There’s a wonderful phrase I learned while writing a biography of Anne Hutchinson. It’s one of my favorite quotes, from a history professor named Amy Schrager Lang who writes about women’s roles in American history: “The problem of Anne Hutchinson is the problem of the public woman.”
Now, what exactly is the problem of the public woman? The problem is the term itself, public woman. That’s an oxymoron. In early America, a public woman did not exist – and I am not talking about prostitution – I’m talking about a woman who has a formal, public role in society, as a leader of some kind. Women in 17th-century New England could not teach in public or speak in public. They could not lead, neither as governors or judges or ministers, and they could not vote. They could not defend their country as soldiers. They could not hold property in their own name. They could not sign any legal document.
Why? you may ask. Women could not do all these things because they’re naturally inferior to men and unable to handle deep thought. The rare woman who achieved anything in a male domain was said (by Mary Astell) to have “acted above her Sex; she was a man in petticoats!” To quote an English clergyman (Thomas Gisborne): “legislation, jurisprudence, political economy, government in all its executive functions, erudition, commercial enterprise – all these pursuits and occupations assigned to men – demand the efforts of a mind endued with the powers of close and comprehensive reasoning,” which women lack. A philosopher then (Malebrec) explained that women are “incapable of penetrating to truths that are slightly difficult to discover; everything abstract is incomprehensible to them,” because of “the delicacy of their brain fibers.” I guess the native irrationality and powerlessness of women all comes down to neurology, or what some people now call neurosexism.
Those things about how women were seen were all true. It’s not all some bad joke. It’s also not a joke that American women in the 21st-century still hold relatively little public power. To digress briefly from our subject, women in America a century ago still could not vote. Fifty years ago, no women had served on the Supreme Court; only a handful served in Congress. Even today, nearly 400 years into the American experiment, fewer than twenty percent of our national legislature is female – and that’s a historic high. Fewer than 5 percent of major American corporations have women at their helms. Men, who make up slightly less than half the population, have served 45 times as the nation’s chief executive, while no woman ever has, and the only female major-party candidate for president was met with crowds of Americans crying, “hang her!” and “lock her up!” as if she were a witch.
Which bring us back to the 17th century, when women had no formal public power. But there were certain kinds of power that women had: private powers, domestic powers, even some educational and religious powers, within their own homes and the homes of other women. Women taught children and younger women how to read and understand the Bible. Women raised children and crops, cared for land and gardens and complex households. They grew herbs used as medicines, healed the sick, and cared for the wounded. Women’s greatest realm of power was at childbirth. Midwifery was an exclusively female domain. Birth is such a dramatic and significant time, especially in an era when so many women and babies died at or soon after birth, that this domain was crucial. Women, although powerless in public, were charged with saving the lives of women and babies, including those of New England’s most powerful men. John Winthrop, the governor who led the move to banish Hutchinson from Massachusetts had recently welcomed her into his house to deliver one of his children and tend to his wife. As Rebecca Tannenbaum has written, “Women provided a large part of the medical care in early colonial NE, a practice that tied them to all parts of their communities and gave them access to social and legal authority.”
But even that power, held by women serving as domestic healers and medical practitioners, held dangers for them. The 17th century had its own special concept of medical malpractice. If a birth resulted in a dead mother or a dead or deformed infant, the midwife could be held accountable. And if a monstrous birth occurred – the term “monstrous birth” covered any bad outcome such as stillbirth, birth defect, or physical abnormality – then it had to be someone’s fault, either the parents’ or the attending midwife’s. People in early Boston (as in early modern Europe) considered a monstrous birth a sign of sin in someone near the infant. Thus a midwife who attended at a monstrous birth could easily be seen as an ally of the Devil, or a witch.
So you see the association between midwives and witchcraft and female power. And there’s the paradox: the unique realm of power held by women as private healers bled into their public role as witches. As an example of this phenomenon, let’s look at Hutchinson, who, in addition to being a religious leader, was a midwife, a skill she learned from her mother.
