In 1637, Anne Hutchinson, a forty-six-year-old midwife who was pregnant with her sixteenth child, stood before forty male judges of the Massachusetts General Court, charged with heresy and sedition. In a time when women could not vote, hold public office, or teach outside the home, the charismatic Hutchinson wielded remarkable political power. Her unconventional ideas had attracted a following of prominent citizens eager for social reform. Hutchinson defended herself brilliantly, but the judges, faced with a perceived threat to public order, banished her for behaving in a manner "not comely for [her] sex."
Written by one of Hutchinson's direct descendants, American Jezebel brings both balance and perspective to Hutchinson's story. It captures this American heroine's life in all its complexity, presenting her not as a religious fanatic, a cardboard feminist, or a raging crank—as some have portrayed her—but as a flesh-and-blood wife, mother, theologian, and political leader. The book narrates her dramatic expulsion from Massachusetts, after which her judges, still threatened by her challenges, promptly built Harvard College to enforce religious and social orthodoxies—making her the mid-wife to the nation's first college. In exile, she settled Rhode Island, becoming the only woman ever to co-found an American colony.
The seeds of the American struggle for women's and human rights can be found in the story of this one woman's courageous life. American Jezebel illuminates the origins of our modern concepts of religious freedom, equal rights, and free speech, and showcases an extraordinary woman whose achievements are astonishing by the standards of any era.
Enemy of the State
"Anne Hutchinson is present," a male voice announced from somewhere in the crowded meetinghouse, momentarily quieting the din that filled its cavernous hall. The meetinghouse of Cambridge, Massachusetts, a square structure of timber and clay with a thatched roof, served as the community's city hall, church, and courthouse -- the latter its role this chilly Tuesday in November 1637. Hearing the news that the defendant had arrived, scores of bearded heads in black felt hats turned to find the one woman in the crowd.
There was nothing auspicious about Anne Hutchinson's appearance as she stood in the doorway alongside several male relatives and supporters, awaiting the start of her trial. She was forty-six years old, of average height and bearing, with an unremarkable face. Her petticoat fell almost to the ground, revealing only the tips of her leather boots. Against the cold she wore a wool mantua, or cloak. A white coif covered her hair, as was the custom of the day. Besides that and her white linen smock and neckerchief, she wore all black. She was a stranger to no one present, having ministered as midwife and nurse to many of their wives and children. All knew her to be an active member of the church of Boston, the wife of the wealthy textile merchantWilliam Hutchinson, the mother of twelve living children, andthe grandmother of one, a five-day-old boy who just that Sunday had been baptized. There was, in short, no outer sign to suggest she was an enemy of the state.
Enemy she was, though, indeed the greatest threat Massachusetts had ever known. More than a few men in the room, including several of the ministers, considered her a witch. Others believed the Devil had taken over her soul. The governor, John Winthrop, who was waiting in an antechamber of the meetinghouse to begin the trial over which he would preside, suspected her of using her devilish powers to subjugate men by establishing "the community of women" to foster "their abominable wickedness."
Anne Hutchinson's greatest crime, and the source of her power, was the series of weekly public meetings she held at her house to discuss Scripture and theology. At first, in 1635, the evening meetings had been just for women, who then were generally encouraged to gather in small groups to gossip and offer mutual support. Soon scores of women, enchanted by her intelligence and magnetism, flocked to hear her analysis of the week's Scripture reading, which many of them preferred to the ministers' latest interpretation. "Being a woman very helpful in times of childbirth and other occasions of bodily infirmities, [Hutchinson] easily insinuated herself into the affections of many," an official observed. Her "pretense was to repeat [the ministers'] sermons," the governor added, "but when that was done, she would comment upon the doctrines, interpret passages at her pleasure, and expound dark places of Scripture, and make it serve her turn," going beyond "wholesome truths" to "set forth her own stuff." One minister, Thomas Weld, reported that her "custom was for her scholars to propound questions and she (gravely sitting in the chair) did make answers thereunto." This was especially grievous in a time when the single chair in every house was for the use of the man alone.
Men had begun to accompany their wives to Hutchinson's meetings in 1636, and as her audiences swelled she offered a second session of religious instruction each week, just as the colonial ministers liked to give a Thursday lecture as well as their Sunday sermon. The Reverend Weld lamented that members of her audience, "being tainted, conveyed the infection to others," including "some of the magistrates, some gentlemen, some scholars and men of learning, some burgesses of our GeneralCourt, some of our captains and soldiers, some chief men in towns, and some eminent for religion, parts, and wit." Anne Hutchinson had "stepped out of [her] place," in the succinct phrase of the Reverend Hugh Peter, of Salem -- she "had rather been a husband than a wife; and a preacher than a hearer; and a magistrate than a subject."
It was painfully clear to Governor Winthrop, who had an excellent view of her comings and goings from his house directly across the road from hers in Boston, that Anne Hutchinson possessed the strongest constituency of any leader in the colony. She was, he confided in his journal, "a woman of a haughty and fierce carriage, a nimble wit and an active spirit, and a very voluble tongue." Her name was absent (on account of her sex) from every offensive political act and document, he observed, but she was behind them all. "More bold than a man," she was Virgil's dux foemina facti, "the woman leading all the action" -- the breeder and nourisher of all the county's distempers, the sower of political and religious discord. Before Mistress Hutchinson had arrived in America, in the fall of 1634, all was sweetness and light, he recalled. Now that she was here, all was chaos.
Through a side door of the meetinghouse, the forty magistrates of the Great and General Court of Massachusetts filed into the dimly lit room. This court of no appeal, the only court available to the fledgling colony's roughly seven thousand settlers, comprised the governor, a deputy governor, seven of their assistants (chosen by the freemen to serve as the colony's board of directors), and thirty-one deputies, prominent freemen chosen by the colony's fourteen towns (forerunners to the state's legislators). The judges that day included the assistant Simon Bradstreet, of Cambridge, thirty-three, who as colonial secretary was expected to take notes; Salem's John Endicott, the righteous, forty-nine-year-old former soldier who had recentlytried to pass a law forcing all women to wear veils, as in the Old Testament; and Deputy Governor Thomas Dudley, who at sixty-one was the oldest judge.
Eight ministers in black robes also joined the procession, not to judge the defendant but to give testimony, as witnesses ...