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In new book, Cornell historian Mary Beth Norton explores the roles of men and women in colonial America

Some of the hottest debates raging in America today hinge on the extent to which governments can, or should, regulate human relationships. Should states hold parents accountable for their children's crimes? Restrict no-fault divorces? Prohibit same-sex marriages? Addressing such questions, commentators often lament the loss of propriety that prevailed early in this century, when more families were intact, more morals adhered to. But rarely do they frame today's social ills in the context of centuries past.

That may change, thanks to a new book from a Cornell University historian. In Founding Mothers & Fathers: Gendered Power and the Forming of American Society (Knopf, 1996), Mary Beth Norton, the Mary Donlon Alger Professor of American History, has documented gender roles and state-family relationships during the first half of the 17th century. An engrossing mix of political philosophy and social history, the book was published this spring and has been named a summer selection by the Book-of-the-Month-Club and the History Book Club.

A reviewer in The New York Times writes, "To follow [Norton's] lead is to travel at high speed -- and ground level -- through a broad, colorful and richly variegated historical landscape. It makes, all in all, for an unusually engrossing ride."

For more than a decade, Norton analyzed transcripts from almost 10,000 civil and criminal cases from the courts of colonial New England and the Chesapeake (Virginia and Maryland) between 1620 and 1670. The transcripts introduced Norton to a colorful cast of characters whose unseemly actions landed them in court. She, in turn, introduces them to readers with lively, often humorous anecdotes as she explores the links among 17th-century families, communities and politics.

The dominant view of the colonists, writes Norton, was that the family and state were inherently similar; government was modeled after the family. A stable society required stable families, and familial disruptions threatened social order. Therefore, family life was of paramount concern to colonial leaders; there was no discussion, as today, of a separation of private and public. "The family was the real -- not just metaphorical -- foundation of the state," Norton writes.

That foundation was inherently authoritarian and patriarchal, inspired by the writings of English political theorist Robert Filmer, who viewed the family as a "little monarchy."

"The English immigrants believed that heads of households [men] were crucial links in the chain of hierarchical authority that governed their society," Norton writes. "Because of the absence of other well-established, accepted hierarchical relationships in the colonies, those links became even more important in North America than they had been in the mother country."

But, as the book's title suggests, colonial women were not powerless; the 'founding mothers' played an important, if seldom acknowledged, role in family and community life. Women who wielded power in their own homes, as mothers or as supervisors of servants, for example, were more likely to hold sway in the community in such positions as midwives.

Encountering in her research many more strong women in New England than in the Chesapeake, Norton surmised that demographics played a major role in the divergent status of women living in the regions. She writes that very few women lived in the Chesapeake during the period; the area was populated almost solely by men, brought in to work the tobacco fields. Chesapeake households were more likely to be populated by groups of men than by married couples. As a result, Norton believes, women had little presence or power within or without the home, and Chesapeake communities tended to be modeled on contractual relationships among groups of men rather than on the traditional family unit.

Norton said she believes Founding Mothers & Fathers fills a void in the existing literature, because "most people have looked solely at either New England or the Chesapeake. This is one of the few books that compares life in the two regions."

In the final days of the 20th century, when conventional notions of the American family have been turned upside down, Founding Mothers & Fathers offers a glimpse of some of the first Americans to challenge these notions.

"If anyone had held a 'most dysfunctional family' contest in seventeenth-century New England, the clan headed by Nicholas Pinion, an iron worker, would have won easily," Norton writes. Pinion family members were prosecuted 26 times over two generations, for offenses ranging from profanity to gossip, theft, absence from church and infanticide. Especially egregious, in the colonists' eyes, was Pinion's inability to control his wife.

"That was shown . . . by her physical and verbal attacks on Nicholas," Norton writes, "actions indicating the absence of appropriate wifely deference."

One of Pinion's daughters was charged because she tried to leave her own husband. When he ordered her to return home, according to court transcripts, she, "contrary to the duty of a wife," refused to do so, thus "casting contempt upon Authority whoe had enjoined her returne to him."

With intriguing parallels to contemporary discussions on sexual identity, Norton describes the case of Thomasine Hall, who as a young adult in London cut her hair and joined the army. In 1627, Hall traveled to Virginia as "Thomas;" the colonists quickly grew curious about their new neighbor, who had a penchant for switching gender identities. They would examine Hall while he slept, undress him on the street and issue court-ordered examinations.

"Those searchers being againe assembled," read the court transcripts, ". . . were againe desirous to search the said Hall, and having searched him . . . did then likewise find him to bee a man."

Ultimately, Virginia's highest court deemed Hall to be both a man and a woman, who was ordered to wear male clothing and a female apron and hat to advertise his/her dual-sexed identity. "The vigor with which [authorities] pursued their concerns dramatically underscores the significance of gender distinctions in seventeenth-century Anglo-America," Norton writes.

Few American scholars are more equipped than Norton, a member of Cornell's faculty since 1971, to make sense of these complex legal cases, made even more inaccessible by their period spelling and punctuation and their reliance on a calendar that is now obsolete. Norton, a former student of political theory and intellectual history at the University of Michigan and of colonial social history at Harvard, is one of the nation's leading scholars of American women's history.

Her books include Liberty's Daughters: The Revolutionary Experience of American Women, 1750-1800, Major Problems in American Women's History and the American history textbook A People and a Nation, now in its fourth edition.

Looking to the colonists' experience is instructive, Norton believes, because it "raises a lot of questions about what happens when the state gets seriously involved in the internal affairs of families. It gives us a model from the past to contemplate in the political climate of the 1990s."

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