Hutchinson was born in Lincolnshire, England, in 1591, during the reign of Elizabeth I, one of the rare women in human history to rule an imperial power. Hutchinson was the daughter of a midwife named Dryden, a cousin of the poet laureate, and a rebellious Puritan minister named Marbury who also taught his gifted daughter his skills, interpreting and teaching Scripture. Hutchinson grew up to be both a midwife and a kind of female preacher, teaching other women about their faith and the Bible in her home, which was an acceptable activity for a high-status woman in Puritan England. Hutchinson continued both these activities – midwifery and teaching other women about Scripture – in Boston, Massachusetts, where she moved with her husband and twelve of her children in 1634. The Bible talks she gave in her parlor were so popular with women that they soon attracted as many as eighty people at a time, including influential men like the young Sir Henry Vane, who defeated the colony’s founder, John Winthrop, in the race for governor in 1636.
A year later, Winthrop, threatened by this growing evidence of Hutchinson’s power, called her before the colonial court on a charge of heresy, for behaving in a manner “not fitting for [her] sex.” It was “not tolerable” for a woman to teach men, Winthrop scolded her. During two days of interrogation by him and the court, Hutchinson defended herself brilliantly, but her forty male judges, faced with a perceived threat to public order, banished her.
A few weeks before that trial, Hutchinson had been present at a so-called monstrous birth. A young woman named Mary Dyer had been having a difficult birth, so the midwife attending her, Jane Hawkins, had sent for Anne Hutchinson, hoping she could help. Unfortunately, Mary and William Dyer’s baby girl had a condition now known as anencephaly (her brain was undeveloped) and died soon after birth. Mistresses Hawkins and Hutchinson and the Reverend John Cotton, who had also been called on for help, decided to bury the baby’s body secretly to prevent the Dyers from the public shame that would naturally follow a monstrous birth.
People gossiped about the baby, of course, and Governor Winthrop eventually heard about it. He ordered that Mistress Hawkins be questioned – Hutchinson couldn’t be questioned because she’d been banished – and he ordered that the corpse be exhumed and examined, to determine what exactly it meant. “Many things were observable in the birth and discovery of this monster,” the governor noted in his journal. The Dyers were heretics, he could tell, and the midwife Hawkins “was notorious for familiarity with the Devil.” All the women present at the birth “were suddenly taken with such a violent vomiting… others had their children taken with convulsions… At such time as the child died, the bed wherein the mother lay shook violently.”
At Winthrop’s order, “the child was taken up” from its grave, and revealed to be a 17th-century version of Rosemary’s baby, a Satanic mix of, in Winthrop’s words, “a woman child, a fish, a beast, and a fowl, all woven together in one, and without a head… Though it was much corrupted, yet the horns and claws and holes in the back and some scales were found… It was so monstrous and misshapen as the like has scarce been heard of… The ears… were like an ape’s, and grew upon the shoulders… The nose was hooking upward. The breast and back was full of sharp prickles… The back parts were on the side… Instead of toes it had upon each foot three claws, with talons like a young fowl. Upon the back above the belly it had two great holes, like mouths, and in each of them stuck out a piece of flesh. It had no forehead, but in the place thereof, above the eyes, four horns, two above an inch long, hard, and sharp.”
This truly was a monstrous birth, but it didn’t entirely make sense to Governor Winthrop, because Mistress Dyer had been such a “proper and comely woman.” Then he remembered how close Mary Dyer was with Anne Hutchinson, so close that Dyer and her husband and children were among the group of Bostonians who voluntarily accompanied Hutchinson and her family in banishment, moving to Rhode Island. So it did make sense: monstrous errors like Hutchinson’s begat monstrous births like Dyer’s.
One reason Anne Hutchinson was such a threat to the governor was that she worked as a medical practitioner. He described her in his journal as “a woman very helpful in the times of childbirth, and other occasions of bodily infirmities, and well furnished with the means for those purposes, [who] readily insinuated herself into the affections of many.” Her medical skills gave her too much power, hence the “insinuation.” Her mentor the minister John Cotton wrote of Hutchinson that “At her first coming [to Boston] she was well respected and esteemed of me… chiefly that I heard she did much good in our Town, in women’s meetings at Child-travails, wherin she was not only skillful and helpful, but readily fell into good discourse with the women about their spiritual estates.” This was not quite such a negative view as Winthrop’s, because Hutchinson had been one of Cotton’s closest spiritual allies in England, where they had collaborated for more than twenty years. Cotton said of Hutchinson that she had “more [people] resort to her for counsel about matters of conscience and clearing up men’s spiritual estates, than any minister.”
