Anne Hutchinson – A Forerunner of American Feminism

A Rebel Against a Virulently Misogynist Puritan Culture

Statue in front of the Massachusetts State House
A statue standing in front of the Massachusetts State House memorializes Anne Marbury Hutchinson who, nearly four centuries ago, was an opponent and victim and of the virulent misogyny that defined Massachusetts Bay Colony society.

Anne Hutchinson may well have been one of America’s first “nasty women.” A spiritual leader in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, she poked the hornet’s nest by challenging the patriarchy and upending gender roles, preaching to audiences of both sexes and daring to critique the Bible and Puritan laws.

She was born in England to Francis Marbury, a nonconformist minister who taught scripture, and his wife, Bridget Dryden. Married well to a merchant who was the son of a prominent family in Lincolnshire, she gave birth to a dozen children in 16 years.

Anne Hutchinson

Like most women of her time, she had no formal education. But she was an avid reader who was raised to be an independent thinker. Marbury was inspired by Lincolnshire’s Reverend John Cotton, who was forced into hiding in 1632 for his outspoken desire to reform the Church of England from within. When he and his wife boarded a ship for New England’s Massachusetts Bay Colony, where he was promptly installed as a pastor of the Boston church, Anne Hutchinson and her family followed him.

Sailing from England to Boston in 1634 on the ship Griffen, they bought a house and 600-acre farm, earned the respect of their neighbors, and assumed a prominent place in Boston affairs. William Hutchinson became a judge in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Anne, trained as a midwife, soon developed strong ties to the local women and began meeting with them to discuss Rev. Cotton’s sermons.

Critical of Puritan Doctrine

But the group soon began to question the idea that one could only reach God through the clergy, rather than through one’s personal relationship with Him. Even worse, they began to question the colony’s sociopolitical system, with its assumption that women were inferior to men under God’s laws.

Map of the Puritan Colony of Massachusetts Bay
The Puritan religious doctrine viewed females as inferior human beings whose role was to breed and serve men in whatever way they ordered.

The leaders of the theocracy that was the Massachusetts Bay Colony deemed the group discussions heretical — especially once men began attending the meetings. And for the powers that be, that could not stand. So, three years after arriving in Massachusetts, Anne Hutchinson made history as the first female defendant to appear in a Massachusetts court, on trial for heresy. But her real crime was her defiance of gender roles. At a time when men ruled and women were to remain silent, Hutchinson asserted her right to preach to both sexes. Eventually, her one-time mentor, the Rev. Cotton, even turned on her, describing her meetings as a “promiscuous and filthy coming together of men and women.”

The patriarchy saw her as overstepping her place as a woman, fearing she would inspire other women to rebel. Hurling insults, they called her “rather a husband than a wife, and a magistrate than a subject.” But she made a serious error in judgment when she testified she had received a direct revelation from God that she could interpret scriptures for herself. William Shakespeare would have described Hutchinson, at that moment, as being “hoist with her own petard.” Her testimony sealed her fate.

“Haughty and Fierce”

She mounted a skillful self-defense; but her intelligence and eloquence only served to further infuriate the magistrates, who saw her as lecturing them. Governor John Winthrop described her as a “woman of haughty and fierce carriage, a nimble wit and active spirit, a very voluble tongue, more bold than a man,” Despite two days of intense questioning, the magistrates were unable to silence Anne Hutchinson.

Illustration of the Salem Witch Trials
Fifty years after Hutchinson’s death, the Puritan sociopolitical war against women reached its zenith in the Salem Witch Trials.

In 1638, Hutchinson was found guilty of lewd conduct and heresy, and excommunicated and banished from the Massachusetts Bay Colony. She and her family, along with 60 followers, moved to the more liberal Colony of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations, founded two years earlier by Roger Williams, another Bay Colony exile.

Anne Hutchinson’s husband, William, died in 1642, and she and her children moved to the Dutch colony of New Netherland (later known as New York), settling in a rough cabin built on the Pelham marshes in Westchester. The cabin stood on the river bank where today’s Route 95 bridges the stream in the Eastchester section of the Bronx.

Killed in Kieft’s War

It was there, in 1643, that Anne Hutchinson’s story ended when she, along with five of her children still living with her and two servants, were attacked and killed by a group of Native Americans during a period known in Dutch Colonial history as Kieft’s War. Only one child — eight-year-old Susannah — survived by escaping into the woods, where she was captured and remained with the tribe for six years before being ransomed as part of a later treaty. While historians have speculated the attack was in response to white settlers taking Native lands, Massachusetts Gov. Winthrop saw her violent death as a sign of God’s final judgment on a blasphemer.

Anne Hutchinson memorial plaque

Anne Hutchinson’s cabin was destroyed without a trace, and she has no known gravesite. But today, a river and a busy highway in the area bear her name — the Hutchinson River and Hutchinson River Parkway, where the highway meets the New England Thruway. And locals know Hutchinson Avenue, as it loops beneath the Route 95 bridge in Eastchester, along with a historical marker placed by the New York Dept. of Transportation on a ramp of the Sparks Avenue entrance to the parkway in Pelham.

Pardoned 350 Years Later

Meanwhile, in Massachusetts, a larger-than-life statue of Anne Hutchinson, erected in 1922, overlooks the grounds of the State House. Twenty-three years later, the State legislature voted to revoke her banishment. It would take 350 years before Anne Hutchinson was finally officially pardoned by then-governor of Massachusetts Michael Dukakis in 1987.

Today she’s seen as an advocate for freedom of religion and women’s rights. Truth is, she was neither. Described in a New York Times account as “unusually hardy, assertive and exceptionally well educated, ” Anne Hutchinson was simply a brave, principled, well-spoken woman with the courage to speak up and speak out no matter what. Such a nasty woman.

Hutchinson’s life and travails are the subject of more than a dozens books, including American Jezebel, The Passion of Anne Hutchinson, The Times & Trials of Anne Hutchinson, and Anne Hutchinson Puritan Prophet.

The Hutchinson River and Parkway in southern New York State
Anne Hutchinson is remembered as the namesake of multiple New York schools and streets. The Hutchinson River is one of the few rivers named after a woman; Hutchinson River Parkway in southern New York is also named after her.

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