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Abstract

Mary Beth Norton, Founding Mothers and Fathers: Gendered Power and the Forming of American Society. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1996. Pp. x, 496. $35.00.

Legal scholars and historians have found the subordination of women inscribed in literature, art, family conduct manuals, and, of course, in the law. Yet our heightened awareness that gender is a "question of power" may have led us to overestimate the extent to which any theory of social relations permeates daily interactions between ordinary people. In Founding Mothers and Fathers: Gendered Power and the Forming of American Society, Mary Beth Norton attempts to explain foundational shifts in American political philosophy by delving into the earthy records of sexual crimes in seventeenth-century America. She charts the course of myriad court cases to show the gradual exclusion of the state from the intimate lives of the early settlers. The result is a fascinating but flawed book.

According to Norton, demographic differences between New England and the southern colonies resulted in the emergence in Maryland and Virginia of a theory of gendered power that "severed the link between family and state" and justified the southern courts' reluctance to monitor sexual behavior. Norton associates two theories of power with the incongruous development of New England and the Chesapeake. Immigrants to New England arrived in families headed by men whose patriarchal authority bolstered the divinely ordained hierarchy in which they believed. An apologist for the Stuart monarchy, Sir Robert Filmer saw the family and the state as analogous institutions: The subject's subservience to his king mirrored the subjection of Eve to Adam. The state thus had a vital interest in regulating family life and limiting sexual intercourse to the marriage bed. Norton argues that the dominance of Filmerian thinking in New England resulted in the rigorous enforcement of a criminal code that punished consensual acts of adultery, fornication, and sodomy.

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