Women’s History Month 2022: Separated by Their Sex, Women in Public and Private in the Colonial Atlantic World by Mary Beth Norton: Book Review

Today’s book review ties into Women’s History Month 2022. Scholarly works detailing the lives of women before the 1800s are not easily found.

However, Mary Beth Norton has written Separated by Their Sex: Women in Public and Private in the Colonial Atlantic World, published in 2011 by Cornell University Press.

Scholarly definitely means well done, but it doesn’t mean difficult to read. Norton’s book is well researched with biographical stories presented in five chapters, covering 182 pages. Lengthy notes are at the end of the book.

Also of interest is that the women’s stories are not just of the American colonies, but also of English women. Hence, ‘Colonial Atlantic World’ in the title.

Contents

Introduction

1. Lady Frances Berkeley and Virginia Politics, 1675-1678 & Mistress Alice Tilly and Her Supporters 1649-1650

2. English Women in the Public Realm, 1642-1653 & Mistress Elinor James and Her Broadsides, 1681-1714

3. John Dunton and the Invention of the Feminine Private & Mistress Sarah Kemble Knight and Her Journal, 1704

4. Women and Politics, Eighteenth Century-
Style & Lady Chatham and Her Correspondents, 1740s-1760s

5. Consolidating the Feminine Private

Conclusion: Defining “Women”

There is a huge amount of historical detail about women of the colonial era – from the disdain that many men displayed towards their petitions for rights to those who assumed leadership roles normally reserved to men.

One of my favorite ladies in this book is Sarah Kemble Knight, who rode the old Boston Post Road alone while traveling to Connecticut and New York to administer the estates of deceased relatives.

I’ve driven that road many times during the years I lived in Rhode Island and can’t imagine a lone woman riding horseback, mostly by herself, for hundreds of miles. And – that she kept a journal of her travels.

I also enjoyed reading the responses to Benjamin Franklin’s Rules and Maxims for Promoting Matrimonial Happiness. His advice definitely was not welcomed by many women.

While the chapter titles might make one think that this book only delves into the lives of upper class women, seen as wielding more power because of their economic situation, that would be an error.

Norton touches on topics that range from politics to friendships to daily life.

Many women in this history remain nameless to time, but their actions indicate that they strongly believed that women’s voices should be heard and that women deserved to be granted rights and opportunities similar to those that men had held for centuries.

Although this book was published in 2011, I had never come across it until recently.  I recommend this book to those who wish to learn more about what life was really like for women who lived during the American and English 17th and 18th centuries.

Separated by Their Sex: Women in Public and Private in the Colonial and Atlantic World by Mary Beth Norton, Cornell University Press, 2011 (Reprint in 2014), can be purchased online for about $22 (new) and $5.00 (Used).

One thought on “Women’s History Month 2022: Separated by Their Sex, Women in Public and Private in the Colonial Atlantic World by Mary Beth Norton: Book Review”

  1. Looks like an interesting book…I like the way that it focusses on different people, rather than just being one long treatise. A much better way to introduce lay people to history.

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