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To Her Credit

Women, Finance, and the Law in Eighteenth-Century New England Cities

Sara T. Damiano

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A transformative look at colonial women's pivotal roles as lenders and debtors in shaping the economic and legal systems of Newport and Boston.

In colonial Boston and Newport, personal credit relationships were a cornerstone of economic networks. During the eighteenth century, the pace of market exchange quickened and debt cases swelled the dockets of county courts, institutions that became ever more central to enforcing financial obligations. At the same time, seafaring and military service drew men away from home, some never to return. The absences of male household heads during this era of…

A transformative look at colonial women's pivotal roles as lenders and debtors in shaping the economic and legal systems of Newport and Boston.

In colonial Boston and Newport, personal credit relationships were a cornerstone of economic networks. During the eighteenth century, the pace of market exchange quickened and debt cases swelled the dockets of county courts, institutions that became ever more central to enforcing financial obligations. At the same time, seafaring and military service drew men away from home, some never to return. The absences of male household heads during this era of economic transition forced New Englanders to evaluate a pressing question: Who would establish and manage consequential financial relationships?

In To Her Credit, Sara T. Damiano uncovers free women's centrality to the interrelated worlds of eighteenth-century finance and law. Focusing on everyday life in Boston, Massachusetts, and Newport, Rhode Island—two of the busiest port cities of this period—Damiano argues that colonial women's skilled labor actively facilitated the growth of Atlantic ports and their legal systems. Mining vast troves of court records, Damiano reveals that married and unmarried women of all social classes forged new paths through the complexities of credit and debt, stabilizing credit networks amid demographic and economic turmoil. In turn, urban women mobilized sophisticated skills and strategies as borrowers, lenders, litigants, and witnesses.

Highlighting the often-unrecognized malleability of early American social hierarchies, the book shows how indebtedness intensified women's vulnerability, while acting as creditors, clients, or witnesses enabled women to exercise significant power over men. Yet by the late eighteenth century, class differentiation began to mark finance and the law as masculine realms, obscuring women's contributions to the very institutions they helped to create. The first book to systematically reconstruct the centrality of women's labor to eighteenth-century personal credit relationships, To Her Credit will be an eye-opening work for economic historians, legal historians, and anyone interested in the early history of New England.

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To Her Credit

Sara T. Damiano

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Reviews

Reviews

[Damiano] shows us a whole new way of looking at early America.

Damiano's careful reading of thousands of eighteenth-century debt cases reveals a vibrant world of women's legal and economic activities co-extensive with ordinary domestic routines and spaces. She shows that women's engagement in emerging credit and debt networks and their pursuit of legal remedies to protect their own and their families' interests helped to establish the groundwork for capitalism and the professionalization of law.

Showing how women did not just take part in dealing with but were intimately connected to all aspects of the credit economy, this book examines the gendered boundaries and wide variety of this participation. Drawing on court records, Damiano uncovers the rich and tangled connections that embedded women in daily economic dealings. An excellent and insightful book.

A fascinating exploration of the repertoire of roles played by women in the highly choreographed world of colonial household economy. Sara Damiano's exquisite readings of the fragmentary but abundant evidence of women's financial acumen show how it underpinned the development of the eighteenth-century seaport economy and the wider Atlantic trade.

Pressuring debtors, hiring lawyers, and dodging sheriffs was essential financial labor in the eighteenth century. Damiano's brilliant reconstruction of such activities in To Her Credit proves that this was women's work, as they secured households and local economies in a period marked by war and loss as much as by growing consumer prosperity.

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Book Details

Publication Date
Status
Available
Trim Size
6
x
9
Pages
312
ISBN
9781421440552
Illustration Description
16 b&w photos, 3 maps
Table of Contents

Series Editor's Foreword
Acknowledgments
Introduction
1. "To the advantage of herself & the honorable support of her Family": Women and the Urban Credit Economy
2. "She Hath Often Requested the Sum"

Series Editor's Foreword
Acknowledgments
Introduction
1. "To the advantage of herself & the honorable support of her Family": Women and the Urban Credit Economy
2. "She Hath Often Requested the Sum": Credit Relations Outside of Court
3. "And Thereon She Sues": Debt Litigation, Lawyers, and Legal Practices
4. "I saw and heard": The Knowledge and Power of Witnesses
5. "Laboring under many difficulties and hardships": The Problem of Debt and Vocabularies of Grievance
6. "According to your judgments": Redefining Financial Work in the Late Eighteenth Century
Conclusion
Appendix: Sources and Sampling for the Quantitative Analysis of Debt Cases
Notes
Essay on Sources
Index

Author Bio
Featured Contributor

Sara T. Damiano

Sara T. Damiano is an assistant professor of history at Texas State University.