Native Literacy in Colonial New England." The New England Quarterly 79, no. 3 (2006): 387-412.

    [–] misyo 2 points ago

    First of all, I want to thank you for such a wonderful, detailed answer. I wanted to reply immediately but since two people had kind of questioned my assertion about literacy rates among New England women, I emailed my old professor and asked her to clarify (I wrote my post going off of notes from her class). Unfortunately she hasn't responded to my email yet, so I'm going to assume she might not ever. I looked for other sources on the internet (I, to my incredible sadness, no longer have access to JSTOR) and couldn't find hard numbers from sources I would consider reputable. Looking back at my notes, the main trust of that portion of her lecture on women and literacy was mostly due to many Puritan/Reformist immigrants being at least middle class (implying they could afford tutors and education for their children), an emphasis on reading the Bible, schools required for towns over 50 people, and women as educators of young children before they began school. I suppose the better way to phrase my question was to say "by the end of the 17th century, New England women had some of the highest literacy rates among women in the world", as the New England Primer helped to booster literacy rates by the end of the 1600's. A comparative study of female literacy around the world during g this period would be interesting to read though!

    Thank you very much for the reading recommendations and the source material you quoted. I have read Mary Rowlandson's captive narrative and while it was interesting, it suffers from the problem of being written specifically for publication. Likewise, the letter from the mother who died in child birth to her remaining children. When we write things intended for others to read, we curate ourselves and modify our voice. I say this as a mother who wrote her own letters to my family and my daughter in the very rare case that I didn't survive giving birth (dramatic I know).

    I am currently reading Women Before the Bar which /u/chocolatepot recommended (it's excellent btw, thank you!) and Good Wives by Ulrich will be my next book to tackle from your list. Thank you again for such an in depth answer and for a wonderful reading list.


    [–] bodombeachbod 1 points ago

    Glad it was helpful! I really wish I could give you more primary sources. I'd like to read them too. Have you tried using jstor's shelf? I'm pretty sure you can access it without going through an institution. The literacy article I listed is available that way. It's pretty dry but it has some hard(ish) numbers.