Here & Now‘s Robin Young talks with New York Times columnist Gail Collins about her new book “No Stopping Us Now: The Adventures of Older Women in American History.”
By Gail Collins
1. The Colonies
“if they be but Civil, and under 50 years of Age”
Legend has it that in 1630, a “romping girl” named Anne Pollard was
the first colonial woman to set foot in the new settlement of Boston.
Whether Anne was first or not, she definitely stayed for quite a while — she died there in 1725 at the age of 104, leaving behind 130 descendants. In the years between, she married, opened a tavern with her husband, and later ran it herself as a widow. As Anne grew older and older, she became a local celebrity, and a lucky visitor who dropped into the tavern might be invited to share a “social pipe” with the city’s most famous matriarch. If you visit Boston Common today, you can find a young Anne depicted on the Founders Memorial.
Her story is a useful reminder that while early American settlers did not generally live as long as we do now, some of them did get to be very old. Of the women who managed to reach 21 in the late-seventeenth- century Plymouth Colony, about 7 percent made it past 90. You just had to be very, very lucky. Today, aging tends to be a rather confident progression through childhood, young adulthood, and into middle age, at which point we might begin to seriously contemplate our own mortality. In the colonial period, death could come at any time — infants died, children died, teenagers died. Young women died in childbirth; young men were lost at sea. Houses — and towns — caught fire. Plagues and epidemic diseases appeared and whisked away hundreds of people of all ages.
In 1632, the 19-year-old Massachusetts poet Anne Bradstreet wrote “Upon a Fit of Sickness”:
Twice ten years old, not fully told
Since nature gave me breath
My race is run, my thread is spun
Lo here is fatal Death.
Bradstreet lived to be 60, but clearly she took her era’s worldview to heart.
If New Englanders had a shaky life expectancy, it was absolutely nothing compared to the situation in the early southern colonies, where, thanks to the malarial swamps, mortality rates before 1624 ran as high as 37 percent. The upside was that women who did manage to survive had a raft of opportunities. Their tenure as prime marriage candidates could stretch out until menopause. “If any Maid or single Woman have a desire to go over, they will think themselves in the Golden Age, when Men paid a Dowry for their Wives: for if they be but Civil, and under 50 years of Age, some honest Man or other, will purchase them for their Wives,” wrote one English promoter who was trying to encourage emigration. This open attitude toward age on the part of the male population had a lot to do with the fact that there was only one woman for every six men.
safer “in her hands than in any man[’] s”
The southern colonies were an excellent example of an important rule in American history: when there aren’t enough people, outsiders who wouldn’t normally get a chance to shine are suddenly in demand. If you were a middle-aged black woman in nineteenth-century Massachu- setts, your work options were probably limited to doing laundry or somebody else’s household chores. However, if you were a black pioneer in the West, you could own the only bar in town or be the stagecoach driver.
If you were Margaret Brent in seventeenth-century Maryland, you could step up and save your colony. Brent was described as a large woman with red hair, and that’s all the help we’re going to get in imagining her. The fact that she never married was so unusual for the time and place that many scholars have concluded she had taken a religious vow of celibacy. But she certainly did not seem to shun all worldly goods. She threw herself into the business of lending money to the newer settlers and spent much of her middle age in court, suing her fellow colonists 134 times, mainly for debt repayment. She generally won. That’s why she’s referred to — rather loosely — as America’s first female lawyer. Mary- land’s governor was so impressed that he made her executrix of his estate. Later, when mercenary soldiers were threatening to level the colony, the dying governor put her in charge of restoring the peace. She did — by raising enough money to bribe everybody to go away.
Since Brent was a unique figure, it’s tricky to give her story any universal meaning — other than the one about desperate times breeding desperate measures. (The Maryland Assembly said that during its crisis the colony was safer “in her hands than in any man[’]s.” But they still refused to allow her to have a vote.) Most women who came to the early south had less dramatic stories. Mainly they were just hoping to make a good marriage. Given the bad water, bad air, and overall miasma of the place, the chances were slim that they’d live long enough to enjoy it. But the matrimonial odds were so favorable that a woman in good health could just keep marrying up. Frances Culpeper wed a large landowner in what is now North Carolina when she was 18. He died, and Frances inherited most of his property. The now-wealthy widow was soon remarried — this time to Sir William Berkeley, the governor of Virginia. Frances, 36, was now Lady Berkeley and equipped with a sizable guaranteed income for life. About a decade and many adventures later, Lord Berkeley died from the effects of a bout with malaria. Frances was married again, at 46, to a younger man who became governor of the Carolinas. But she was always known as Lady Berkeley.
