Sexual humiliation in American women’s political history: the longue durée

On my way to and from work lately, I’ve been listening to the original cast album of Hamilton, which is of course as catchy and terrific as everyone says it is.  (Trust me:  it’s worth even more than the hype, and I bow to no one in trashing the so-called Founding Fathers, although I do have one misgiving which I describe below.)

It’s especially interesting to listen to alongside the news about the current presidential campaign.  In particular, I’m thinking about the middle part of the album, which  features several songs about Alexander Hamilton’s affair with Maria Reynolds and its exposure, as well as the revelation of his extortion by Reynolds’s husband.

Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton illustrates the partisanship at play in this political and sexual scandal by showing Hamilton essentially accused of corruption by Thomas Jefferson (the new Vice President under John Adams in 1797), and his fellow Democratic-Republican allies James Madison and Senator Aaron Burr, who had recently defeated Hamilton’s father-in-law in the New York Senate race.

This is pretty rich, considering that Jefferson and Burr had their own extramarital sexual affairs–Jefferson’s longstanding liaison with Sally Hemings, whom he owned; and Burr’s relationship with his wife Theodosia, which began long before she was widowed in the Revolution.  Confronted with the prospect of political ruin, Hamilton published his own pamphlet admitting to sexual incontinence but defending his honor as a steward of the public trust, saying that he paid the blackmail with his own money. Continue reading

“The great life-long mistake”: young marriage in the United States


University of North Carolina Press, 2016

Friends, today I give you a guest post from Nicholas L. Syrett, my BFF and neighboring historian in Northern Colorado.  His second book is out now–American Child Bride: A History of Minors and Marriage in the United States.  (That’s the cover on the left, featuring a striking photo of “Peaches” and “Daddy,” a.k.a. Frances Heenan Browning and Edward West Browning.  They were among the biggest tabloid sensations of the 1920s–she was 15, he 51. when they married in 1926.)  Here below, Nick gives us some of the deep history behind anti-child marriage activism in the U.S., and concludes with some thoughts about a 70-year old presidential candidate this year who as he gets older, marries women who are younger and younger.  What does age asymmetry in marriage say about gender roles in our era?

When most Americans hear the phrase “child marriage” they probably think about it happening elsewhere: India, Africa, the Middle East. The practice is indeed widespread in other parts of the world but thousands of legal minors marry in the United States every year as well. Every single state allows teenagers below the age of 18 to marry with some combination of parental or judicial consent. In some states the minimum marriageable age goes as low as 12.

All of this should concern us. But as I discovered in researching my new book, American Child Bride, these have been longstanding concerns of feminists in the United States. Continue reading

Teaser Tuesday: How and why did Esther become Mali?

Yale University Press. 2016

Yale University Press. 2016

We’re back again on another Tuesday with yet another free sample from my new book, The Many Captivities of Esther Wheelwrightthis time from chapter 2, in which Esther is taken captive by the Wabanaki, who care for five years, from age 7 to 12.  How did Wabanaki women and men go about turning little Anglo-American girls and boys into their daughters and sons?  Unfortunately, that’s something that Esther never wrote about or described in any detail at all in any of the documents that record her life.  Chapter 2 is probably the chapter that stretched my imagination the most–you tell me if it ventures too far from history and veers into fiction.

One of my techniques in writing this book was to imagine the bodily sensations Esther might have experienced at each stage of her life and journey.  You’d be surprised how generative it is to ask simple questions like,  was Esther warm or cold?  What was she wearing? What did she eat for supper? Whose bed or blanket did she share at night? Throughout my career as a scholar, clothing has always struck me as a vitally important issue in cross-cultural encounters in early North America–everyone talks or writes about it, and moreover it’s also a vehicle for thinking about labor, trade, politics, and cultural change.

Here’s a little sample of how I approach Esther’s introduction to life among the Wabanaki.  I introduce here a recurring motif through the book of Esther being stripped of her clothing and redressed in garments appropriate to the new culture she’s living in and/or the new stage of life she has entered. Continue reading

Historiann on The Way of Improvement Leads Home podcast!

twoilhpodcastHey, Kids–go to iTunes or just click here to hear my interview with The Way of Improvement Leads Home‘s John Fea and Drew Dyrli Hermeling about my new book, The Many Captivities of Esther Wheelwright.  We all had a great time recording this and talking to one another.  I was extremely gratified to hear how much John and Drew like the book, especially because John is an important historian of religion, and I’ve been a little nervous about what those folks might think of my treatment of the subject (which is pretty extensive, given that there is a giant nun face on the cover of the book!)

