Can you give us a bit of background on yourself as a historian? When did you become interested in your area of study?
I study, research, write, and teach about women and gender in the Revolutionary Era in the United States. I really became interested in the Revolutionary period—it’s going to sound very trite– as a fourth grader. I grew up outside of Philadelphia, so we did all the traditional field trips, like Independence Hall and Betsy Ross’ house. I always just really loved that stuff. So, in some ways, the roots of [my book] In Dependence are from when I was an elementary schooler.
But really it was when I took a class as a sophomore—a research seminar that was on women in the Revolution—that I fell in love with the topic and never looked back. I went full steam ahead in a masters and PhD program without stopping. Since then, my intellectual trajectory has been very consistent, focusing on women’s history, gender history, and the history of the American Revolution.
To a non-historian, or someone who isn’t familiar with your subject matter, what is In Dependence about?
Primarily, the book looks at petitions that women in Boston, Philadelphia, and Charleston submitted to their state legislatures between 1750 and 1820. Most of these petitions asked for various forms of relief, like pensions and divorces from abusive husbands. What struck me looking at these sources was the way that women employed language that repeated assumptions about their various forms of dependence on men, but they actually used that as a way to get what they wanted from the states. They were able to use that dependence in a kind of ironic way to claim power over their own lives.
In Dependence challenges both academics and non-academics to rethink how they consider women’s expressions of power, especially in this period in history. Women were severely restricted in terms of their legal rights and economic power, and because of this they were dependent on men in many ways. But, my book argues that women were able to use those expectations of dependence to actually gain an edge in certain circumstances.
What does your book add to the historiography of women in early America?
What I found really compelling in my research is that the language that women use remains consistent in these three cities throughout the 70-year period that I study, but I saw significant changes in the early 1770s. Women start to talk about what they are owed as dependents of the state and of men as a right rather than an entitlement. It’s very clear that the rights rhetoric of the Revolutionary Era made its way to women’s consciousness. So, I also argue that the Revolution is an important transition moment in the broader history of women in the United States. In order to get to the point where they are arguing for suffrage at Seneca Falls, or any number of rights in the many waves of the feminist movements, they have to first recognize themselves as rights-bearing individuals. Before they can work collectively to push for more expanded rights, they have to first see that they are citizens who have rights.
What did your hunt for sources look like? What difficulties did you encounter?
When I did my very first research trip, I was thinking about using other documents, looking mostly at women’s financial records. When I was in South Carolina at the state archives, I was talking to the archivist and I asked about petitions. I think it was really fortuitous that I had to go there first because they had a really extensive online index where I could search petitions submitted by the people of Charleston and then look through the list and recognize women’s names in the record. In a lot of cases, women don’t leave much, if any, of a trace in the historical record, yet we get a lot of details about their personal lives and difficulties because they happened to write a petition to the state legislature. I decided I wanted to use these sources, and then had to replicate that search in Harrisburg and in Boston. It was time consuming to make sure I was getting as comprehensive a source base as possible.
Adding Black women’s stories to this narrative presented a challenge. Looking in the traditional legal archive to find petitions and divorce records, Black women were few and far between. I ended up using emancipation deeds and looking at those as a form of petitioning. We can see Black women’s activism within these sources, fighting for themselves, their children, their spouses, and their freedom. It took a little bit of creativity to try to look at the legal archive and expand it in a way that could be more inclusive.
What is your favorite story or chapter of In Dependence?
My favorite chapter in terms of the stories is Chapter 4, which is about women’s networks. There’s a lot of really compelling evidence that women sometimes just gave up on trying to get help from their husbands or the state and instead relied on each other. There’s a number of examples of depositions and divorce cases where women testify to stepping between their neighbor and her husband to stop domestic abuse from happening. That was very difficult to read, sometimes I had to step away when I was writing. But it’s really important to see that women were helping each other when the patriarchal state was doing nothing for them.
You’re having your book launch at the Old State House this coming May 19th. Why did you choose Revolutionary Spaces as your venue?
I’ve worked with Revolutionary Spaces for a couple of years now. I helped consult on the Humble Petitioner exhibit, and I’m very excited to see that when I come up for the book launch. I love the organization, I think they do great public history work and public programming that gets people involved. I wanted to have the book launch at the Old State House, because the Council Chamber is the room where a lot of those petitions would have been considered by the General Assembly and General Court. The petitions that I write about would have been present in that very room.
About Dr. Beatty
Dr. Beatty is Assistant Professor of History at York College of Pennsylvania where she teaches courses on early American, women’s, and public history. Her previously published work includes “Privileged in the Patriarchy: How Charleston Wives Negotiated Financial Freedom in the Early Republic,” “Complicated Allegiances: Women, Politics, and Property in Post-Occupation Charleston,” Women Waging War in the American Revolution. She has worked with Revolutionary Spaces for several years as a panelist, a program developer, and most recently, as an academic advisor on the exhibition Humble Petitioner: Fighting for Rights in 18th Century Massachusetts. Dr. Beatty’s book launch will be held at the Old State House on May 19, 2023.