“in the dark all Cats are grey”
Life for women in the northern colonies was much . . . calmer. New arrivals found the climate and living conditions healthier than in the crowded, sewage-swamped cities of Europe they’d left behind. And the women who did make it to middle age and beyond sometimes concluded that older was better. “I have often thought that women who live to get over the time of Child-bareing, if other things are favourable to them, experience more comfort and satisfaction than at any other period of their lives,” wrote Elizabeth Drinker in her diary. She was 61 at the time, and she had lived an action-packed life. Her husband, Henry, a Philadelphia businessman, had been exiled during the Revolutionary War as a suspected Tory sympathizer. Elizabeth made her way to Valley Forge in 1778 to plead his case to George Washington — who offered a good dinner but not much assistance. Eventually reunited with Henry, she later nursed her household through a terrible yellow fever epidemic that took nearly 10 percent of Philadelphia’s population.
Drinker was wealthier than most colonial women of her time, but the rhythms of her life were typical. She married in her 20s, bore children until middle age, and was still raising her brood when her oldest offspring began to have families of their own. Even when the children left the house, most of them continued to live nearby, and her life was full of domestic duties and babies. There was no real empty nest, just a slightly calmer one. And you could see how, after nine deliveries and two miscarriages, she might have regarded aging as something of a picnic.
Elizabeth Drinker would live into her 70s, but like everyone in the colonies, she understood how quickly death could strike people of any age — only four of her nine children would survive her. Given the poor chances of living for a very long time, old people were often regarded as having been singled out by the Creator as particularly worthy. “If a man is favored with long life . . . it is God that has lengthened his days,” said Boston minister Increase Mather, who made it to 84 himself. One Massachusetts congregation, whose 1682 seating plan still exists, made the status of seniority perfectly clear. The best seat, next to the pulpit, went to the minister’s wife, and the one next to her was reserved for the widow of the previous minister. Then came the elders, and the elders’ wives, and the widows of elders. (A woman could be old in Massachusetts, but she couldn’t be an elder.) Then came the congregation, which was divided by gender and seated according to age, with the youngest members consigned to the rear. The church was the center of life in those communities. If you were an older woman wondering if you still had a place in the scheme of things, it must have been hugely reassuring to walk into Sunday service and stride up the aisle, past your younger relatives and neighbors, and take an honored seat near the front.
As we’ve seen, a woman of 50 might count as an extremely desirable marriage prospect if she happened to live in a very high-mortality region. Even in the healthier north, when it came to sex in general, male opinions on the perfect age for a partner varied. Benjamin Franklin, the ultimate pragmatist, wrote a famous letter to a young friend, counseling him that if he intended to have affairs, he should prefer “old Women to young ones.” They were more interesting, Franklin argued, and any- way “in the dark all Cats are grey.”
We will pause for a moment to consider whether that was a compliment.
“I believe I never had a gown better made”
No specific milestone signified passage into old age among colonial women. By 40, many had already lost a husband and offspring. Many
60-year-olds were still raising their children — the average housewife was 63 when her youngest left home. Every woman who was capable of lifting a finger was expected to take part in household chores. And nobody was going to tell you to slow down because your hair was getting white.
Martha Ballard, a Maine midwife, spent her life balancing her job delivering babies with a mind-boggling list of domestic duties: spinning, knitting, sewing, preparing the family food, tending chickens and sheep. Around 1800, as she approached her 70s, she began to cut back; but then the other local midwife died and Ballard stepped up. At 77 she was still answering late-night calls that could drag on well into the next day. (“The patient was safe delivered at 3 hour pm of her fifth son. I tarried all night.”) On another occasion, after mother and child had been cared for, Ballard took a nap, had some breakfast with the family, rode on to visit another patient, and then came home to do “my ironing and some mending.” Besides delivering babies, she prepared bodies for burial and visited the sick, sometimes dispensing medicines of her own making. She reached her clients mainly by horse, crossing rivers and traversing bad or nonexistent roads in Maine weather. She wrote about climbing “mountains of ice” on one expedition and falling from her horse into the mud during another. There were other midwives who probably performed just as heroically. On Long Island, Lucretia Lester was said to have delivered 1,300 babies and lost only two. We really don’t know if Ballard was particularly unusual. She just happened to be the one who kept a diary.
