Adventures in Feministory!
Each week, a few brave souls here at Bitch jump into our feminist time machine and travel back, back, back in time to pay homage (femage?) to a feminist pioneer of the past. Join us this week as we journey to the year 1637 and gain a bit of feminist insight into the life of Massachusetts Bay Colonist Anne Hutchinson.
Anne Marbury Hutchinson was born in 1591 in Cambridge (the British one). Although women were not allowed to seek formal education at that time, Hutchinson's father allowed her to study at home, so by the time she shipped off to the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1634 (with her husband and 15 children in tow) she was a veritable encyclopedia of knowledge. Her area of expertise, and the entire reason she moved to New England in the first place, was theology. This was a hot topic at the time, to say the least.
Not only was Hutchinson a theological wiz (and a midwife, in addition to raising her own 15 kids), but by all accounts she was a pretty awesome person to hang with. Soon after her arrival in Boston, she started having Bible study meetings at her house, where she and her lady friends could discuss the latest sermons, her ideas about personal revelation, and her thoughts on the Holy Spirit and how it dwells within each of us (which did not exactly jive with the party line at the time, which held that the Bible was the only way God could communicate with his subjects).These women's meetings quickly became the talk of the town, and people as high up as the Governor himself (Henry Vane the younger) started showing up to listen to Hutchinson's radical ideas.
Of course, a rabble rouser like Hutchinson couldn't stay out of the colonial spotlight for long. In September of 1637, she was brought to trial for "keeping two public lectures a week at her house" which were attended by "sixty to eighty persons." Hutchinson handled herself like a pro at this trial, running circles of logic around the judge (John Winthrop), but her so-called heretical beliefs (and the fact that Winthrop told her he didn't think he should have to counsel a woman, and that her role as a pillar of the community should have been to instruct women to "love their husbands" and not to form opinions) got her excommunicated and banished to the wacky colony of Rhode Island.
Now the religious debates that were going on in Massachusetts Bay are a bit too complicated and longwinded to tackle here (but those of you who would like to know more should definitely check out Sarah Vowell's The Wordy Shipmates), but we as feminists owe a debt of gratitude to Anne Hutchinson, and anyone who enjoys freedom of religion owes a lot to her as well. She spoke out about her religious beliefs during a time when such things could (and did) get her banished from her home, and she refused to be intimidated by the men who controlled her fate.
So during this holiday season, as you encounter the inevitable pop culture references to the pilgrims and puritans who founded the original colonies (muskets and buckled hats, anyone?), keep Anne Hutchinson in mind. She was a feminist before women were allowed to have their own opinions, and before anyone, man or woman, was encouraged to expand the definition of religious freedom. Oh and there is one more thing we can thank Anne Hutchinson for: she is the great-great-great-great-great, etc. grandmother of George W. Bush. But don't let that keep you from celebrating her feminist efforts.
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