“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: 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

Today’s mailbag: Historiann offers a rope to Millie on the job market

elvgrenmailToday’s mailbag brings us a thoroughly modern problem from Visiting Assistant Professor (VAP) and new Ph.D. Millie, who wonders if she should rush to get a book contract:

I’m a VAP, on the job market, and trying to conceptualize the dissertation-to-manuscript process (I graduated this past academic year).

That intellectual labor aside, the thing that’s really making me anxious is the timing of the process itself. On the one hand, lots of people say “write a book proposal, get a contract, write the manuscript” and I see fellow junior faculty doing that on Twitter all the time. On the other hand, other people (including my adviser, who is wonderful but also wrote his first book in the late 60s) tell me to write the manuscript first because a contract doesn’t mean that much at this stage in my career.

Obviously one of those has to be the right path, but I don’t know which one it is! I also feel like everyone else understands this but me. Any thoughts you have would be appreciated.

–Thoroughly Modern Millie

Dear Millie,

Thanks for writing in.  Increasingly over the past decade, I’ve seen more and more junior scholars applying for assistant professor jobs with book manuscripts under contract or even published, so your question is a very important one for many in your cohort of recent grads.  I’ll be interested to hear what my readers have to say about this,   (FYI, Millie’s Ph.D. and current VAP is in a book-intensive humanities discipline.)

Believe me, I understand the lure of snagging a book contract ASAP.  I’ve fallen under that spell myself on occasion, but in the end I think spending some time thinking about the book you want to write and getting some major revisions done is the way to go.  In other words, I think your advisor is right.  (Maybe that means I’m an old fart too, although I see that I was a wee infant the year he published his first book.  Old fartitude sneaks up quickly on you–one day you’re all like “hey, I’m 32, burn the candle at both ends!” and then you’re all like “two beers and I can’t get out of bed the next morning, srsly?”–so watch out.) Continue reading

Wikipedia in the classroom: check out these new bios of early American women!


A Woman Writing a Letter (1680), by Frans van Mieris (1635-1681)

UPDATED 12:30 p.m. MDT, with details from my syllabus below the original post.

I’m now going to do something I hardly ever do:  I’m going to tell you about something my students have done.  I can’t restrain myself!  I’m so proud of my women’s history students this semester.  Six of them have written biographies of previously unrepresented or under-represented women in early American history, and they’re now published on English-language Wikipedia.  Check them out:

Inés de Bobadilla (ca. 1505-43; first woman governor of Cuba)

Alice Clifton (ca. 1772 – unknown; as an enslaved teenager, she was a defendant in infanticide trial in 1787)

Rebecca Dickinson (1738-1815; American tailor and seamstress in Hadley, Mass.)

Elizabeth Hanson, captive of Native Americans (1684-1737; former Wabanaki captive from Dover, N.H. and the author of God’s Mercy Surmounting Man’s Cruelty, 1728)

Sarah Osborn (1714-96; Evangelical Protestant writer in Newport, R.I. and author of Memoirs of the life of Mrs. Sarah Osborn.)

Rachel of Kittery, Maine (d. 1695; enslaved woman murdered by her master whose case set a legal precedent in New England)

Continue reading