Founding Mothers & Fathers

Norton’s scholarly analysis of early colonial court records indicates that there is a tremendous gulf between modern beliefs about early American society and the reality that existed. According to Norton, patriarchal worldview underpinning New England society made the family and the state analogous—orderly families were the foundation of an orderly society and a rigid hierarchy prevailed in both. The father exercised virtually unlimited power in the family; power within the state was derived more from the consent of a “symbolic” father than the consent of the governed. A father who did not control his family had to account to society, and authorities were prone to intervene in malfunctioning families in cases of sexual misconduct. Women were ordinarily excluded from “public” affairs, and high-status widows, who answered to no one man, created serious problems for the social hierarchy if they contended for social power.

In the Chesapeake region, where there was more religious diversity and men greatly outnumbered women, “normal” English family patterns were not well established. Therefore, authorities were more likely to overlook sexual misconduct and concern themselves with violations that affected the political order. By the eighteenth century, John Locke’s distinction between family and state, private and public domains, as well as consensus and the mutual acceptance of norms, became the model for American society.

The book is divided into three sections: gendered power in the family, gendered power in the community, and gendered power in the state. Each section contains a prologue and two to three chapters. An appendix on methodology, well referenced notes, and a comprehensive index are included.