Synopses & Reviews
A pathbreaking new study of women and morality
How do people decide what is "good" and what is "bad"? How does a society set moral guidelines -- and what happens when the behavior of various groups differs from these guidelines? Martha Saxton tackles these and other fascinating issues in Being Good, her history of the moral values prescribed for women in early America.
Saxton begins by examining seventeenth-century Boston, then moves on to eighteenth-century Virginia and nineteenth-century St. Louis. Studying women throughout the life cycle -- girls, young unmarried women, young wives and mothers, older widows -- through their diaries and personal papers, she also studies the variations due to different ethnicities and backgrounds. In all three cases, she is able to show how the values of one group conflicted with or developed in opposition to those of another. And, as the women's testimonies make clear, the emotional styles associated with different value systems varied. A history of American women's moral life thus gives us a history of women's emotional life as well. In lively and penetrating prose, Saxton argues that women's morals changed from the days of early colonization to the days of westward expansion, as women became at once less confined and less revered by their men -- and explores how these changes both reflected and affected trends in the nation at large.
is a book full of light. Few historians have achieved a finer synthesis of the social and the inner life. But then Saxton's scrupulously distilled masterpiece of scholarship is also a work of literature, which is to say, of nuanced passion, wisdom, and revelation. If you're interested in the subject of the American woman--or if you are simply an American woman interested in knowing how you got to be who you are--read it." --Judith Thurman
"Being Good brilliantly brings to life the moral culture of the American woman. Highly thought of as both a historian and a biographer, Martha Saxton has written a truly luminous book. Fierce, bold and beautifully written, it conveys, as no other book has, what it meant for a woman to come-of-age in 19th century America." --Wendy Gimbel, author of Havana Dreams.
"Being Good is a fascinating work in gender history and in the history of emotions. Encompassing three regions, two centuries, and a racially diverse population, this is one of the most ambitious books of comparative history in many years. The St. Louis section is remarkably original. Saxton takes us into the hearts and minds, the moral universe, of girls and women in early America. We learn of their understanding sexuality, marriage, and motherhood. Saxton has achieved a moving and enlightening story of the burden of expectation, convention, and the struggle for power over one's mind and body in a time at once very different, but still connected to our own." --David W. Blight, Yale University
"Being Good looks at the dark and the light of women's lives in the seventeenth through the nineteenth centuries, but mostly the dark. From Saxton's account, we get more of a feeling of what it was like to be a woman over these three centuries than from anything else in print."
--Richard Bushman, Columbia University
"With gripping analytic exactness, Martha Saxton compares the moral and emotional lives American women were expected to lead with the lives they actually led and fought for. Her exactness is matched by her range. She takes us from the 17th to the 19th century. We hear the voices and witness the radically different experiences of Anglo, African and Indian-American women. "Being Good" is essential and wonderfully readable American history."--Margo Jefferson, co-author of The Tree of Life: A Novel
Alternatively viewed as helpess, prone to sin, and intellectually weaker than men, the women of early America were charged nevertheless with maintaining the nation's moral health. Their being good allowed the nation to do the same. Martha Saxton marvelously shows the consequnces of this paradox over three hundred years of history, and she makes startling new discoveries, including evidence that Puritan women were far more empowered than their nineteenth-century conunterparts.
About the Author
is an assistant professor of history and women's and gender studies at Amherst College. She is the author of several books, including Louisa May Alcott: A Modern Biography
. She lives in New York City.