As long as midwives were needed, nobody objected to their riding around the countryside in the middle of the night at any age. The same was true of every occupation where competent workers were in short supply. Elizabeth Drinker was fitted for a new dress by a seamstress named Susannah Swett and wrote happily: “I believe I never had a gown better made in my life and she is now within seven weeks of 73 years of age.” But just because the colonists were ready to hire the elderly for a job that needed doing, it didn’t mean that prejudices didn’t exist. Drinker added that the surprise of seeing someone “work so neatly at such an age is the cause of my making the memorandum.”
“be in Behaviour as becometh Holiness”
Ministers urged their aging female parishioners to achieve serenity by contemplating death as the passage to a far happier life in heaven. (When the clergyman Mather Byles passed away, his daughter announced she was “in rapture” over his good fortune.) While they waited, women were supposed to gradually withdraw from the world, spending more and more time in prayer and contemplation while enjoying earthly pleasures less and less — but still, of course, continuing to perform the household chores. In Boston, Rev. Benjamin Colman preached that it was the duty of “aged women” to repress their discontents and “be in Behaviour as becometh Holiness.” This was especially important, he said, when it came to “Publick Appearance & Conversation; Garb, Dress, Gate, Countenance, Speech, Silence, Gesture” — a list that pretty much swept the board except for the aforementioned housework.
Plenty of reports from colonial days make it clear that women of every age ignored the ministers when it came to staying silent. But they did adapt their dress to their time of life. Most women lived on farms, wearing simple, loose dresses that were easy to work in. As they aged, they generally began to avoid bright colors and don close-fitting caps. The public message was pretty clear: the cap wearers were out of the marriage market and putting away their plumage. But they were also covering the signs of graying hair. It was stage one in an ongoing struggle that would proceed, over the next few centuries, through false curls, turbans, wigs, and every other method of concealment women could concoct. When we look at portraits of them wearing their dark dresses and caps, they often seem to be nothing but somber faces floating in the dark.
Things were a lot less dreary in the fashionable world of high society. Gray hair was actually in — it was a symbol of dignity and importance. But the idea was not to flaunt your own gray locks. You wore a large, dramatic gray wig. Maria and Harriet Trumbull, teenage sisters who reported back to their Connecticut family on the fashions of New York in 1801, sent their mother a white wig, telling her that the women in society “wear white hair altogather now.” There could be nothing less fashionable, they warned, “than a black wig.”
Women applied bacon to their faces to avoid wrinkles, or used a paste made from eggs and alum boiled in rosewater. Tactics of that kind were socially acceptable, as long as the family could spare the bacon and eggs. But the revolutionary era regarded cosmetics as . . . un-American — a sinister trick to trap unwary males into marriage with women who were older, or less attractive, than they appeared. When Americans were under British rule, some people apparently believed that cosmetics were illegal and that women who “impose upon, seduce or betray into matrimony any of his Majesty’s subjects by virtue of scents, cosmetics, washes, paints, artificial teeth, false hair or high-heeled shoes, shall incur the penalty of the law now in force against witchcraft.” Stories about “Hoops and Heels” laws pop up all over our early history. It’s not clear that one was ever passed, and none ever seems to have been enforced. But the sentiment certainly existed.
“The women are pitifully tooth‑shaken”
Teeth were a problem for older colonists of both sexes — although there’s no record of any legislature trying to punish men for wearing artificial dentures when they were courting. There was no dentistry as we know it. Barbers and mechanics were sometimes called in to treat rotten teeth, but their only remedy was to pull them. (Paul Revere, a goldsmith, also practiced a little dental work on the side.) The tooth- brush had been invented, but the early versions were generally made of hog bristles, which were very expensive. Toothpaste didn’t become widely used until the late 1800s, and if a colonial woman did try to clean her teeth, the process involved a coarse linen cloth and, occasionally, a mixture of honey and sugar to theoretically wipe away decay.
