Now Deborah, a prophetess, the wife of Lappidoth, was judging Israel at that time. She used to sit under the palm tree of Deborah between Ramah and Bethel in the hill country of Ephraim; and the sons of Israel came to her for judgment. (Judges 4:4–5, NASB)
Human beings begin to develop gender identities very early in life as they pick up on cues and clues given off from the sociocultural contexts in which they find themselves. As people and institutions demonstrate socially appropriate ways of being male or female, children become apprentices and learn what it means to be a boy or girl in their culture.
The Puritans are not known for their egalitarianism. Indeed, the word “Puritan” instead conjures up images of witch-burning, fun-draining, Quaker-persecuting authoritarians who restricted women to a life of dreary housework and perpetual childrearing. There is some truth to this stereotype. Certainly, the typical Puritan minister viewed women as subordinate beings who needed to keep quiet in church and be submissive to their husbands. As Benjamin Wadsworth noted in a sermon titled The Well-Ordered Family, “The husband is called the head of the woman. It belongs to the head to rule and govern.”1 The cases of Anne Hutchinson and Mary Dyer—strong-willed women who suffered banishment or execution for defying the established order—lend further credence to our stereotypes about the Puritans.2
In 1664, a young Puritan minister named John Cotton Jr. was found guilty of “lascivious unclean practices with three women.”1 Mr. Cotton was a Harvard graduate, a descendant of well-respected parents, and a husband and father. As a punishment for his sinful deeds, English officials in Massachusetts forced Cotton to give up his pastorate of a local church. The question was, what could he do to support Joanna, his wife, and their children? Puritan leaders found the answer in an unlikely place: Martha’s Vineyard. For many years, members of the Mayhew family had labored as missionaries on the island, trying to teach local Indians about Christianity. The Mayhews needed help, and John Cotton Jr. was sufficiently qualified, in the eyes of the English at least, to preach to Indians. So, in 1666, John Cotton Jr. began a long missionary career on both Martha’s Vineyard and in the town of Plymouth. In many respects, his legacy lasted beyond his death, for his two sons, Josiah and Roland Cotton, preached to Indians in Massachusetts long after their father was gone.2
Other scholarly works have examined male members of the Cotton family and how they interacted with Native Americans.3 In this article, however, I wish to explore the experiences of Joanna Cotton, a wife and mother of missionaries in colonial America. In particular, I will explore the extent to which Joanna fell in line with expectations regarding gender roles in colonial New England. These roles typically involved a degree of female subordination to males.
Authors Jason Eden and Naomi Eden consider, in light of the case of Naomi's 104 year-old grandmother, a well-respected leader in her church community, how age might affect debates and controversies regarding the status of men and women within contemporary Christian circles.
What an understanding of culture’s influence should do is put gross generalizations about the nature of men and women out of reach. Moreover, it challenges us to think about how and why we value particular attributes connected to these gender stereotypes. So often we believe that we are reacting to Scripture or that the powerful feelings we have about particular gender activities are our created nature. Rather, we need to realize that we are exhibiting the cultural context in which we live.
We hear much these days about differences between males and females. Television advertisements encourage us to purchase different vitamins for our sons and daughters based on their claims that females need skin care assistance while males need help building muscle. Manufacturers of adult undergarments assure us men and women have different undergarment needs, pointing to supposed differences in the way males and females drive their vehicles. The marketing of everything from toys to different Bibles for girls and boys suggests that even children are completely opposite in their essence. The uninformed might be persuaded that males and females are of two different species.
Why would a woman espouse an ideology that consigns her to a less-than status? Howell and Duncan surveyed 72 women to explore the rationale behind women’s beliefs in the subordination of women to the authority of men.