Root of Bitterness (1) is a fascinating compilation of primary source material about the lives of American women. Most of these short accounts are written or spoken by the women themselves. Together they span the time period from the founding of the Massachusetts Bay Colony to the turn of the twentieth century.
Nancy Cott and her coeditors have divided the book into eight sections in roughly chronological order. In each section we hear a diverse group of women speak about their lives. A short paragraph at the beginning of each selection tells us something about the woman whose voice we are about to hear.
This is a fascinating book for any family historian. Each of you will find a piece that adds to your knowledge of a woman in your personal history. In addition you will learn about the lives of women of different races, social class or ethnicity, enabling you to place your ancestor within the greater context of American women of the time.
Two areas were particularly interesting to me, the testimonies of women speaking about gender roles and their place in life and the first hand accounts of African-American and Native-American women.
There are many examples of women voicing opinions about a woman’s place in society, sometimes to relatives or friends and sometimes to a wider audience.
Here are a few samples.
In 1800 17 year old Eliza Southgate, a privileged young woman being educated in a fine private school suitable for women of he class, wrote to her seventeen year old cousin, Moses Porter.
“Do you suppose the mind of woman the only work of God that was ‘made in vain’. The cultivation of the powers we possess, I have ever thought a privilege (or I may say a duty) that belonged to the human species, and not man’s exclusive prerogative.” (2)
And when her cousin objected to the subject of her letter, this:
“You undoubtedly think I am acting out of my sphere in my intention to discuss this subject, and my presumption probably gave rise to that idea, which you expressed in your last, that however unqualified a woman might be she is always equipt for the discussion of any subject and overwhelmed her hearers with her ‘clack’. On what subjects shall I write you? I shall either fatigue and disgust you with female trifles or shock you by stepping beyond the limits you have prescribed.” (3)
Sarah Grimke was a well-known women’s rights activists and, in my opinion, a visionary. In 1837 she wrote,
“In those employments that are peculiar to women, their time is estimated at only half the value of that of men. A woman who goes out to wash works as hard in proportion as a wood sawyer or a coal heaver, but she is not generally able to make more than half a day by a day’s work.” (4)
Over 150 years later this from the national Committee on Pay Equity,
“In May of 1998, 115 clerical workers in the Sachem School District in New York — also known as the Sachem Suffragettes — celebrate their new contract, which includes the first steps to achieving pay equity with custodial workers.” (5)
In 2014 a woman earns $0.77 cents for every $1.00 a man earns. In January 2013 Eleanor Holmes Norton introduced HR 438, the Fair Pay Act of 2013. It seeks to end wage discrimination against those who work in female-dominated or minority-dominated jobs by establishing equal pay for equivalent work. For example, within individual companies, employers could not pay jobs that are held predominately by women less than jobs held predominately by men if those jobs are equivalent in value to the employer.
The bill was referred to the Workforce Protections Subcommittee of the Education and the Workforce Committee. It hasn’t been heard of since. It is considered to have a 4% chance of making it out of the committee and a 1% chance of being passed by the House of Representatives.
First person records are African-American and Native American women are very scarce. The editors have collected a series of powerful memoirs from these women. These stories remind us that every piece of land in this country is soaked in someone’s blood.
This from a 1926 interview with Iron Teeth, a Cheyenne woman who survived the forced removal of Cheyenne from the northern pains in 1878.
“I was afraid of all white men soldiers. It seemed to me they represented the most extreme cruelty. They had just killed my husband and burned our whole village. There was in my mind a clear recollection of a time, 12 years before this, when they had killed and scalped many of our women and children in a peaceable camp near Mexico. At that time, I had seen a friend of mine, a woman, crawling along on the ground, shot, scalped, crazy, but not yet dead. After that I always thought of her when I saw white men soldiers.” (6)
And this from a set of stories collected by Benjamin Drew in 1855 from refugees in Canada. Mrs. John Little speaks here,
“There was one weakly woman named Susan, who could not stand the work, and she was sold to Mississippi, away from her husband and son. That’s one way of taking care of the sick and the weak. That’s the way the planters do with a weakly, sickly ‘nigger.’—they say, ‘he’s a dead expense to ’em and put him off as soon as they can. After Susan was carried off, her husband went to see her: when he came back he received two hundred blows with the paddle.” (7)
I could go on quoting these pieces forever and I have already gone on too long. Borrow this book from your library, or if you can, buy a copy, put it on your nightstand and read a piece or two each night. It will be money well spent.
1. Cott, Nancy F., etal., Root of Bitterness: Documents of the Social History of American Women. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1996
2 Ibid., p.101
4. Ibid., p.125
6. Cott, p. 226
7. Cott, p. 256
I’m supposed to say that I have no financial interest in this book. This is true. I bought my copy used for about $10.00. I do think you should buy a copy too. I saw used copies listed on the site of a major online operation for $3.42 plus shipping.