“I am obnoxious to each carping tongue Who says my hand a needle better fits, A Poet’s pen all scorn I should thus wrong, For such despite they cast on Female wits.”
Traditionally, the role of a woman in American society has never really been an easy one. Too many requests from an outside world have continued to demand our attention, time, and energy. Out-dated traditions and norms have still generated tension as customs try to manipulate and shame the strongest of women. Throughout history, women have struggled in this balancing act of managing love, family, beliefs, and work, whether they work in the home or out of the home, or more realistically and to the point, juggle both. Still, women have fashioned ways to stay grounded as they uphold responsibilities while finding ways to carve out time for their own creative undertakings. So, imagine my surprise and my delight when I discovered that one of my grandmothers was a strong woman of faith and a feminist in her own right who followed her dreams despite the societal and man-made religious mandates of her time. Although Anne Bradstreet lived in a Puritan society that strictly monitored the life of a woman, she still found the courage to write her poetry and share her spiritual insights and musings of a mother, wife, and a believer that lived in a strange new world.
During her younger years while living in Northampton, England, Anne’s father, Thomas Dudley, worked as a steward for the Earl of Lincoln, Theophilus Clinton, and the family lived at his estate. The earl was also of the Puritan faith, and shared his home and provided many opportunities for religious activities and teachings of the day. As a young girl, Anne listened to the clergy that preached or taught in the earl’s chapel. In addition, since the Dudley family lived on the lands provided by the earl, they also maintained a comfortable life and enjoyed the many comforts that it offered, including the earl’s extensive library. Though her family worshipped as Puritans, her father took note of the Elizabethan era, for he also believed that women should receive an education. Although she never received a formal training, she read the classics, and her father tutored her in theology, history, literature, art, and music, and she also spoke several languages. It was during this time she met her future husband, Simon Bradstreet. The young graduate of Cambridge University came to work as her father’s assistant. By the time she was sixteen, Anne and Simon wed, and the young couple moved, for Simon became the steward for the dowager countess of Warwick.
Still, the newlyweds only lived in Warwick for a short time. The religious tolerance for the Puritans came to a halt once Charles I inherited the throne from his father, James I, in 1625. Since the Puritans still believed that England needed cleansing from their Catholic practices, the new king influenced the administration to restrict those of the Puritan faith from obtaining government office in leadership roles. In response to this move, Puritans activated their own campaign to usher in reform by immigrating and starting colonies in the New World.
In 1630, Anne and Simon Bradstreet, and the Dudley family began their journey to the Massachusetts Bay Colony under the leadership of John Winthrop. The family traveled for three months on the ship, Arabella. That summer, the family landed in the colonies in the present day, Salem Massachusetts. Once they arrived, they discovered the harsh realities of this new world. They found the colonists lacked food. The people were sick and suffered from malnutrition. The constant threat of attacks from native tribes also produced emotional turmoil for the new settlers who left behind the comforts of the old land as they tried to reconcile with this strange wilderness. Later in life, the mother, in a letter to her children, wrote about this experience and penned, “After a short time I changed my condition and was marryed, and came into this Country, where I found a new world and new manners, at which my heart rose. But after I was convinced it was the way of God, I submitted to it and joined to the church at Boston” (Frey 68).
At first, the two families banded together as they started this journey. It was not an easy one, and the families often moved as they tried to carve out an existence in this new world. Both Anne’s father and her husband became involved in establishing a government in this new land, and both served as governors for the Massachusetts Bay Colony although Simon held this office after his wife’s death. Her busy husband served as a lawyer, judge, and lawmaker. Anne’s beloved husband spent many hours away from home, and she often wrote of missing her heart’s desire although it was frowned upon to love someone as deeply as she loved her husband.
Three years after their arrival to the New World, Anne and Simon started their family. They had eight children: Samuel (1633), Dorothy (1635), Sarah (1638), Simon (1640), Hannah (1642), Mercy (1645), Dudley (1648), and John (1652).
In one of her poems, the mother describes her children. She writes I had eight birds hatched in one nest, / Four Cocks there were, and Hens the rest (Bradstreet 253).
Often she suffered from ill health, for she had smallpox as a child. Later in life, she contracted this disease again, and this time she also faced partial paralysis. Also, she came down with what was believed to have been tuberculosis. The constant moving also placed a hardship on her. But trials and tribulations did not dim her faith in God, nor did it keep her from writing.
Historians believed that Anne began writing poetry when she was in her teens. Her poetry reflected her beliefs, her love for family, and the daily life of her Puritan world. Even though society deemed such work unfit for women, she continued to write for herself, her family, and a small group of friends. In fact, one close friend, Anne Hutchinson, publicly addressed her religious concerns of the day and was later banished from the colony. Still, this did not deter the poet from her writings.
For most of her life, most of her work remained private. During her lifetime, only one collection of poems was actually published. Allegedly, her brother-in-law, John Woodbridge, took some of her poetry and had it published in England. Some have stated this endeavor was done without Anne’s knowledge. This volume of poetry was titled The Tenth Muse, Lately Sprung Up in America. She was the first female poet to be published in England, and later, the first in America too.
This wondrous grandmother found peace in her quiet reflections and musings of a heavenly Father. She found strength in His Word, and a boldness to write even during times of patriarchal misgivings about female quests and feminine writing. Without a doubt, I have admired her conviction as she continued writing her poetry even when it went against the societal norms of her day. My emboldened grandmother, a bit of a rebel in her own right, stepped out in faith and continued to practice her gift and love of writing. Joyfully, I now share those words, her legacy and testament of her own faith, with my daughter and grandchildren. Her words have renewed my strength and peace, for at the end of the day, it really doesn’t matter what the world believes. My distant grandmother gently reminded me to follow my heart’s own desire.
Anne Dudley (1612 – 1672)
Ann Marie Reeder Bryant
- “Anne Bradstreet.” Christian History | Learn the History of Christianity & the Church, http://www.christianitytoday.com/history/people/poets/anne-bradstreet.html.
- “Anne Bradstreet.” Poetry Foundation, Poetry Foundation, http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poets/detail/anne-bradstreet.
- “Biography of Anne Bradstreet.” Biography of Anne Bradstreet, archive.vcu.edu/english/engweb/webtexts/Bradstreet/bradbio.htm.
- Bradstreet, Anne. The Works of Anne Bradstreet. Edited by Jeannine Hensley, Cambridge, MA, The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2010.
- “Circa, Anne Bradstreet (1612-1672).” American Eras, Encyclopedia.com, http://www.encyclopedia.com/people/literature-and-arts/american-literature-biographies/anne-dudley-bradstreet.
- Frey, Sylvia R., and Marian J. Morton. New world, new roles: a documentary history of women in pre-industrial America. New York: Greenwood Press, 1986. Print.
- History.com Staff. “Puritanism.” History.com, A&E Television Networks, 2009, http://www.history.com/topics/puritanism.