Images of Women in Literature Colonial America

Colonial America

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature, Critical Edition)

Women in Colonial America were represented as Eve in the garden, and their role was to support male leaders of the religious and political community (that is, their husbands) by keeping house and rearing strong, moral children. This ideology influenced fair/virgin and dark/virago stereotypes used by American writers from Puritans to postmodernists.

Believing that reading and writing diminished women’s physical and mental capabilities, Puritans discouraged female authors. However, the first published poet of British North America was Anne Bradstreet, whose The Tenth Muse Lately Sprung Up in America (1650) illustrated the difficult position in which the first generations of colonists found themselves. Puritans should have approached the wilderness with complete faith in God’s mission for them; yet, as Bradstreet’s poetry suggested, many were initially appalled by the wilderness and perhaps doubted their faith, as Bradstreet had at the deaths of her grandchildren. Far from being a feminist, Bradstreet greatly accepted her role in society and questioned the properness of her writing.

Another early form of women’s writing was the captivity narrative, which showed the vulnerability of white womanhood to hostile wilderness and native attacks. The most famous of these was Mary Rowlandson’s 1682 narrative of her experiences during King Philip’s War.

Women began to play more active roles in American literature during the American Revolution. The popular dramatist Mercy Otis Warren (sister of James Otis and friend of John and Abigail Adams) was at the center of revolutionary politics, and her early plays satirized British military and political leaders. After the revolution, Warren stated that women’s role in the new republic was to rear patriotic sons; hence, her later works promote the value of motherhood.