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FAITH + IDEAS =: last updated 03/27/2012


Lessons from a 17th Century Working Mother

March 20, 2012            Volume 5, Issue 5

Faith + Ideas = an e-conversation with the Faculty of Gordon College

By Kristina Wacome Stevick

Dear Mistress Anne Bradstreet,

I write this fan letter four hundred years after your birth, and from Salem, Massachusetts, the place where you first toed America. At 38—the age I am now—you became America’s first published poet, and I marvel at your thousands of lines of versified history, politics, biology, astronomy and other subjects. That you wrote so copiously while surviving the harsh life of early New England astounds me. But what is perhaps most inspiring—and instructive—to me is the finesse with which you stood for women’s intellect without alienating yourself from—and therefore deafening—your contemporaries.

Like you, I had access to a great library during my childhood. I’ve enjoyed a good education, an upbringing in the Protestant faith and the love of a dedicated husband. I’m a mother. So I suppose it would seem obvious to you, wife of a public figure and dame of eight, the idea behind a popular slogan from my youth: “Every Mother is a Working Mother.” The slogan reminded people working outside the home—in often hard-won careers—that fulltime childrearing was a legitimate use of one’s time and skills. I carry a debt of gratitude to agitators for equality in the workplace, also to those who made homes nurturing and safe. These debts can make the most personal of decisions feel political. However, I don’t write this letter to lay out the historical reasons many women still feel they need to justify their choices to themselves and to others. I write to applaud you.

You’d likely be surprised to learn that because of an inclusion of women’s history in the academy of my time, your writings are becoming more universally familiar than they have been to readers in the 340 years since your death. Would it also surprise you that the poems written to your family are among the most popular? Studying women’s history elucidates the struggle long fought so my generation would be afforded the freedom to write and create without fear of “unsexing” ourselves as those of your time feared might happen. Because you managed to generate over 6,000 lines of poetry in the time when you were also birthing, nursing, weaning, hosting, managing property, and what people of my era would call “homeschooling,” perhaps your life could show me how best to be a working mother.

Your need to create, your midnight insomnia, and your “artistic temperament”—characteristics I share, by the way—reveal a struggle with, and an eventual embracing of your vocation. Likewise, your youthful desire to impress the intelligentsia, and subsequent migration from this early objective of your work to something more personal, heartens me to do the same.

After your male friends and mentors bound and published your poems as “The Tenth Muse Lately Sprung Up in America . . . ”, those outside your social circles didn’t see your edited, authorized version until after your death. Reprinting the early poems, full as they were of academic subjects and political commentary, you added a collection of practical aphorisms and poems with more private subjects. We learned what it was like for you to miss your husband, mourn your grandbabies, long for your deceased parents, encounter your imperfect book in print.

Time brought yet more of your writings to public view after your death. That you chronicled your journey of faith and voiced your particular doubts gave your children (and future readers) more freedom to find their own way. Your God welcomed, and wasn’t threatened by, honest inquiry or heartfelt frustration.

You grew into your best work by incorporating your domestic sphere. I believe the sounds and rhythms of your childrearing, housework, love-making, built the structure of your verse. This mother recognizes the breath rhythm of a nursing baby in a poem of longing for your husband. When you listened to what was immediately around you, you grew more innovative in your poetic forms.

My contemporaries may not see the English colonization of America as a continuation of God’s promise to the ancient Israelites. We may not view medicine in terms of the four humors, nor view humans as having four distinct ages. We are all products of the age in which we live. But, Mistress Bradstreet, the virtue of sharing one’s talents generously with the world is timeless.

Not every mother gets (or wants) to work in a creative field, of course. Others would have to inform me as to what rhythms best suit their families and work lives. But thank you, America’s first famous working mother, for rousing the world with your wit, then making poetry of the most intimate realms of your life. You remind us of the worthiness of both public and private work, whether undertaken in phases or concurrently.

Admiring from afar,

Kristina Wacome Stevick

Kristina Wacome Stevick is the co-founder of the Institute for Public History at Gordon College in Wenham, MA and the artistic director of History Alive!, which makes theatre in Salem. Her play about Anne Bradstreet will premiere this summer. She and her family live in Salem, MA.

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Kristina Stevick