Sunday, May 3, 2015

Networks of Female Kin and Brown Women

There are not many books written about single women in history, in the world or in America. I have a pretty big library of genealogical and historical titles at this point, and I find only two books in my collection that address this subject: LIBERTY, A Better Husband, Single Women in America: The Generations of 1780-1840 by Lee Virginia Chambers-Schiller, and True Sisterhood, Michigan Women and Their Kin 1820-1920 by Marilyn Ferris Motz. This latter title is my favorite, and a unique and enlightening work. It describes networks of female kin as a system of support and influence which created a net of security within and often beyond families in what were obviously turbulent and insecure times. These female networks weren't "organized" and they weren't some kind of secret society. They were, apparently, a spontaneous and natural desire on the part of women to participate in and protect their interests and survival in times when women still had few legal rights or social freedoms.

In any case, it isn't often in my own research that I can identify this idea of female networking, but I think it just popped up in the family of two Quakers, Jonathan Brown (1748-1824) and Sarah Ballinger (1757-1835). Almost by a fluke, I discovered the will of the unmarried daughter in the family, namely Sarah Brown (1794-1874). This will is like a gold mine in that it does more to explain and highlight the family relationships than any other document discovered to this point. Sarah had a twin sister (Mary Brown Mickle), and from what I can tell, Sarah Brown lived in all-female households over half her 80-year life. Living with and caring for her widowed sister and all her various nieces became a wholly purposeful and satisfying life, or so it would seem.

The will of Sarah Brown, written in 1867, names and provides for six nieces, at least half of which we did not fully know about because of the problem of women's names not appearing on census records before 1850. It's amazing. But then it took me awhile to realize that even though Sarah had brothers and nephews living at the time of her death, none of them were mentioned. Why?

Somehow I next fell across the will of Mary Sloan Brown, daughter of John Brown and Ruth Sloan, another of Sarah's nieces who had died shortly before her aunt. Again this will is rather staggering in that it names no fewer than 12 women in her family network - aunts, sister, cousins, and friends. There is even a half-sister that we haven't known about before now. Again, it's not that there were no male relations who were alive at the time of Mary's death, but not a one of them was mentioned. Why?

My theory is that we are looking at a prime example of the female kinship network. It's not that the men in the family were not loved or cared for by their female relations. It's that the women knew that the men were born into the world with certain rights that would give them the opportunity to survive and prosper. The men would be ok. But women of that time were not born with rights or guarantees for the freedom to navigate their own lives. Help for them to succeed would come from the inside, from an unseen support system that quietly found ways to provide for survival and encourage independence.

And what exactly did these Brown women leave in their wills? It certainly wasn't property, which they could not legally own. They left cash if they had any, and the rest were things like these: wearing apparel, silver spoons, a silver thimble, a knitting sheath, sugar tongs, books, pewter, a high chest of drawers, two wine glasses, and a sewing chair. A special item for both women seems to have been a looking glass. Oh yes, and if there was any cash left in the estate, instructions were left for "investment in a good freehold security" from which the interest would funnel back to the female relations.

I might be an aging feminist, but I don't pretend to imagine there was any kind of female utopia in early America. But is it possible that the slow evolution toward gender equality has its roots in ordinary women who quietly believed in and acted upon their own inherent capabilities? If that's true, I'm just saying that the remains of genealogy records can barely begin to suggest the true legacy left to us all by women who dared to believe in themselves.

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