Thursday, October 18, 2012

If She Stood - or Sat - with Authority

Illustration of Sarah Grimke
Abolitionist Sarah M. Grimke
from the Library of Congress
My attempt to understand the social and historical contexts for "If She Stood," the play that Ain Gordon and Nadine Patterson are writing for Place Philadelphia, has me researching the status of women during colonial America - even though the play is inspired by events from the 1830s. But I wanted to know where women stood from the founding of this country. I learned they - or we - were little better than slaves.

"By marriage, the husband and wife are one person in law: that is, the very being or legal existence of the woman is suspended during the marriage..." from "Of Husband and Wife," by William Blackstone

A woman's status depended upon her marital state. As William Blackstone's commentary so eloquently explains, a woman paid for a spouse with her autonomy.

What was the practical effect? 
"...A married woman could not own property independently of her husband unless they had signed a special contract called a marriage settlement. Such contracts were rare and even illegal in some parts of the country. In the absence of a separate estate, all (personal property) a woman brought to her marriage or earned during marriage, including wages, became her husband's. He could manage it or give it away, as he chose, without consulting her. "- from "The Legal Status of Women: 1776 - 1830" by Marylynn Salmon for the Gilder Lehman Institute of American History
When we consider the past, many of us think that women closed their mouths and stood in the place where society placed them. Yet searching through history reveals that women cocked their elbows, and pushed against the notion they were better seen than heard. Although "If She Stood" concentrates on abolitionists such as the Grimke sisters, these women had a forerunner in Anne Hutchinson.

Hutchinson was an educated woman, a wife and mother who had given birth to 16 children. Her transgression was simple and powerful. She led discussions on scripture in her home. She taught that any one could communicate directly with God, a teaching that directly challenged the religious hierarchy. At first, her audience was women. But her interpretations and explanations were so powerful, men joined the women.

Soon Hutchinson was teaching 50 or 60 people. The Puritan authorities looked at the meetings and saw defiance. In 1638, Hutchinson was tried and banished. She died in 1643, in Long Island during an attack by Native Americans.


Under the codes of the time, Anne Hutchinson didn't have a leg to stand on. She was a wife, part and parcel of her husband yet under his dominion. For as Blackstone wrote: 

But though our law in general considers man and wife as one person, yet there are some instances in which she is separately considered; as inferior to him, and acting by his compulsion.  - "Of Husband and Wife," by William Blackstone


By what right, then, did Hutchinson believe she could expound on scripture. By what right could she sit in the only chair in the house - a right reserved for a man? By what right could she lead a mixed audience - men and women who came to her weekly discussions - to question the authority? By what right had she "rather been a husband than of a wife," as charged by Rev. Hugh Peter, one of the leaders who participated in her trial.

Like the Grimke Sisters, Hutchinson insisted on her right to speak simply by doing so. Such insistence was dangerous for her and for them.  And even for us. Although years have passed and much has changed, but little has not. Just ask the would-be assassins who shot Malala Yousafzai on October 9.

This blog explores issues raised by If She Stood, a play by Ain Gordon and Nadine Patterson for the Place Philadelphia project. Please subscribe to receive posts in your email.
 If She Stood will run for six performances - Friday, April 26, 2013 at 8pm, Saturday, April 27, 2013 at 8pm, and Sunday, April 28, 2013 at 3pm, followed by Friday, May 3, 2013 at 8pm, Saturday, May, 2013 at 8pm and Sunday May 5, 2013 at 3pm. Tickets are on sale for the first weekend - BUY HERE.

4 comments:


  1. شركة مكافحة النمل الابيض بالرياض قمة الطيار هى من افضل شركات مكافحة الحشرات بالرياض ومكافحة حشرات النمل الابض والفئران والصراصير بالرياض
    شركة مكافحة النمل الابيض بالرياض
    شركة تخزين اثاث بالرياض

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