Celebrating Women’s History; or heroines, hags, and badasses?

Sandra Frink

You might assume that in honor of Women’s History Month I am going to tell you about some notable heroines, hags and badasses from women’s history.

Not quite. I do want to discuss one woman in history: Hannah Dustin. Hannah has been hailed as a heroine, celebrated as a badass and derided as a hag. After hearing her story, I suspect you, too, will find an apt descriptor for her actions. I want to suggest, however, that these labels do little to help us contend with our past.

When I teach the history of women in the United States, I always have a few students who are anxious to get to the period when women really started to “do stuff.” They want to know about the activists, the rebels, and yes, the heroines. There are certainly a lot of those: Sojourner Truth, Eleanor Roosevelt (shout-out!), Dolores Huerta, and countless others. But many more women have been largely forgotten. One of those women is Hannah Dustin. You will not find her name mentioned in a high-school history textbook. You might assume she didn’t “do stuff.”

Hannah, for the first 40 years of her life, lived as many New England women did—clearing land with her husband near the village of Haverhill, raising eight kids, and engaging in the endless women’s work required to sustain a family in the seventeenth century. When I begin telling my students about her story there is interest, but her life to that point reflected that of many other colonial women.

I then tell them that in 1697 she was captured, along with her one-week-old infant and her nursemaid, Mary Neff, by the Abenaki, a Native American group, during a raid of the village. And this is when the students perk up: Not knowing the fate of her other seven children, she was force-marched 150 miles through the woods, during which time her infant was killed by the Abenaki. Hannah decided to act, helping her nursemaid, as well as a young man captured over a year earlier, to escape from their captors! [1]

“Oh!,” my students exclaim. “She is brave!” “She is strong!” “She is a heroine!” They are not the only ones to feel that way. In the wake of her escape, Hannah became the most famous and celebrated woman in the colonies. She was honored, no less, in Cotton Mather’s magisterial history of New England, the Magnalia Christi Americana, published in 1702.[2]

Hannah Statue
Hannah Dustin Statue, Penacook, New Hampshire

She also became the first woman in United States history to be honored with a statue, erected in 1874. Not content with that acknowledgement, another statue appeared in 1879. And her exploits continue to receive acclaim, though in decidedly less distinguished corners, having recently been deemed a “Badass of the Week” by a blogger.

And, yet, that is not the whole story. In order to make her escape, Dustin killed 10 of the Abenaki in the camp with a hatchet, including two women and seven children. What is more, after escaping she returned to the camp to scalp her victims, for which she received the hefty reward of 50 pounds from the General Assembly and many “Presents of Congratulations.” [3]  “Oh!,” my students exclaim again, horrified and a bit uneasy.

This part of the story has not stopped some from celebrating her feats. One of the statues depicts her with a fierce and determined countenance, holding a hatchet in one hand and the scalps in another. An 1861 history of Haverhill describes Dustin’s acts as spurred by “liberty, and revenge.”[4] Even today, The New Hampshire Historical Society continues to sell a Hannah Dustin bobble-head doll, complete with hatchet and the inscription, “The Mother’s Revenge.” And a script writer discussing plans to make a film of her life exclaimed that it was “the ultimate feminist story,” with “all the qualities of a hot Lifetime movie.”

Bobble Head

Not all have looked upon Dustin with such affirmation. In 1836, Nathaniel Hawthorne condemned Dustin, for true justice, in his eyes, could only have been rendered had the “bloody old hag…drowned” or “starved to death in the forest, and nothing ever seen of her again.”[5] Less gruesome, but no less adamant, protestations continue today. Her statues are often covered in graffiti; someone has even shot off her nose with a rifle. More importantly, the Abenaki people have mounted protests against the promotion of her actions, arguing that it perpetuates both racism and violence.

So, have you decided whether she is a heroine? A hag? A badass?

Well … don’t. While it may seem cathartic to make such pronouncements, in doing so we skirt the very reasons we study the past and ignore the questions we should be asking: about the consequences of colonialism; about constructs of gender; about violence; about our endless desire to find affirmation of ourselves in the past.

“So, have you decided whether she is a heroine? A hag? A badass? Well … don’t. While it may seem cathartic to make such pronouncements, in doing so we skirt the very reasons we study the past and ignore the questions we should be asking.”

We all know that our own lives, and the lives of those around us, are complex. We also know that the issues that sparked this event—oppression, discrimination, bravery, perseverance, violence, love, destruction, fear (to name a few)—remain personal, as well as national and global, concerns. So why do we want to distill the lives of those in the past to simple judgments? Instead, our discussions of Hannah Dustin, and of all women in the past, should engage in these more difficult issues—the kinds of issues we find ourselves still confronting today. Simply declaring her to be a “heroine” or a “hag” is the easy way out, and it should not satisfy us.

I teach Women’s History, and “celebrate” women’s history, because of these issues. And I teach at Roosevelt University because our students are willing and more than able to tackle them. So, hey, sign up for my Women’s History course! We can talk some more about Hannah Dustin and about the millions of other women whose lives are worth remembering. You will find out that women did a lot of stuff.

[1] Cotton Mather, Magnalia Christi America: or, The Ecclesiastical History of New-England, from Its First Planting in the Year 1620, unto the Year of our Lord, 1698, vol. VII (London: Printed for Thomas Parkhurst, at the Bible and Three Crowns in Cheapside, 1702), 91-92.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Mather, 91; George Wingate Chase, The History of Haverhill, Massachusetts, from its First Settlement, in 1640, to the Year 1860 (Haverhill: Published by the Author, 1861), 190-191.

[4] Chase, 193.

[5] Nathanial Hawthorne, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1906), 397. Available at The Walden Woods Project, https://www.walden.org/Library/The_Writings_of_Henry_David_Thoreau:_The_Digital_Collection/A_Week_on_the_Concord_and_Merrimack_Rivers. Accessed 1 February 2016.

Comments

  1. says

    Well written article! Dustin was neither heroine, hag or badass. She was a woman suffering from PTSD. Killing seven children, two women and one old man was not heroic by any means. It is a tragic event in history that followed and was caused in large part, by tragic events to the Abenaki, which you touched upon. Thank you.

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