If you lived into adulthood in colonial America you probably would not, alas, have all your teeth. And the number you could hang on to obviously dropped with age. Researchers excavating the site of the Jamestown settlement in Virginia discovered the body of a woman in early middle age who had only five teeth. Some of the others had been gone so long by the time of her death that the tooth sockets had com- pletely closed over. Jamestown was notoriously a tough place to live — malnutrition was so bad that legend had it one settler was tried for having eaten his wife. But even when times got easier and food was plentiful, the dental situation didn’t much improve. “The women are pitifully tooth-shaken, whether through the coldness of the climate or by sweet-meats, of which they have a score, I am not able to affirm,” a visitor reported.
George Washington had famously bad teeth and ill-fitting dentures. Martha seemed to be in better shape. She had lost some of hers by the White House years and was wearing a kind of bridge, but it must have worked — Abigail Adams reported that the First Lady’s teeth were “beautiful.” Very few people were wealthy enough to acquire false teeth of any type, and the average colonial woman was forced to live with a premature look of toothless old age. Eyeglasses were expensive, too — and a luxury that women doing close sewing by candle at night must have yearned for. Both George and Martha Washington wore glasses by the end of their lives. But when Dolley Madison needed help reading or sewing, she shared a pair with her husband the president.
Women talked a lot about their ailments and physical disorders, which were legion. “To be old in early America was to be wracked by illness. It was to live in physical misery, with pain as a constant companion,” writes David Hackett Fischer. Anne Bradstreet was subject to fainting spells that could leave her unconscious for hours — one of her later poems was titled “Deliverance from a Fitt of Fainting.” Elizabeth Drinker’s diary is a veritable catalogue of symptoms, from fevers to “giddiness in my head, occasion’d by the obstruction in my bowels.” When she was 60, Drinker wrote that since she was feeling poorly almost all the time, she wasn’t going to mention health matters. If she were being less discreet, she added, “I should daily say I was unwell.”
“Dyspepsia” — an umbrella term for the many varieties of indigestion — was a near-universal complaint, and it’s no wonder, given the unsanitary conditions under which food was slaughtered and cooked. It was almost always accompanied by “peevishness, doubts, fears, wander- ing thoughts and ridiculous fancies,” claimed Benjamin Waterhouse, a late-eighteenth-century physician who was among the first faculty members at Harvard Medical School.
Elizabeth Drinker’s ideas about remedies sound more hair-raising than her symptoms. She attempted to cure her daughter of what Drinker described as “worms” by dosing her with “Venice Treacle,” a concoction whose five dozen ingredients included alcohol, opium, and honey. Bleeding was a favorite prescription. It was based on an ancient theory that physical distress was produced by too much blood in the system. Or the wrong kind. The real attraction was probably just that it was something the doctor could do, to look as if he had a plan. If a patient was complaining of back pain from rheumatism, for instance, the doctor might use a “scarificator” that pushed 15 or 20 small blades into her back to reduce the amount of blood. Drinker, when she was troubled with constipation, mused that “loosing blood might be a temporary relief ” and later reported feeling “very languid” after having “lost, at least 12 ounces blood.” Unlike most of her contemporaries, she had recourse to a physician, although it’s hard to say if that did her much good, given all that bloodletting.
In an age without aspirin, let alone antibiotics, people of both sexes suffered from many ailments we can cure today with a pill or at least simple surgery. Benjamin Franklin, who had a bladder stone, said that only the use of opium made life “tolerable.” Women were also tormented by damage from childbirth that would be easily repairable today. In the nineteenth century, the famous abolitionist orator Angelina Grimké had what her husband called “injuries” that “shattered incurably her nervous system.” The problems apparently included a hernia and a prolapsed uterus — the latter so dire that her uterus sometimes protruded from her body, causing intense pain. Perhaps the worst nonfatal childbirth damage involved a tear in the wall between the vagina and the bladder or rectum, leaving victims unable to control a constant leakage of urine or feces. They were usually doomed to live confined to their rooms, permanently uncomfortable and treated like pariahs because of the stench.
No one in the eighteenth century could cure those problems, but when it came to the ordinary ailments of day-to-day life, it was usually the oldest woman in the family who had the remedy. A newlywed bride would probably arrive at her first home knowing the basics. But when the baby had a cough or her husband was tortured by those ever-present bowel issues, she would seek advice from her mother or an older neighbor. The same thing was true if a chicken failed to produce eggs or the bread didn’t rise. Women who had spent their lives as homemakers retained influence as they aged because they knew things. The list of skills a farm wife had to master was endless: spinning thread, weaving cloth, churning butter, making everything from candles to cheese to soap to sausage.
