Book Review: Kathleen M. Brown’s Good Wives, Nasty Wenches, and Anxious Patriarchs

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September 7, 2012 by magpiemenina

I finished reading Kathleen M. Brown’s Good Wives, Nasty Wenches, and Anxious Patriarchs: Gender, Race, and Power in Colonial Virginia (Institute of Early American History and Culture, Williamsburg, VA. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996) last week and finally got around to writing the review.

[As a side note, I realize that most book reviews are written regarding recently published works. However, I meander my way through published tomes based on whim and accessibility, which tends to make my reading path somewhat deranged. At any rate, the book shows up on a syllabus for a graduate class a friend of mine is taking, so I feel this one is justified.]

Why I read it: I’m learning about the area in which I currently reside. I’m also, as I mentioned previously, interning at a living history museum concerned with this time period, so it is good research for work.


Brown examines in painstaking detail the entangled relationships between gender, race, and class in colonial Virginia and the manner in which these categories were created, crystallized, and enshrined through the concomitant processes occurring in the other categories.

Initially, colonial Virginia offered women greater social power due to their relative scarcity, but that same scarcity created a desire among those controlling their labor to limit sexual access to indentured women with the interest of limiting labor lost. As Africans were first brought to work in the North American colonies, they were generally treated as indentured servants. Like English indentured servants, they worked a term of years before being released and given certain provisions, creating free African and Afro-Virginian families that intermingled with English and Anglo-Virginians economically, socially, and in marriage. Prior to Nathaniel Bacon’s rebellion in 1676, divisions occurred, and interactions were limited along, class lines, separating the poor and the elite planters, rather than on the basis of race.

After Bacon’s Rebellion, the elite legislature began to enact legislation encouraging free English and Anglo-Virginians to identify with the planter elite rather than with the African, Afro-Virginians, or Virginia Indians who shared their lower economic place in society. To do so, these laws increasingly disenfranchised women by limiting their roles in court of law. Laws were also established that made skin color, rather than religion, the basis of protection under law. Prior to the Rebellion, Christianity assured equal treatment as well as protection against enslavement. After, white skin assumed that role in law. Other laws were passed that disenfranchised free Africans, Afro-Virginians, and Virginia Indians by prohibiting testimony in court, prohibiting sexual relations with whites (enforced only regarding white women or to prevent marriage), banning gun possession, and taxing non-white women’s work. This era also saw the establishment of the law mandating that children “follow the condition of the mother.”


Brown addresses these issues in great detail and much greater complexity than can be summarized, including the role of marriage and childbirth in defining race. She does remarkably well in forcing the complex, dialectic entanglements of gender, class, and race negotiation and concretization in colonial Virginia into a linear narrative. I stand in awe of the amount of research, considered thought, and careful development that went into this book. The work is informative and, though published in 1996, not yet out-dated and still in use in the academic classroom at the graduate level. I highly recommend this book for anyone interested in the history of race, class, or gender in colonial Virginia or the United States more broadly. It provides a strong foundation of understanding and a clear grasp of the complexity with which these issues were and are intertwined.


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