FOUNDING MOTHERS AND FATHERS: Gendered Power and the Forming of American Society by Mary Beth Norton

FOUNDING MOTHERS AND FATHERS: Gendered Power and the Forming of American Society

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A lucid and enlightening explication of the relationship between gender and power in early colonial America. Taking the period between 1620 and 1670 as the basis for this study, Norton (American History/Cornell; Liberty's Daughters, 1980, etc.) sets out to prove that the political and social worldview of early Americans underwent a drastic change from the founding of the first colonies to the framing of the Constitution 150 years later. The philosophy dominant in the 17th century, which Norton terms ""Filmerian"" after its primary theorist, Sir Robert Filmer, was a patriarchal view of both family and state, in which the hierarchical systems of power were derived from God and nature. Opposed to this was the later ""Lockean"" worldview (named after John Locke), which severed the connection between family and state, holding that public power was derived from a contractual agreement between consenting adults. Here Norton focuses on the Filmerian view, using court cases from the 17th century to show how women and men were treated under the law, how sexual offenses were punished, and what attributes were valued under this system. She also comes to the somewhat ironic conclusion that the Filmerian patriarchal worldview allowed more room for women to wield public power than did the Lockean: Although women were ordinarily subordinate to men in family situations, occasionally a woman could become the head or acting head of the family--if her husband were away, for example, or deceased. In the Filmerian system, these women were given a say in public affairs, whereas Lockean political philosophy would categorically deny women any access to political power by virtue of their sex alone. Something of a work-in-progress (Norton's next book will address the question of how the Lockean view became dominant), this is a promising beginning to what may prove to be a definitive work on the subject of gendered politics in America.

Pub Date: March 28th, 1996
Page count: 512pp
Publisher: Knopf