Good Wives, Nasty Wenches, and Anxious Patriarchs

Gender, Race, and Power in Colonial Virginia

By Kathleen M. Brown

512 pp., 6.125 x 9.25, 10 halftones, 2 maps, notes, bibl., index

  • Paperback ISBN: 978-0-8078-4623-0
    Published: November 1996
  • eBook ISBN: 978-0-8078-3829-7
    Published: December 2012

Published by the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture and the University of North Carolina Press

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Published by the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture and the University of North Carolina Press

Awards & distinctions

1997 John H. Dunning Prize in United States History, American Historical Association

Honorable Mention, 1996 Berkshire Conference Book Prize

Kathleen Brown examines the origins of racism and slavery in British North America from the perspective of gender. Both a basic social relationship and a model for other social hierarchies, gender helped determine the construction of racial categories and the institution of slavery in Virginia. But the rise of racial slavery also transformed gender relations, including ideals of masculinity. In response to the presence of Indians, the shortage of labor, and the insecurity of social rank, Virginia's colonial government tried to reinforce its authority by regulating the labor and sexuality of English servants and by making legal distinctions between English and African women. This practice, along with making slavery hereditary through the mother, contributed to the cultural shift whereby women of African descent assumed from lower-class English women both the burden of fieldwork and the stigma of moral corruption. Brown's analysis extends through Bacon's Rebellion in 1676, an important juncture in consolidating the colony's white male public culture, and into the eighteenth century. She demonstrates that, despite elite planters' dominance, wives, children, free people of color, and enslaved men and women continued to influence the meaning of race and class in colonial Virginia.

About the Author

Kathleen M. Brown is associate professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania.
For more information about Kathleen M. Brown, visit the Author Page.


"This book is . . . crucial to our understanding not only of gender but of race and power in colonial Virginia.”--Journal of Southwest Georgia History

“Meticulously researched, carefully reasoned, and gracefully written, this book should be on the reading list of every historian.”--American Historical Review

"An ambitious work, elaborate in construction and prodigious in research. . . . It could reshape profoundly our understanding of the history of colonial Virginia. . . . This big book is intriguing, provocative, and deeply unsettling."--Journal of Southern History

“One of the most important and interesting books ever published about colonial Virginia history."--Virginia Libraries

"Should be a standard purchase for all academic libraries with holdings in U.S. history."--Choice

"Kathleen Brown's magnificent book, Good Wives, Nasty Wenches, and Anxious Patriarchs, places gender at the center of early Virginia history for the first time. Her interpretations are persuasive because they are informed by judicious use of feminist theories and by an insistence that early Virginia was a changing tri-racial society."--Allan Kulikoff, Northern Illinois University