Women produced so many valuable products that they could run a parallel economic universe, bartering and trading their goods. They also had their own informal social system in which the older women were expected to advise their juniors. In 1664 in Massachusetts, Elizabeth Perkins and Agnes Ewens were called to court to testify in a case involving a younger woman they knew. But they declined to appear, arguing that they had counseled the person in question and did not want to break the confidence, since she had followed their advice and done well ever since. They were asking for a kind of “professional immunity,” and they received it.
Esther Lewis, who was widowed at 42, was an excellent — if somewhat over-the-top — example of older women’s influence and power. In the early nineteenth century, she ran the family’s 150-acre Pennsylvania farm by herself until she was in her 60s, and in her diary she records churning 288 pounds of butter in one year, with a plan to increase production the next. She supervised the drying of apples, making of apple- sauce, rendering of lard, and the production of about 1,000 candles a year for the household. She also educated her four daughters, sheltered runaway slaves, and — when she happened to notice some unusual stones on the ground — figured out that her land contained iron ore and established a successful mining operation. Esther apparently inherited this gift for overachievement. Her mother, Rebecca, moved to her daughter’s farm at 79 and took on the job of spinning yarn. She produced about 33,000 yards a year.
“Good mother, farewell”
We don’t know nearly enough about black women of any age in the colonies. Almost all of them first arrived as slaves or indentured servants, who could eventually work out their term of service and become free. Children of mixed race born in the colonies usually took their status from their mothers. That was the story for Jenny Slew, who was born in 1719, the daughter of a free white woman and a male slave. Her parents were apparently able to live as husband and wife, and Jenny was raised free. As far as we know, she lived her life in quiet anonymity. (There was undoubtedly some private domestic drama since she went through several husbands.) Then, when she was 46, a white man named John Whipple kidnapped her “with force and arms” and tried to keep her as his slave. Jenny filed suit and demanded her freedom. Whipple’s defense was that Jenny, as a married woman, had no right to go to court on her own. A husband was supposed to represent her. The judge found that argument perfectly reasonable and Whipple won the case, giving us an excellent insight into why so many of the women who would fight for abolition in the next century also added their own rights to the agenda.
Undeterred, Jenny appealed. This time she got a trial by jury and she won, gaining both her freedom and a financial judgment against Whipple. She then left the courtroom and walked out of history — sort of. One of the lawyers present in the Salem courthouse when the verdict came down was John Adams. “Attended Court,” he wrote later. “Heard the trial of an action of trespass, brought by a mulatto woman, for damages, for restoring her liberty. This is called suing for liberty; the first action that ever I knew of the sort, though I have heard there have been many.” This was in 1765. Fourteen years later, Adams would begin work on the Massachusetts State Constitution, drafting a declaration of rights that stated “all men are born free and equal.” In 1780, it became state law.
In 1781, the new constitution caught the attention of Mum Bett, a slave of about 35 who was living in Massachusetts under an abusive mistress — Bett had once stopped the woman from hitting her younger sister with a shovel and wound up getting hit herself, with a deep wound to her arm. Bett got a young lawyer named Theodore Sedgwick, who filed suit, arguing that her enslavement was unconstitutional. They won, paving the way for the state’s official abolition of slavery in 1783. After her victory, Bett took a new name and became, appropriately enough, Elizabeth Freeman. She took a job with the Sedgwick family, serving as a surrogate mother for the children when Sedgwick’s wife plunged into illness and depression. She saved her wages, bought land, and built a home of her own, where she lived in retirement. When she died, at 85, she was buried in the Sedgwick family plot under a tombstone that noted: “She could neither read nor write, yet in her own sphere she had no superior or equal. She neither wasted time nor property. She never violated a trust, nor failed to perform a duty. In every situation of domestic trial, she was the most efficient helper and the tenderest friend. Good mother, farewell.”
Excerpted from “No Stopping Us Now: The Adventures of Older Women in American History” by Gail Collins. Copyright © 2019 by Gail Collins. Available from Little, Brown and Company, an imprint of Hachette Book Group, Inc.
This article was originally published on WBUR.org.
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