Mary Beth Norton


On her book Separated by their Sex: Women in Public and Private in the Colonial Atlantic World

Cover Interview of June 15, 2011

A close-up

I may be perverse, but my favorite parts of the book are those that detail men’s most misogynistic or outrageous comments about women’s interest in public affairs.

I think, for example, of the genre of English pamphlets on the theme of a parliament of ladies.  (One such pamphlet supplies the book with its cover image.)  Henry Neville, a political satirist of the 1640s, fantasized about an English House of Lords composed of aristocratic women in two brilliant, subtly pornographic pamphlets filled with clever double entendres. While reading them, I was repeatedly forced to stifle my laughter to avoid disturbing other patrons of the quiet rare-book reading room of the British Library (see pp. 53-60).

Or there was Joseph Addison, warning women in 1711 that too much engagement with “party rage” would inevitably destroy their complexions and lead them to neglect their family responsibilities.

And finally, the argument I see as the icing on the cake: the anonymous author who in the 1730s insisted that Queen Elizabeth was a hermaphrodite, because it was obvious that no true woman could have been a ruler as successful as she!

I also think readers will enjoy the accounts of women’s tea-table socializing.  The contrast between male writers’ critiques of women’s empty-headed gossiping and women’s own comments about the pleasures of exchanging ideas and, yes, gossip, with their friends, is striking and revealing.

Plus, I had to learn the history of tea, one of my favorite beverages—I gave up coffee long ago.  Who knew that Catherine of Braganza, the Portuguese wife of Charles II, first brought tea to England on her marriage in 1662?  I didn’t—until I wrote this book.