Thursday, May 29, 2008

Next Steps

Why didn’t more English women migrate to the American colonies during the seventeenth century? Perhaps the difficulty in finding a satisfactory answer to this question is that the question itself is too narrow. In order to answer this question competently, future studies must subsume several broader questions, including “Where did English women travel and for what reasons?” and “What did mobility mean in seventeenth-century England?” Several of the authors discussed earlier in this essay have suggested potential jumping-off places for these new forays.

Before we can understand why women traveled to America, we must discover why they traveled at all. Conditions in the colonies are important and must be part of any discussion of migration, but female transatlantic migration must also be situated within a larger context of English women’s mobility. By examining patterns of local transience, intra-national movement, and migration to other destinations, including Ireland, Scotland, and continental Europe, scholars can determine which aspects of transatlantic migration were extensions of other types of travel and which were anomalous. Alison Games’ research will be particularly useful for piecing together this larger context, not only because her data includes migrants who went to continental Europe as well as to America, but also because she follows individual migrants over a period of years as they undertake many separate migrations of various durations. Likewise, Susan Hardman Moore’s study of New Englanders who returned to England suggests that transatlantic migration was part of a pattern of many migrations during an individual’s lifetime, not a single removal from a point of origin to a set destination.

In addition to developing a better sense of English women’s mobility, historians must investigate the meaning of mobility within early modern English gender discourses. Kathleen Brown’s exploration of gender and social order provides a model for accounting both for events and for the meaning of those events. Englishwomen who traveled to America were not merely mobile laborers; they were variously understood as harbingers of stable community life, insolent wenches who threatened social hierarchy, and embodiments of “civilization” and whiteness who helped to define the limits of freedom and slavery.

Currently, the historiography of migration does not adequately address English ideas about the appropriateness of travel that might explain why certain women could imagine making particular journeys but not others. Under what circumstances could a wealthy woman travel to a neighbor’s house? To London? To Holland? To Jamaica? Did poor women have more freedom to make those journeys or less? What assumptions would other English subjects make about a woman who made any of these migrations? Before we can make sense of the gender disparity among transatlantic migrants, we must better understand how Englishwomen imagined travel and themselves as travelers.

There can be no doubt that transatlantic migration from England was “overwhelmingly a man’s business” (Games, 47). Yet, it is not enough to leave the reasons for this disparity unexplored and unexplained. White women’s restricted mobility is such an ingrained feature of our imagined historical landscape that historians have left the historical processes underlying sex-specific migration unhistoricized, thereby naturalizing men as movers and women as homebodies. That English men crossed the ocean and English women, in general, did not is a matter of historical record. The beliefs, experiences, and policies that created this imbalance remain obscure.

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