Being Good Women's Moral Values in Early America

Martha Saxton

Hill and Wang



Trade Paperback

400 Pages



Request Desk Copy Request Exam Copy
How do people decide what is "good" and what is "bad"? How does a society set moral guidelines? And how do such limits differ across classes and races? Martha Saxton tackles these and other key questions in this history of the moral values prescribed for women in early America.

Saxton plumbed archives of letters, diaries, newspapers, and other public and private sources to draw detailed portraits of women in various stages of the cycle—girls; young, unmarried women; young wives and mothers, and older widows. These windows on women's intimate lives illuminate the variations in behavior and expectations among women of different ethnicities and backgrounds. Saxton examines how the values of one group conflicted with or developed in opposition to those of another in seventeenth-century Boston and eighteenth-century Virginia, as well as nineteenth-century St. Louis. And, as the women's testimonies make clear, the emotional styles associated with different value systems varied.

Saxton argues that women's morals changed in the years from early colonization to westward expansion, as women became, in important ways, more confined—and as men officially revered them more. Being Good makes clear how these changes shaped women's emotional lives and both reflected and affected trends in the nation at large.


Praise for Being Good

"Being Good is a fascinating work in gender history and in the history of emotions. Encompassing three regions, two centuries, and a racially diverse population, this is one of the most ambitious books of comparative history in many years. The St. Louis section is remarkably original. Saxton takes us into the hearts and minds, the moral universe, of girls and women in early America. We learn of their understanding of sexuality, marriage, and motherhood. Saxton has achieved a moving and enlightening story of the burdens of expectation, convention, and the struggle for power over one's mind and body in a time very different from, but still connected to, our own."—David W. Blight, Yale University

"Being Good looks at the dark and the light of women's lives in the seventeenth through the nineteenth centuries, but mostly the dark. From Saxton's account, we get more of a feeling of what it was like to be a woman over these three centuries than from anything else in print."—Richard Bushman, Columbia University

"Provocative . . . Readers of the past two decades of scholarship in women's history have long understood that women are not universally held accountable to the same moral code regardless of class or race; nor is Saxton the first to notice that our very standards of moral judgment are shaped in response to those we consider 'other.' The strength of Being Good lies in the historical specificity with which Saxton demonstrates how this process works. But the book is, finally, strongest in portraying the ways that white women's moral codes reflected and sustained their own relatively privileged position . . . Being Good reminds us of another lesson that is not entirely about gender: that if we judge our own moral stature against that of those whom we consider, by virtue of class, race, religion, or culture, inherently lesser than ourselves, we praise our own goodness at great moral risk to ourselves and to one another."—26Lori D. Ginzberg, The American Scholar

"Saxton, a women's studies professor at Amherst College, is an able writer for both scholarly and mainstream audiences, as was evidenced by her biography of Louisa May Alcott . . . [Being Good] is a valuable addition to the American Studies canon, focusing as it does on the powerful influence of largely ignored African-American social structures and customs on the French and Anglo-American populations . . . Saxton's book is an intelligent addition to a history lover's shelves. The reader . . . will benefit from Saxton's deep well of research and her professorial ability to motivate one to question long-accepted (or neglected) aspects of America's history."—Kimberly B. Marlowe, The Seattle Times

"[Saxton] zooms in on the stories of individual women, showing the way the standards and expectations for moral behavior varied among ethnicities and social classes and developed in opposition to one another . . . Being Good does a lot to explain how tying women's ability to exercise public moral power to their sexual behavior has stunted their capacity to speak up as well as to be heard on public issues."—Malena Waltrous, San Francisco Chronicle

"The intimate, compelling, sometimes startling personal stories Martha Saxton has skillfully teased from archives in Puritan New England, colonial Virginia and turn-of-the-nineteenth century Missouri remind us how complex and contradictory the relationship between American men and American women has been from the very beginning. Being Good is very good indeed."—Geoffrey C. Ward, author of A First-Class Temperament: The Emergence of Franklin Roosevelt

"Being Good brilliantly brings to life the moral culture of the American woman. Highly thought of as both a historian and a biographer, Martha Saxton has written a truly luminous book. Fierce, bold and beautifully written, it conveys, as no other book has, what it meant for a woman to come-of-age in 19th century America."—Wendy Gimbel, author of Havana Dreams

"With gripping analytic exactness, Martha Saxton compares the moral and emotional lives American women were expected to lead with the lives they actually led and fought for. Her exactness is matched by her range. She takes us from the 17th to the 19th century. We hear the voices and witness the radically different experiences of Anglo, African and Indian-American women. Being Good is essential and wonderfully readable American history."—Margo Jefferson, co-author of The Tree of Life: A Novel

"Saxton's analyses offer an alternative approach to more traditional explanations of gender relations and social development and provide thoughtful ideas about the foundations for some of the societal problems of today. Being Good presents interesting primary source insight into the lives of American women of the seventeenth, eighteenth, and early nineteenth centuries."—Frederick M. Beatty, History Department, Troy State University, Montgomery, Alabama

"Being Good is a book full of light. Few historians have achieved a finer synthesis of the social and the inner life. But then Saxton's scrupulously distilled masterpiece of scholarship is also a work of literature, which is to say, of nuanced passion, wisdom, and revelation. If you're interested in the subject of the American woman—or if you are simply an American woman interested in knowing how you got to be who you are—read it."—Judith Thurman, author of Secrets of the Flesh: A Life of Colette

"A massive accumulation of detail earns Saxton the right to state her conclusion succinctly: fetishizing female chastity has been 'one of the most enduring hindrances to women's equality.' In this exhaustive and entertaining work, Saxton studies women's morals in three settings: 17th-century Massachusetts, 18th-century Virginia and 19th-century St. Louis. While men's moral life included political and professional concerns, the overarching demands on white women, according to Saxton, were for sexual restraint and obedience. White women's behavior, in turn, was conflated with the survival of the republic. In contrast, Saxton says, a mythical salaciousness was ascribed to black women, which, as well as offering a comforting difference from supposed white chastity, justified men's sexual abuse of female slaves. Many of the letters, newspapers and court records Saxton has found give telling glimpses of old customs, e.g., the Puritan practice of sending even well-off girls to work as maids and the Virginian habit of describing runaway female slaves by their breast size and perceived 'lusty' sexual behavior."—Publishers Weekly

Reviews from Goodreads



Read an Excerpt

Martha Saxton is an assistant professor of history and women's and gender studies at Amherst College. She is the author of several books, including Louisa May Alcott: A Modern Biography. She lives in New York City.
Read the full excerpt


  • Martha Saxton

  • Martha Saxton is an associate professor of history and women's and gender studies at Amherst College. She is the author of several books, including Louisa May Alcott: A Modern Biography. She lives in New York City.
  • Martha Saxton