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What we get Wrong About Puritan Women

Correcting Common Misperceptions about Puritan Women

When I first started researching and writing on Puritan women, I got all sorts of interesting responses to my work.

Some would be surprised that we have any information about these women at all, others would wonder what stories of abuse I encountered, and still others would ask me if we know about them because of their husbands who were surely famous pastors.

Unfortunately, all of these responses are quite off base, at least when it comes to the individuals in my book, 5 Puritan Women: Stories of Faith and Love. This doesn’t mean we need to shame anyone, as it’s natural to ask questions that turn out to be silly if you don’t know anything about what you’re asking!

Yet, as uninformed as these questions are, answering some of them honestly now may help us see how to ask better questions about Puritan women, and perhaps about other women in church history as well.

Did Puritan Women Have Agency?

In my mind, the question that lies beneath the surface of surprise regarding the existence of writings from Puritan women is, Did Puritan women actually have the opportunity to write at all?

Though it may be tempting to assume that because the Puritans held conservative gender ideals, they must have prevented the women in their churches from doing anything on their own such as expressing themselves through writing, this is simply not accurate.

Women were, in general, barred from going to university and thus did not write to the extent that trained men did (e.g., compare the writings of John Owen, which fills about forty volumes, to the writings of Lucy Hutchinson, which fill only a few). But this was something that society as a whole got wrong at the time, not just the Puritans.

Though many today think our job is to save these ladies (from their religion, their husbands, or even themselves), what we actually must do is learn from them.

However, the more important point to make here is that despite these societal limitations, Puritan women still found ways to do what they wanted to do.

My husband, who loves economics, would say this is true of all people throughout history—governments and societies may enact restrictions on certain groups, but individuals will find a way around them if they have enough motivation to do so.

While I don’t know any stories of seventeenth-century women pulling a Mulan and dressing up as a dude to get into university (if only!), ladies like Lucy Hutchinson were simply too interested in fields like theology, history, poetry, and Latin to let social norms stop them from reading and writing.

Thus, the only theological treatise we seem to have from a woman in the seventeenth-century is from Hutchinson, a Puritan woman! While it is good and right (and necessary) to acknowledge the real ways in which women have been denied their rights throughout history, we must never make them into damsels in distress, for they were so much more than that.

Were Puritan Women Abused?

This question makes sense to ask if all you’ve ever heard about the Puritans is that they were harsh, horrible people. However, you may be surprised to find out that the only stories of abuse that I have personally read are not of a Puritan man against a Puritan woman, but a non-Puritan man against a Puritan woman.

The two stories of abuse in my book in particular concern a father and husband who were either nominal Christians or unbelievers. It seems like both men had been influenced by religion and were not completely closed off to it, having times of being open-minded and interested.

However, difficult life circumstances (in one case, hearing rumours about a local pastor and wanting to protect his daughter from him and, in the other case, experiencing a chronic illness in a time when medicine could do little to alleviate pain) and, surely, sins of the heart (perhaps pride or anger), led these men to physically and verbally abuse two women who were very important to them because they were too involved in church.

Further, we must candidly affirm that in no way was abuse of any kind condoned by famous Puritan pastors like John Bunyan. In fact, Bunyan—who taught socially conservative ideas like the headship of the father in the household—specifically argued that it is anti-Christian (against God and the gospel!) to hit or harass a child or woman (see my article on his Christian Behaviour).

Thus, again, we must exhibit a balance: if we ever found a credible story of a Puritan man abusing a Puritan woman (or vice versa), we would have to affirm that it was true and condemn that behaviour as sinful, yet we must affirm now that because these stories aren’t replete in the primary sources and because we have primary sources from men and women condemning abuse, we should not expect to find abuse of Puritan women by Puritan men.

Were Puritan Women only as Accomplished as Their Husbands?

The two previous questions reveal an unsympathetic view of the Puritans in general. However, while that perspective is by far the most popular today, people who love the Puritans can also make untrue assumptions about Puritan women.

To me, asking whether we only know about Puritan women because of their husbands, who must have been famous pastors, reveals an underlying question of whether women could do anything apart from or above their husbands, or if women only became interested or good at theology because their husbands were.

But again, the opposite is true in the stories I have read. No woman in my book was married to a pastor. Three women had husbands who were interested in theology, but none of them wrote theology; rather, all three were involved in politics. The fourth woman was married to a man who really did not like Christianity at all, and the fifth was single for most of her life.

Further, these women pursued many of their own interests, regardless of whether they were supported or opposed by those around them. Anne Bradstreet published poetry that was praised by the men in her life (notably, her husband, brother, and pastor), Agnes Beaumont became involved in her local church even though her father didn’t approve, and Mary Rich was once asked by a man named Lord Berkeley to write instructions for him about how to live a godly life, though her husband was quite against her preoccupation with Christian things.

All in all, Puritan women developed and pursued interests of their own, sometimes in unity with their husbands or other men, other times apart from them (i.e., not with them because they were doing something else or simply because they weren’t married), and once in a while in opposition to them.

Puritan Women took Control of Their Lives

In spite of whatever societal limitations placed on them at the time, the specific trials they went through, or their role in family life, Puritan women took control of their own lives and did what they wanted to do as far as they could manage to do it.

Of course, what they wanted to do was live a godly life! So we shouldn’t expect to find them doing things that our modern world would label as “freedom” like sleeping around, wearing inappropriate clothing, or getting drunk.

However, we can expect to see them pushing the boundaries of societal limitations, displaying self-confidence and strength, and valuing their work in addition to their family, especially when these were directly related to specific religious convictions.

Though many today think our job is to approach these ladies through or save them from the men in their lives, what we actually must do is learn from them directly.