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

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

The Many Captivities of Esther Wheelwright gets a rave review in the Maine Sunday Telegram

tmcoewcoverThe Many Captivities of Esther Wheelwright gets a rave review in this morning’s Maine Sunday Telegram (the Sunday edition of the Portland Press Herald, FYI):

Ann M. Little’s telling of Esther Wheelwright’s story illuminates issues of class, status and gender through the 18th century and across continents.

In her intriguing new biography, “The Many Captivities of Esther Wheelwright,” Ann M. Little asks a rhetocial question: Why would the portrait of this Ursuline nun be there in the Massachusetts Historical Society collection “amid this collection of prominent Puritans and wealthy merchants, in the company of men she would have disagreed with on nearly every issue, great or small?”

“And yet, there she is,” writes Little, associate professor of history at Colorado State University, “the pink face floating in the glowing white wimple, wearing that determined look.”

For the past year, I’ve wondered if my choice to put her portrait on the cover was the right one.  My initial rationale was, “hey, biographies of the so-called “Founding Fathers” always feature one of their many oil portraits on the cover–my argument here is that Esther Wheelwright is worthy of the same treatment, so of course!”  On the other hand:  what do Anglophone Americans think when they see a nun on the cover of a book?  They probably don’t see “Important Early American,” but rather “representative of subculture” or even “flashback to Catholic school thirty, forty, or fifty years ago!”

This review by William David Barry ratifies my decision to put the portrait on the cover and to write about it on the first few pages.  (Nevertheless, I still wonder:  I just found out yesterday that the book’s Library of Congress call number is in the BX section, with other biographies of famous Catholic religious people.  The portrait of the nun right on the cover probably overdetermined this, but I had wondered if my book would be in the F1-100 section (New England History) or the F1000s (early Quebec).  I never thought I’d have a book in the religious history section, but I understand. Continue reading

Three lessons on women’s leadership from inside an Ursuline convent

Esther Wheelwright, c.1763 (oil on canvas)

Esther Wheelwright, c.1763 (oil on canvas), at the Massachusetts Historical Society, Boston.

Modern and mostly secular folks probably wouldn’t think that religious people might teach us something about politics and leadership.  But there are important lessons about leadership found in my study of a seventeenth- and eighteenth-century religious order over the course of 150 years or so.  After all, Catholic women religious have been electing their leadership democratically for centuries before secular men thought elections might be a good idea for civil society.

These women ran triennial elections for their superior, her assistant, dépositaire (treasurer), scrutaine (overseer of elections), novice mistress, and other lesser offices.  Some Ursulines in my book even engaged in early ratf^(king operations.  It’s true!

I reveal all of the details in my soon-to-be released new book, The Many Captivities of Esther Wheelwright, but just with you, dear readers, I’ll share some of the interesting parallels I found to the challenges facing North American women politicians even today.  Mother Esther (1696-1780) served in most of the elected offices in the Ursuline convent before being elected superior three times in the 1760s, a time of political, religious, and economic crisis in the wake of the British conquest of Quebec in 1759.  Her leadership and entrepreneurial financial management of the order through the 1760s permitted the order’s school and novitiate not only to survive in this uncertain decade, but to expand and thrive before Catholics were guaranteed the right to practice their religion by the Quebec Act of 1774.

How did she do it?  Continue reading

Women and leadership: more fresh entries in “Run Like a Girl” series at Nursing Clio

Margaret Chase Smith

Senator Margaret Chase Smith (R-ME) during her presidential run, 1964

I’ve fallen behind! Remember a few weeks back when I directed your attention to Nursing Clio’s important new series on women who have run for president of the United States, Run Like a Girl? There are two more entries I haven’t posted about!

If you recall, the first in the series featured (naturally!) the first woman ever to run for president, Victoria Woodhull (1838-1927), who ran in 1872.  Last week, Sarah Handley-Cousins wrote about Belva Lockwood (1830-1917), a badass single mother and attorney who was one of the first women to argue before the Supreme Court.  She became the National Equal Rights Party’s nominee in 1884 and again in 1888.

This week, Run like a Girl moves into the twentieth century with Laura M. Ansley’s discussion of the political career of Margaret Chase Smith (1897-1995.)  A working-class girl from Skowhegan, Maine, Smith was the daughter of the town barber and a waitress from a French-Canadian family.  Only a high school graduate, she is exemplary of most American women in the nineteenth and early twentieth-century who came to hold prominent public offices:  she ran for her late husband’s office and won in 1940, and then went on to run for the senate in 1948 (and win), and for president in 1964 (but lost!)   Continue reading