Thursday, May 29, 2008

"Pull" Arguments

In contrast to the “push” arguments, “pull” arguments emphasize the American colonies’ attractiveness for those seeking political, social, and economic advancement. In this telling, transatlantic English migrants are neither the beleaguered victims of government harassment nor huddled masses yearning to escape lives of crushing poverty. Instead, “pull” arguments portray colonists as entrepreneurs, adventurers, and shrewd assessors of risk and reward. For these authors, the unanswered question is not, “Why didn’t religious/economic/demographic upheaval push women, as well as men, to America?” but rather, “If America provided such attractive opportunities, why didn’t more women migrate?”

In their landmark article, “The Planter’s Wife: The Experience of White Women in Seventeenth-Century Maryland” (1977), Lois Carr and Lorena Walsh argue that the scarcity of marriageable white women in Maryland during the first generation of settlement gave women enormous economic and social power. Though nearly all female migrants arrived in Maryland as indentured servants, they soon found that successful planters were eager for marriage partners, even if they had to buy out their wives’ indentures (Carr and Walsh, 542). Impoverished women who were “seeking opportunities they had not found at home” took advantage of the marriage market to improve their status, often marrying planters with large and growing estates and practicing a form of “serial polyandry” because so many outlived their husbands (Carr and Walsh, 544, 558). Carr and Walsh cite enticing advertisements as evidence that poor women in England knew of favorable conditions in Maryland and sought indentures with the expectation that they would eventually benefit socially and financially (Carr and Walsh, 547).

The women in David Ransome’s “Wives for Virginia, 1621” (1991) are similarly well-informed and aspiring. Unlike their Maryland counterparts, the 57 women who departed for Jamestown in 1621 came from middle-class or gentry families, but they shared a desire to find successful husbands in the colonies (Ransome, 12). Ransome notes that Virginians were eager to marry, even though they had to pay up to 150 pounds of tobacco for the privilege, and many complained that there were not enough potential wives to be had at any price (Ransome, 6). The men of Virginia agreed with their Maryland neighbors: women made their colonies happier and more productive, and they would take all the white women England could send.

The colonies described by Ransome, Carr, and Walsh seem like ideal destinations for both poor and well-born women, particularly given the dire state of the English economy. Why, then, did women make up fewer than 15% of migrants to the Chesapeake?* Both articles imply that the best way for a 17th-century Englishwoman to advance both materially and socially was through an advantageous marriage, but the evidence suggests that Maryland and Virginia’s insatiable demand for marriageable women was never enough to entice very many.**

The “pull” arguments advanced by Ransome, Carr, and Walsh are limited by their focus on women’s positive experiences in America instead of on their pre-migration decision-making process. While it may be true that women were able to exercise greater power within their families because their productive and reproductive labor was so highly valued in the colonies, women in England remained skeptical, perhaps because they suspected that they would be put to work in the tobacco fields (Kathleen Brown, good Wives, Nasty Wenches, and Anxious Patriarchs, 82). “Pull” motivations are an important piece of the migration puzzle, but they remain unsatisfying for explaining why women were unwilling to migrate when they had both the opportunity (about 20% of adult women never married during the 17th century) and the means (in the form of passage-paid indentures).

David Cressy’s appraisal of migrants’ motives in Coming Over: Migration and Communication Between England and New England in the Seventeenth Century (1987), provides a useful model for extending “pull” arguments into more rewarding discussions. Rather than ascribing migration to the charms of the New World, he investigates the convoluted decision-making process of prospective migrants in England and argues that their manifold motivations and incentives were much more muddled than either pure “push” or “pull” arguments admit. Cressy rejects religious persecution as a “self-serving” narrative advanced by both colonists and historians searching for a useable past, neither of whom could admit that most migrants emigrated for economic gain or to escape personal troubles (debt, crime, bad marriages), and that some “crossed over in a casual or impulsive manner” (Cressy, 85, 98-106).*** By recognizing that uneasy conditions at home could prompt English subjects to contemplate alternatives, Cressy lays the groundwork for exploring why they were pulled to particular colonies.

Despite their flaws, the “pull” arguments do introduce an important idea: the American colonies provided economic and social opportunities for women as well as for men. Furthermore, all of the mainland colonies, even those that specialized in tobacco production needed and actively recruited white, female migrants. Beyond their value as companions and reproductive laborers, women were active, productive, and coveted workers whose industry contributed to the material wealth of the colonies.

*Alison Games finds that 13.6% of those bound for Virginia in 1635 were female. Games, 47. Carr and Walsh deliver one short paragraph to this question, suggesting that ties to families and communities in England, as well as their lower desirability as field workers accounted for limited female migration. Carr and Walsh, 546.
**Approximately one fifth of English women born between 1575 and 1700 never married. Those who did typically did not wed until the age of 26. see Amy M. Froide, Never Married: Singlewomen in Early Modern England, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), 2.
***Cressy does not discount the importance of migrants’ religious motives, but he does argue that their accounts of persecution were “a caricature of conditions in Caroline England.” Instead, he casts religious motivations for transatlantic migration as aspirational and secondary to economic concerns.

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