Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Book 44: The Women of the House

The Women of the House: How a Colonial She-Merchant Built a Mansion, a Fortune, and a Dynasty My overall opinion of The Women of the House can be summed up with the word meh. I wanted to like it and it had potential but it failed to live up to that potential since it could be a jumbled mess at times.
Jean Zimmerman did some wonderful research into the period of 1685-1783 in relationship to New Holland/New York colony, the life of Margaret Hardenbroeck and the Philipse fortune, and fashion. It was wonderful to see how life in New Holland was so forward thinking for women’s rights. I never would have thought there was a choice for women to make with marriage: manus or unus. Basically the two different options mean the level of risk/involvement a woman would like to take in a marriage. Manus was where a husband basically provided guardianship and she couldn’t be involved into his debts and everything is pooled into one pool. Unus a woman had all rights she had before marriage and she’s equal to her husband. That’s so incredibly forward. It’s a shame after the British took over of New Holland, all marriages reverted to the manus status.

I really would have preferred if the book only focused on Margaret Hardenbroeck. Cause that was the most focused part of the book and the part most related to the central point of the book, the lives of women who controlled a fortune and dynasty. There were times that part one was a bit unfocused yet it was minor compared to the second half of the book. But that was balanced out by the wonderful research. It was great to see how Margaret really helped to build and create the Philipse fortune even after her unus marriage was converted into a manus marriage. She was an incredible force and I knew almost nothing about her.

The whole second half of the book, I hated. Even the best research couldn’t make up for the fact that women of the house became increasingly uninvolved with the money and way too concern about fashion and British life. It’s not surprising that after a few generations and the alignment with the British crown, the money was lost by the end of the Revolutionary War. Plus it drove me nuts was that the second half of the book talked more about the men and how they worked to maintain the fortune. If the book is called Women of the House, then focus on the women. But if you don’t have the ability to really focus on the women due to the lack of records, call the book the Philipse Dynsasty book. Call a spade a spade. When you can’t even figure out the year of death for one of your women focuses, you have a problem. I understand completely that in 1770s there was almost zero legal and historical records concerning the women since by law, it had to be done in the husband’s name. Plus it’s odd, that after part one focused on one woman’s life, that three women were lumped together into the second part. Plus Mary, wasn’t even the oldest sister- she just lost the most in the Revolutionary war.

In the end, the lack of organization just killed it for me. I wanted to like this book. Even though I learned a ton, it couldn’t make up for the organizational problems.

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