U.S. Intellectual History Blog

A Woman’s Work: Bradstreet & Beyond

Accomplishments of WomenProfessor Helen Stuart Campbell could not vote, so she took America to task in print. Between 1881 and 1918, Campbell published books and articles describing women as “prisoners of poverty” and denouncing a widespread low-wage system that privileged men. In The Problem of the Poor (1882) and Women Wage Earners (1893), she upheld a common reform agenda of the day: higher wages, better working conditions, Christian lives. Women bore the brunt of the nineteenth century’s rapid industrial progress, as the professor argued in her novels and newspaper articles. It was past time for high society to recognize urban poverty, she wrote, and “bring order out of the chaos that threatens us.” Helen Campbell’s great plan of social improvement, inspired by her work in a New York City waterfront mission and as an early organizer of the National Household Economics Association, received mixed reviews. Occasionally, Campbell (1839-1918) offered her University of Wisconsin economics students a ray of hope, by writing and serializing Victorian parables where women workers—however briefly—shone.

Take Miss Melinda’s Opportunity (1886), in which a pair of fictional shopgirls achieve success as “light housekeeping” entrepreneurs and duplex managers. Or Some Passages in the Practice of Dr. Martha Scarborough (1893), in which a physician apprentices at her father’s side, pausing only to “knit her pretty brows in an effort to comprehend.” Contemporary critics seemed to doubt that Helen Campbell understood, or adequately interpreted, the “past and present” of the American women she championed on the page. “Modest, energetic, sensible girls, appreciative of pretty homes and of Emerson and Ruskin, handy and capable, do not stand behind every counter,” sniffed The Overland Monthly. Campbell soldiered on. She advocated for reformed public health conditions. She investigated the plight of garment workers for The New York Tribune. Then, in 1891, the self-taught scholar who specialized in collecting poor women’s “record of quiet work in unquiet places,” abruptly turned, setting her gaze on Anne Bradstreet, the Puritan poet.

The resulting biography, Anne Bradstreet and Her Time, is a curious intellectual artifact. “Grave doubts at times arise in the critical mind,” Campbell began darkly, “as to whether America has had any famous women.” Raised far from English education and French culture, America’s female corps had little intellectual pedigree to boast—or did they? For the next 300-odd pages, Campbell used Anne Bradstreet’s life as evidence of her dissent. For the Puritan poet—an immigrant on the Arbella; daughter and wife of Massachusetts Bay Colony governors; author of The Tenth Muse Lately Sprung Up in America; and the first woman to be published in the New World—was also “a very real and vital person.” Overall, Campbell’s historical silhouette of Anne Dudley Bradstreet (1612-1672), bent on her craft between chores in the Merrimack “Valley of the Poets,” came together via the interpretation of the Puritan’s fragmentary diary, the family’s laboriously reconstructed literary manuscripts, and a generous amount of cultural world-building.

Anxious to bind together the poet “and her time,” Campbell glided over portions of the Puritan story to make the pieces fit. A keen social investigator, Campbell sounded almost disappointed by Anne Bradstreet’s apparent resilience in the face of colonial hardship. “Petty miseries and deprivations,” and all forms of suffering, “are forgotten with the passing…there is not a line of reference to them in any of Anne Bradstreet’s writings,” Campbell wrote. After “seating” Bradstreet for the trial of radical prophetess Anne Hutchinson, Helen Campbell dodged a meaningful analysis of the orthodox poet’s perspective. “Anne Bradstreet must have listened with a curious mixture of feelings,” Campbell wrote, haltingly, “though any evidence of them would naturally be suppressed.”

Of “Mistress Anne’s” literature and legacy, Professor Campbell’s initial severity softened once she thought it showed real growth. Consider the 19-year-old Bradstreet’s 1632 effort, “Upon a Fit of Sickness.” Campbell, channeling the writer’s own critique of this “very pious and unexceptional doggerel,” imagined Bradstreet shoving it in a drawer “with a smile at the metre and a sigh for the miserable time it chronicled.” As her skills developed and Bradstreet learned to tap into the Christian “groans” of elegy that Puritan poets espoused, Campbell burnished her study. Anne Bradstreet worked at her poetry, and a woman’s cultural labor always deserved historical notice, Campbell wrote. By the biography’s close, Campbell turned over the pen to Bradstreet, extracting whole chunks of diary and verse. Unable to find a funeral record or a gravestone, Campbell ended with a crescendo of eulogy poems written in Bradstreet’s honor. Helen Campbell, who lived her last days in Dedham, Massachusetts, likely never saw a public monument to the best-selling Puritan poet in her lifetime, beyond her literary work. In 1997, Harvard University hoisted Anne Bradstreet’s prose on a plaque that, fittingly, sits near a busy iron gateway.

In modern memory, it has been nearly a decade since Caroline Winterer asked: “Is there an intellectual history of early American women?” [Modern Intellectual History 4 (2007): 173-190]. The successive years’ worth of books, articles, conference papers, and digital projects (stand by for that bibliography post, it will be one to crowdsource!) have confirmed it is a rich field. And, as Winterer observed, centering women in the historical narrative has changed how we practice the craft, a topic that I hope we’ll hear more about during her USIH 2016 roundtable. The emergent collaboration between historians and diverse communities—especially digital publics—has been critical for the evolution of syllabus material, statue choices, digital resource development, and textbook content.

Recently, and closer to home, Abigail Adams’s “Remember the Ladies” letter to her husband John won the Massachusetts Historical Society’s “March Madness” collections tournament by a popular vote. In the championship round, Abigail’s candid exhortation of citizenship in 1776 soundly defeated Samuel Sewall’s graphic account of the Salem witchcraft trials: a striking juxtaposition of the primary sources that we rely on to frame and curate the intellectual experiences of colonial women. The contest gave me an idea…

Moving beyond Abigail, and over the following posts, I will use this space to explore the lives and works of other early American women intellectuals who belong in our history survey classes, public monuments, and k-12 lesson plans. Perhaps, at journey’s end, they will claim a spot in the ongoing campaign to build a National Women’s History Museum. Since we can sketch a critical timeline in infinite ways, let’s pin Anne Bradstreet’s birth and Helen Campbell’s revival of her work as markers, ca. 1612-1891. My experiment is to span the gulf from subject to author, tracing the course of early American women’s thought from the Puritans to the Progressives via a selected prosopography (with as much scholarly detail as blogging allows). Some figures are famous and some are not; all displayed remarkable industry in forging the country’s literature, art, politics, and religion. To the new nation, a woman’s work mattered a great deal, even if she left a light shadow in the archive.

In the comments below, please add your ideas for subjects and sources. In your view, who are “the” women interpreters of early American thought?