Cornelia Hughes Dayton, Women before the Bar: Gender, Law, and Society in Connecticut, 1639-1789
List: 17th-18th Century
Subjects: Gender, Law.

Was declension good or bad for colonial women? More specifically, was the deterioration of the Puritan culture in New Haven, Connecticut in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries an opportunity or a step backwards for the women who lived there? These are the questions animating the heart of Dayton's tome, which delves into the court records of said county to see how the role of women changed over this time.

And, contrary to what one might think, Dayton argues that theocracy was a boon for these early women, and that opportunities for females basically declined with Puritanism. According to Dayton, the Puritan court of early New Haven "created unusual opportunities for women's voices to be heard in court." They "gave credence to women's charges" when they appeared (and since lawyers were banned, they showed up much more frequently), "came close to establishing a single standard for men and women in the areas of sexual and moral conduct," "operated to reduce the near-absolute power that English men by law wield over their wives," "undercut men's sense of sexual entitlement to women's bodies," and relieved "women in some situations from their extreme dependency on men."

This is not to say that the Puritan years in New Haven under Judge Theophilus Eaton were golden years of tolerance and gender equality - it was more that the Puritans were harsh on everybody: men and women were both whipped unmercifully, and the latter group were still more likely to be tempted by Satan. In sum, when the business of the court was saving souls rather than settling disputes, the judge had bigger fish to fry than keeping women in their place.

Alas for women (but fortunately for sinners), this relative gender equality gradually deteriorated in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. Due to a number of cultural changes -- including the rise of Anglicization, materialism, secularization, privacy, legal specialization (lawyers), and a gendered conception of public space -- women lost their voices in the courtroom and, by the time of the Revolution, had been reestablished as "dependent, apolitical beings" whose sphere of influence was restricted to the republican family household (the private sphere.)

Having set up the connections between religious declension and gender disenfranchisement (perhaps the wrong word, in that women never could vote), Dayton then proceeds to explore how these twin movements affected particular realms of legal endeavor, including debt and inheritance procedures, divorce, consensual sex, rape, and slander. Throughout, the pattern she earmarked earlier holds - Despite the rigidity of theocracy, women tended to have a louder voice at the table under the Puritans than they did in the Yankee court.

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