Gendering the Work of Debt Collection: Women, Law, and the Credit Economy in New England, 1730-1790
Damiano, Sara T.
MetadataShow full item record
“Gendering the Work of Debt Collection” analyzes women, gender, and the credit-based economies of New England’s largest Atlantic ports, Boston and Newport, and their hinterlands between 1730 and 1790. Examining women’s involvement in matters of credit and debt inside and outside of court and comparing their activities to men’s, it argues that women, both married and unmarried, were active, skilled users of credit and debt throughout this period. It also contends that, as participants in financial matters, women exercised considerable social and legal authority over others, including men. This authority was situational, shaped by the immediate context of transactions as well as by gender and class. This dissertation combines quantitative and qualitative analysis of county court records with research in petitions, personal papers, newspapers, and printed treatises and handbooks. Prior scholarship on women, credit and the law has focused on legal disputes and the courtroom; this is the first major study to reconstruct routine credit transactions outside the courts. Credit and debt led women to interact with men in a wide range of urban settings, including households and public places such as streets, retail shops, taverns, and courthouses. Women demonstrated significant financial and legal skill as they negotiated with creditors and debtors, handled sophisticated documents, oversaw attorneys, acted as financial agents for their husbands and others, served as estate administrators, and, as witnesses, made sense of others’ transactions. They generally used the same language as men to discuss their activities, invoking gendered language of women’s vulnerability and economic ignorance infrequently and for strategic ends. Major port cities like Boston and Newport were vanguards of commercial and legal change and favorable places for women’s participation in the credit economy and the courts. Unlike in the agrarian towns and secondary ports previously studied by historians of gender and the law, in Boston and Newport women’s involvement in the credit economy inside and outside the courtroom remained robust throughout the eighteenth century. The developing eighteenth-century commercial economy and the courts were not firmly marked as masculine domains and remained realms in which women could exercise authority over men.