old etching of a white colonial woman

The Virtuous and Violent Women of Seventeenth-Century Massachusetts

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Dismantling the image of the peaceful and serene colonial goodwife and countering the assumption that New England was inherently less violent than other regions of colonial America, Emily C. K. Romeo offers a revealing look at acts of violence by Anglo-American women in colonial Massachusetts, from the everyday to the extraordinary. Using Essex County as a case study, Romeo deftly utilizes seventeenth- and eighteenth-century sources to demonstrate that Puritan women, both “virtuous” and otherwise, learned to negotiate the shifting boundaries between acceptable and unacceptable violence in their daily lives and communities.

The Virtuous and Violent Women of Seventeenth-Century Massachusetts shows that more dramatic violence by women—including infanticide, the scalping of captors during the Indian Wars, and even witchcraft accusations—was not necessarily intended to challenge the structures of authority but often sprung from women’s desire to protect property, safety, and standing for themselves and their families. The situations in which women chose to flout powerful social conventions and resort to overt violence expose the underlying, often unspoken, priorities and gendered expectations that shaped this society.

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