Another source of Hutchinson’s authority in early Boston was her remarkable maternal skill. Having married William Hutchinson at twenty-one, she proceeded to bear fifteen healthy infants, mostly in England: her firstborn Edward, came in 1613, Susan in 1614, Richard in 1616, Faith in 1617, Bridget in 1619, Francis in 1620, Elizabeth in 1622, William in 1623, Samuel in 1624, Anne in 1626, Mary in 1628, Katherine in 1630. There was a second William, because the first had died, in 1631, and a second Susan, for the same reason, in 1633. In 1636, in the family’s new home in Boston, Hutchinson gave birth to a boy named Zuriel. A year later, at the time of her trial, she was forty-six years old and pregnant for the sixteenth time.
In the course of that pregnancy, Hutchinson endured two public trials, she spent a winter apart from her family under arrest, she was banished and excommunicated, and she walked the sixty miles from here to Rhode Island. There, in exile, she delivered what appeared to be a monstrous birth. It was actually a late-term miscarriage known in modern medical parlance as a molar pregnancy, or hydatidiform mole, a well recognized gynecological condition that is now removed soon after detection so it doesn’t become cancerous. But then it was a wondrous sign of Hutchinson’s inherent evil, more divine proof that she had been justly expelled.
Reports of Hutchinson’s abnormal birth arrived in Boston courtesy of a young Rhode Island minister who saw her after her delivery, when she nearly died from blood loss. When the Reverend Cotton in Boston, Hutchinson’s former theological ally, heard of her “unnatural birth,” he “made use of it in public” at the next lecture day, choosing this medical matter, which seems to us an intensely private matter, as his text. It was, he told his congregation, a likely sign of Mistress Hutchinson’s “error” and heresy.
Hutchinson’s miscarriage became the talk of Boston. Winthrop wrote to the minister in Rhode Island to request a fuller account of Hutchinson’s monstrous birth, and recorded what he heard: “Mistress Hutchinson being big with child, and growing toward the time of her labor,… brought forth not one (as Mistress Dyer did) but (which was more strange to amazement) thirty monstrous births or thereabouts, at once; some of them bigger, some lesser, some of one shape, some of another; few of any perfect shape, none at all of them (as far as I could ever learn) of human shape. These things are so strange that I am almost loath to be the reporter of them, lest I should seem to feign… But see how the wisdom of God fitted this judgment to her sin every way, for look – as she had vented misshapen opinions, so she must bring forth deformed monsters. And as [there were] about thirty opinions in number, so many monsters. And as those were public, and not in a corner mentioned, so this is now come to be known and famous over all these churches, and a great part of the world.”
In 17th-century Boston, the contents of a woman’s uterus were the subject of religious and political debate. Gynecological conditions were signs of God’s intervention in the world, exposing people’s sins. Women’s bodies were subjects for men to preach about and pick apart for their religious and social meaning.
Were there other uses of women’s bodies, in the Puritan mind? Well, yes, reproduction was as the main purpose of a woman’s body, Puritans believed. Once that earthly function is fulfilled, though, women become irrelevant, in contrast to men, whose bodies are resurrected after death. The Reverend Cotton Mather explained that after death the souls of male saints escape their worldly bodies to assume a heavenly body that includes organs (there was intense debate among 17th-century ministers about exactly how much of, and which organs of, the male body are resurrected) and allows them to see and hear as they float alongside angels, who are also male. In Puritan theology, Heaven is an entirely masculine place.
Which, strangely, leads to me to a hopeful final note, arising from the Salem witchcraft crisis of 1692, in which Massachusetts murdered twenty innocent people. That crisis surprisingly had some positive outcomes, including the creation of the first independent judiciary in the western hemisphere, the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts, which was created as a direct result of the trials.
