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To Her Credit

'To Her Credit' cover image

To Her Credit

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

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.