The subject of this episode was not just Esther Wheelwright, but biography in general.  John’s first book, The Way of Improvement Leads Home:  Philip Vickers Fithian and the Rural Enlightenment in Early America (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008), was a biography of a young early American diarist.  In the podcast, he reflects on some contrasting reviews this book received.  One review described it as a “deeply sympathetic” biography, which made him reflect on whether or not he had achieved objective distance from his subject; and another, which called Fithian “an insufferable prig and schlemiel,” which made John feel defensive:  “How dare this historian describe Philip this way?  I felt like I needed to defend a friend from a bully.” Continue reading

Teaser Tuesday: What’s for breakfast in early New England?

Yale University Press. 2016

Yale University Press. 2016

Readers of my book in my book, The Many Captivities of Esther Wheelwright might well wonder:  is Ann Little a huge glutton?  Or was it just too close to lunchtime when she wrote some of these chapters?  To answer your questions:  yes, and almost certainly!  What’s for breakfast, lunch, and dinner? are questions on my mind every day, so I thought it would be an interesting question to answer when writing about Anglo-Americans, Native Americans, and French Canadians alike.

The answer to that question–what’s for dinner?–was also an interesting way to explore some of the differences as well as some significant similarities among the peoples of the northeastern borderlands.  As it turns out, the answer to that question was a lot more similar when comparing early New England and Wabanaki communities; when Esther moved into the Governor’s mansion, the Château Saint-Louis, in Québec, that’s when her diet took a gratifyingly rich and nutritious swerve, one that was for the most part sustained inside the walls of the Ursuline convent.  Future Teaser Tuesdays will explore the what’s for dinner? and the what’s for supper? questions in those locations.

My excerpt today is once again from chapter one, which focuses on Esther’s life from birth to her capture at age seven.  In addition to answering the question what’s for breakfast?, it also tells you a little bit about who made that breakfast and did the other work around the household, so as to give some insight into the division of labor in an Anglo-American family.  (FYI, the Hannah I write about here is Esther’s elder sister by two years.  I also introduce you to some other family members in this chapter, but their relationship to her is clearer in this excerpt.) Continue reading

Teaser Tuesday: What was childhood like in an Anglo-American garrison?

Yale University Press. 2016

Yale University Press. 2016

It’s back–Teaser Tuesday, in which I offer you a little flava of what you might find in my book, The Many Captivities of Esther Wheelwright.  Today I give you a little hint from chapter one, in which I write about Esther’s life from birth up to age seven, when she’s taken captive in a Wabanaki raid on her hometown of Wells, Maine.

One of the most exciting developments in history lately is the emergence of age as a category of analysis.  I had a lot of fun thinking about the ways in which age might have shaped Esther’s experience of the different worlds in which she lived–in an Anglo-American frontier town, in Wabanaki mission towns, and then in Québec as a student in the Ursuline convent school, where she then remained as a nun for the rest of her life.

Lots more, and even a very creepy doll, after the jump!

Continue reading

Q & A with Historiann!


Yale University Press. 2016

Theresa Kaminski kindly published an interview with me on her blog on Monday night, the night that she cleverly dubbed “Esther Eve,” because it was the night before my book, The Many Captivities of Esther Wheelwright was officially published.   Here’s a little flava of your favorite snappy cowgirl in action:

Q. Did you confront any challenges in researching Wheelwright’s life? How did you deal with them?

A. This was an impossible book to write, because Esther never wrote a captivity narrative describing her experiences. For all that, however, her life was better documented than most middling North American women because she entered a convent, and the convent recorded her progress through the ranks there from student to novice to choir nun. Convent records also recorded a few brief versions of her biography, but I have almost nothing in her own hand about her own life and family ties.

I was told by a senior male scholar that writing this book was “daft”—both my ideas for it and the fact I was spending time pursuing them. I was lectured by a literary agent that my introduction was just out-of-date feminist cant. Feedback like this only made me more determined to write this book and to write it on my own terms. The fact of the matter is that it’s still controversial to insist that women’s lives are important and of historical significance.

Continue reading