Some historians (and *cough* textbook contributors) have the unfortunate habit of erasing certain people from history. More often than not, these people are a member of some minority or oppressed group. Of course, this results in a biased and incomplete picture of the past. The particular phenomenon I am interested in is the mysterious and all-too-frequent Case of the Disappearing Woman.
Often, the women typical history textbooks mention (briefly, and usually in one of those silly blurb boxes on the side that nobody ever requires you to read) are the kinds of women it is impossible to disagree with. They were brave, brave nurses! They wrote letters! They never did anything sneaky or underhanded! They were so very noble in their pursuit of watercolor painting/embroidery/basket weaving/Swedish folk dance! (Sometimes these women really did get into trouble – but for some reason, that is often glossed over.)
Of course, it is not lost on me that when many women were alive, there were few opportunities for them to go out into the world and change it. Societal customs and beliefs were different – I get that! Institutional sexism still happens! But that doesn’t mean that interesting women didn’t start existing until recently.
I was doing some research for this blog post, and I stumbled upon the story of Frances Culpeper Stephens Berkeley. In addition to having an impressively long and formidable name, she was also fairly influential in politics. She never got written off as crazy, and she never got into trouble. But she certainly did, in some small way, shape the course of early American history.
Frances was married thrice – first to Captain Samuel Stephens, who died soon thereafter. She had insisted that, when he died, she inherit all their property (they had no children) and when he passed away, she gained control of the entire estate. Score one for Frances.
Shortly after her first husband died, Frances married William Berkeley. Yes,that William Berkeley. She was quite an active supporter of his policies, and received harsh criticism from his opponents. After Bacon’s Rebellion, she went to England as her husband’s emissary to the king. She was also able to secure a pardon for a man after being asked by one of the Royal Commissioners sent to Virginia to investigate the rebellion. In a particular moment of cruel cleverness, she had two of the Commissioners (who were not fans of her husband) on their way to pay their farewell visit to the Berkeleys put in a coach driven by the town hangman!
After William Berkeley also died, Frances kept right on going, expanding her sphere of political influence ever more. She formed the Green Spring faction, one of the most powerful political groups in Virginia (they often opposed the policies of William’s successor). In approximately 1680, she married Philip Ludwell (secretary of that colony) and sometimes petitioned in the House of Burgesses on his behalf.
So, it would certainly appear that Frances Culpeper Stephens Berkeley contributed quite respectably to this nation’s early history. Others have gotten themselves written into textbooks for less! But, perhaps because she supported her highly unpopular husband (painted by many as a horrible person and puppet of the crown), she doesn’t fit easily into the story everyone seems to want to tell about early America. After all, it’s harder to demonize someone when somebody else who loves them supports most everything they do. Add on top of that the fact that she had the audacity to be a woman, and it’s no wonder that poor Frances doesn’t get as much attention as she deserves.
So, what can we do about all Frances and all the other disappearing women? Honestly, I have no idea how to begin to fix the issue of equal representation – in history or in practically any other area. One thing I do know is this: To be a woman is not a novelty. We deserve more than a few generalizations. We are worth it.
Snyder, Terri L. and the Dictionary of Virginia Biography. “Frances Culpeper Stephens Berkeley (1634–ca. 1695).” Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, 23 Aug. 2013. Web. 13 Oct. 2013