Just 30 years ago in 1987, the United States Congress declared March as National Women’s History Month in perpetuity. This action came eights years after Molly Murphy MacGregor, a member of The National Women’s History Project, was invited to participate in The Women’s History Institute at Sarah Lawrence College, which was chaired by noted historian, Gerda Lerner, and attended by the national leaders of organizations for women and girls. You see, an formal history of notable women and their accomplishments was virtually an unknown and undocumented. It wasn’t until 1978 when the “Education Task Force of Sonoma County California Commission on the Status of Women” initiated a “Women’s History Week” celebration. When others learned of Sonoma County’s celebratory success, similar celebrations materialized throughout the United States and a national effort surfaced to secure a “National Women’s History Week,” from which the National Women’s History Month got its roots. The sitting President now issues an annual Proclamation to honor extraordinary achievements of American women. This year’s theme “Honoring Trailblazing Women in Labor and Business.” Thirteen women from diverse backgrounds, with different fields of endeavor, and spanning three centuries make up this year’s honorees.
“Anne Hutchinson Banished, March 22, 1638”—The following Article was written by staff of Boston’s “Mass Moments” Program, funded by the Massachusetts Foundation for the Humanities:
Anne and William Hutchinson and their 15 children were among the 200 passengers who arrived in Boston aboard the Griffen in the fall of 1634. The couple had followed their minister, the Reverend John Cotton, to be part of a new community where they would be able to practice their faith openly.
A successful merchant in England, William Hutchinson had the resources to buy a house in Boston and a 600-acre farm. The Hutchinsons were respected gentry by the standards of early Massachusetts, and they quickly assumed a prominent place in Boston affairs.
But within three years, Anne Hutchinson would stand before a Massachusetts court, charged with heresy and sedition. In 1638 she would be excommunicated from the church and banished from the colony for holding and teaching unorthodox religious views.
Anne’s father was an outspoken English clergyman. Sentenced to house arrest for being publicly critical of the established church, he turned his prodigious intellectual energies to educating his children. Anne inherited her father’s intellect and strong religious beliefs. With the benefit of his library and his careful tutelage, she received a better education than most men of her day.
At the age of 21 she married and took on the traditional role of housewife and mother. She bore 15 children and learned midwifery, a skill that entitled a woman to special respect and esteem. She also maintained her interest in theology. She and her husband became devoted followers of the Puritan preacher John Cotton. At a time when Puritans could not worship freely in England, they chose to follow the Reverend Cotton when he emigrated to Boston in 1633.
At first Anne received a warm welcome. Bostonians appreciated her skill as a midwife; when she began to hold prayer meetings for women in her home, she seemed the very model of Puritan womanhood. John Cotton later remembered that “[a]t her first coming she was well respected and esteemed. . . . I hear she did much good in our Town, in womans meeting [and] at Childbirth-Travels.”
But her prayer meetings soon began to cause concern among the Puritan magistrates. An eloquent speaker, she began to draw large gatherings of women and men. The magistrates believed it highly inappropriate for a woman to instruct men, especially in religious matters. The laws of Massachusetts Bay were based on biblical teachings, and the colony’s leaders took seriously Paul’s commandment that women be silent in public meetings. But Anne Hutchinson’s supporters insisted that her meetings were private gatherings.
The real trouble began when word spread that she was criticizing the teachings of the Puritan ministers. She found the ministers, except for John Cotton, lacking in the spirit of God. Concerned about maintaining order in their new community, the ministers in Boston preached that people must live according to biblical precepts, thus demonstrating good works and upholding the moral order. Anne Hutchinson embraced the idea that salvation came about only when God granted it; she believed that human will and action played no role in salvation.
Her unorthodox views did not end there. She suggested that an individual could know God’s will directly, and that some people received revelation directly from God. This threatened the ministers’ role as interpreters of the Bible. As Hutchinson’s following grew, the magistrates decided that she was a dangerous woman who must be stopped. They charged her with sedition for undermining the authority of the ministers and heresy for expressing religious beliefs at odds with those of the colony’s religious leaders.
Her trial was extraordinary. Much of the testimony concerned the “crime” she had committed by daring, as a woman, to speak and teach men in public. Governor John Winthrop condemned her meetings as a “thing not tolerable nor comely in the sight of God, nor fitting for your sex.” He conducted much of the initial examination himself.
She boldly answered each of his questions with challenging questions of her own. He responded angrily: “You have rather been a Husband than a Wife and a preacher than a Hearer; and a Magistrate than a subject.” Her chief crime was usurping male authority.
Winthrop challenged her authority to speak, and she defended herself in biblical terms. He claimed that she had defamed the ministers by accusing them of preaching a covenant of works and not being able ministers of the New Testament. She retorted, “Prove that I said so,” and would acknowledge only using the words of the Apostles.
Anne mounted a skillful defense, but her intelligence and eloquence rankled the magistrates, who resented her lecturing them. Winthrop described her as “a woman of haughty and fierce carriage, a nimble wit and active spirit, a very voluble tongue, more bold than a man.” After two days of intense questioning, the magistrates had still not found a way to silence her.
Then Anne Hutchinson essentially convicted herself. She declared that her knowledge of the truth came as direct revelation from God, a heresy in Puritan Massachusetts. The astonished magistrates leapt upon what they considered a false teaching and proclaimed her guilt: “Mrs. Hutchinson, the sentence of the court you hear is that you are banished from out of our jurisdiction as being a woman not fit for our society, and are to be imprisoned till the court shall send you away.”
Hutchinson refused to recant and accepted her exile. In the spring of 1638 she and her family left Massachusetts Bay for the more tolerant Providence Plantation founded by Roger Williams. After her husband died, she moved to New Amsterdam. There, in 1643, she and five of her children were killed in an Indian raid. John Winthrop viewed her violent death as a sign of God’s final judgment on her blasphemy.
In 1922 a statue of Hutchinson was erected on the grounds of the Massachusetts State House. In 1945 the legislature voted to revoke her banishment. Today Anne Hutchinson is remembered as an advocate of freedom of religion and of women’s rights. Although in reality she was neither, she was a brave and principled woman who had the courage to speak her mind in a society that allowed women no public voice.
American Jezebel: The Uncommon Life of Anne Hutchinson, the Women Who Defied the Puritans, by Eve LaPlante (Harper Collins, 2004).
“Anne Hutchinson: Brief Life of Harvard’s ‘Midwife,'” by Peter Gomes, Harvard Magazine (November/December, 2002).
Boston Globe, Interview with Eve LaPlante, “Heretic, or Centuries Before her Time?” May 8, 2004.
Governing the Tongue: The Politics of Speech in Early New England, by Jane Kamensky (Oxford University Press, 1997).