Another positive outcome of the witch hunt was a change of heart within one of the nine judges, Samuel Sewall. Four years after the trials, Judge Sewall called for a public fast day of repentance and stood up in his church, Boston’s Third, to acknowledge his “shame and blame” for killing innocent people. The fact of Sewall’s repentance is well known, as is the fact that Sewall was the author of the first antislavery tract in American history, which he published in 1700, when one in five Bostonians owned slaves. Less well known is what Sewall did nearly thirty years later, as an old man, when he considered the possibility that women are equal to men.
It was the summer of 1724, when the retired judge spent long hours at the bedside of his oldest daughter, “while waiting on my dear child in her last sickness,” as he put it. He did all he could to help Hannah, sitting with her, praying and singing psalms. When Hannah fell asleep, her father read. One book he read that summer, The British Apollo, was the sort of book you keep in your guest bathroom: it contained “two thousand answers to curious questions in most arts & sciences,” approved of “by many of the most learned & ingenious of both universities & of the Royal Society.” Sewall read some of The British Apollo, published in London in 1711, aloud to his daughter, but on page 200 he came to a question that seemed unsuitable for sharing with her.
“Is there now, or will there be at the resurrection, any females in Heaven?” This was a relevant question, according to the text, “since there seems to be no need of them there.”
The British Apollo’s reply was, “Since sexes are corporal distinctions, it follows that there can be now no distinction of sex in Heaven,… Our rising bodies will not be distinguished into sexes… In the resurrection [the dead] are… as the angels of God” – male.
This “malapert question” troubled Samuel Sewall. The embedded assumption – since there seems to be no need of them there – especially irritated him. In his view, “It is most certain there will be no needless impertinent persons or things in Heaven,” because “Heaven is a roomy” and “magnificent palace, furnished with the most rich and splendid entertainments…” So many women Sewall had loved were dead, he felt sure that “God is their father” and “therefore Heaven is their country.” He saw no convincing evidence that women’s bodies were less likely to be resurrected than men’s, although this was the teaching of his church.
The seventy-two-year-old judge took up an old diary and began to address the issue of “Whether the bodies of women deceased shall be again raised up, and remain in their own sex.” He titled his work, “Talitha Cumi,” after an Aramaic expression in the Gospel of Mark that means, “Maiden, arise.” Using the research methods he’d acquired at Harvard College in the 1670s, he gathered additional texts, including works of Augustine and Calvin, and stated his thesis: “He that instituted both sexes will restore both” in heaven.
He wrote, “Is there no need for a daughter to go and see her father when he sends for her?” Is there no need for her “to see God, who, though He be a great king, yet is a most loving and tender hearted father?”
Need is not relevant, Sewall concluded. “God has no need of any creature.” Augustine and Erasmus provided “plain and undeniable proof” that “women have an equal share in the resurrection…” Noting “the beautiful variety with which [God] has been pleased to adorn” his “works,” Sewall wrote that it’s “past dispute that in the resurrected world Mary shall enjoy her own body, and John shall enjoy his.” Or, to update that, perhaps: in the resurrected world, Hillary shall enjoy her own body, and Donald or Barack or George shall enjoy theirs.
Then Sewall invoked the concept of the “right of women,” a remarkable thing two centuries before women could vote. “If any controversy… be moved injurious to the right of women…, in my opinion… [so] many [women] are such good lawyers, and… of such quick understanding,… they have no reason to be afraid…” of lacking rights.
None of Sewall’s early descendants saw fit to save a copy of the printed version of Talitha Cumi, so most historians assumed this late essay on gender equality was never published. Funny thing is, in January 1625 Samuel recorded in a ledger paying two pounds to the printer Bartholomew Green “for printing & folding 3/2 sheets Talitha Cumi.” So Talitha Cumi was published, but no one else commented on it, and no copy of the twenty-four page octavo is known to survive. But at the Massachusetts Historical Society, which holds the Sewall papers, you can find the draft of Talitha Cumi in his original diary, the version he’d have handed to the printer. The text of Talitha Cumi is also included at the back of my Sewall biography, Salem Witch Judge, so you can see for yourself how a Salem witch judge transformed himself into an early proponent of equal rights for women, taking one small step in the long battle over women’s bodies.