Reading against the narratives

Reading against the narratives

I ran across The Women of the Mayflower and Women of Plymouth Colony (an unnecessarily wordy title, I think) at the library while looking for a different book, so of course I had to check it out. Published in 1921 by Ethel Jane Russell Chesebrough Noyes, the book was no doubt inspired by the national attention paid to the Pilgrims the year before as a result of the tercentennial celebration of the Mayflower landing, but Noyes obviously felt the Pilgrim mothers had been slighted in the historical record and maybe even in the celebrations.

Anne Rogers Minor, the President General of the Daughters of the American Revolution and author of the book’s introduction, apparently agreed. She writes:

There is much need to-day to perpetuate their spirit, to practice their faith, to maintain their ideals. They loved liberty and endured hardship, sacrifice and suffering for its sake. They built the home of the Nation on the foundation of English ideals of home and family life which we cherish to-day as ours. They served their homes and the community life of the colony with loyal and unswerving devotion. They brought up their families in those rugged virtues and a living faith in God, without which nations perish. They have a message for us to-day, calling us back, not to their austerities but to their righteousness and spirituality. Such books as this help to spread that message throughout the nation.

Several aspects of that passage strike me. The first is that I’ve read similar words in books and speeches so many times that I have to forcibly remember to read against that narrative of exceptionalism. Otherwise I’m all too prone to fall into the same trap. But I’m trying to question everything so that I can have a better understanding of exactly how this myth came to be so forceful.

The second aspect that strikes me is that even when the Pilgrim women were finally being remembered, it was largely for their domestic prowess, mothering skills, and faith in God, roles largely limited to the stereotypes of ideal feminine qualities. This passage could have just as easily been written in 1821 as 1921, and frankly, it would probably still resonate with many people in 2021. I wouldn’t expect the president of the DAR to express disdain for the past, of course, but it makes me wonder exactly how much our origin stories serve to limit us, even as they seem to inspire us.

About Kari Miller

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