Colonial Women of Affairs

Elisabeth Anthony Dexter, Ph.D. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company. 1924. 8vo. xviii+204 pp. $5.00.
IN spite of the position of woman in America and the extraordinary diligence which has been shown in tracing the colonial origins of the United States, remarkably little has been done as yet in examining the legal and economic position of women in the days before the Revolution. The first serious attempt to treat the subject with scholarly care was made only seven years ago, in the first volume of Dr. Calhoun’s Social History of the American Family, and that study was largely confined to certain aspects only. Much has been written in popular fashion of the life of colonial dames and good wives but the topic still awaits the serious consideration of the trained historian.
Although Dr. Dexter, in the volume under review, modestly states that she has ‘done little more than scratch the surface’ of her field, she has compiled an interesting and suggestive volume on women in business and the professions in colonial times. She states that newspapers constituted her most important sources but she cites in her list of references only those of Boston, Providence, New York, and Philadelphia. Apparently she has not examined important files of the Maryland and Carolina gazettes nor the journals of other colonies. In spite of the frankly acknowledged inadequacy of her data, however, she has been able to present a picture of Colonial Women of Affairs which affords distinct impressions if not final conclusions.
In loosely grouped chapters we read of women engaging in almost every line of economic and professional work of the period. To mention a few at hazard, we find them as inn-keepers, druggists, merchants, real estate operators, shopkeepers, printers, newspaper proprietors, blacksmiths, leather dressers, midwives and nurses, actresses, teachers, religious leaders, authors, and organizers of colonizing movements. The account which she gives of this multifarious feminine activity is most readable and will surprise those who think of the colonial woman only as grande dame or household drudge.
In the final chapter we have an interesting summary of the impressions Dr. Dexter has gained from her researches. The indications point to the existence of a feminine economic life freer from legal and social restraint in the colonial than in the post-revolutionary period. In tiie earlier one she finds that ‘there was nothing in the social or economic code of the times to prevent a woman’s supporting herself and her family in whatever way she best could.’ The author points out that most of the conditions complained of at the time of the ‘woman’s rights’ movement were dated in the early and middle nineteenth century, and that by that time there may have been a marked change in the opportunities afforded to women and in their legal disabilities.
The volume is mainly compiled from original sources, is written in an agreeable and easy style, and, although there are occasional minor errors, it is in general sound and accurate. For the student familiar with colonial conditions there is nothing new, but even for him the grouping of facts is suggestive; whereas for those less familiar with the subject, the book will reveal a little known aspect of the life of colonial women.