Thursday, March 2, 2017

She Who Is Ungovernable

Unlikely as it sounds, there was a time when I'd have happily been a mail-order bride.

Had you asked me about my willingness yesterday, my answer would've been different. But when Mac and I made plans to walk this morning, my acceptance came with a stipulation: that we walk to the Virginia Historical Society to hear author Marcia Zug's talk on "Lonely Colonist Seeks Wife: Rediscovering the History of America's First Mail-Order Brides."

As I've said on many occasions, I like my history with breasts and a topic like marital immigration sounded far too compelling to pass up. We weren't the only ones who thought so, either, because the auditorium was nearly full with those curious about moving to the new world in hopes of meeting Mr. Right.

Zug was a good speaker, too, and her enthusiasm for the subject was evident as she laid out the major problem of colonization, namely that men don't want to move anywhere there aren't women. Most men anyway.

What was interesting was that it wasn't a problem in the northern colonies because those people were escaping religious persecution, so they came as family groups of particular religions. With the Virginia Company of London's foray into Jamestown, it was mostly men and many of the women who did decide to come died or returned because of hardship.

Naturally, the crown didn't want the men left behind taking Indian brides - although they did, apparently in droves - so they hatched a plan to incentivize women crossing the pond. They offered to give them a dowry (which for working girls cut out a decade of working to earn hers), a parcel of property in their own names (hello, Maid's Town) and a chance to marry a rich man, thus moving up in social status.

I get it, all of that would have been hugely appealing to an English working class girl of the 18th century. We're talking about a time where marriage was an economic partnership and the standard question about a lass, fetching or otherwise, was, "How many sheep does she have?"

But the most important part of the equation was that the women were given their choice of husbands and if a woman entered into a marriage contract and changed her mind, it wasn't a problem. But there was more, so much more to entice her, namely acquiring way more legal rights: owning property, divorce rights, inheritance rights, political rights.

Damn straight I'll switch continents for that deal, too, honey. Plain and simple, women were better respected in the colonies than on the Continent.

When the French started colonizing Canada, they had the same women shortage problems, only augmented by constantly looking over their shoulders worried about encroachment by English settlers. Their solution was to import 800 women and make a law for men dictating that if a woman wanted to marry him and he said no, he lost all hunting privileges.

Talk about girl power. What else were men going to do in Canada in the 18th century, besides say yes?

Since history books were for so long written by men, all of this women's history was not only fascinating, but news to us. The legend of mail-order brides being taken against their will to populate and domesticate new frontiers was actually far more nuanced than that.

In Virginia, the playing field had been leveled for working girls with the dawn of a new era where it no longer mattered how many sheep she had.

And the kicker? There was no requirement that she had to get married once she was here. That's some serious respect for womanhood right there. And maybe an alternate book title.

Strong-willed bride seeks solitude and friends in Maid's Town: Rediscovering the birth of the independent American woman.

I'd read it.

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