December 14, 2017

Dorothy Jones Cantrell, Colonial Feminist Troublemaker

To put a spin on a famous quote*, well-behaved women seldom inspire poetry. So meet Dorothy Jones!

Dorothy was a Welsh girl of 10 when she came to the American colonies with her family in 1682. Their voyage, on a ship called Submission, was rough, and another child on board died during a storm. Maybe that experience gave Dorothy a “carpe diem” attitude. She grew into a lively young woman who married Richard Cantrell, a Philadelphia bricklayer, “out of church.” In other words, she was Quaker, and he wasn’t. Her family likely tolerated her decision, even if the church did not. But that was only a tinge of her independent streak. Less than 10 years into their marriage and now a mother, Dorothy was brought before the grand jury for “masking in men’s clothes,” and walking and dancing so costumed, at a friend’s house, at 9 or 10 o’clock at night. In other words, Dorothy had a good time at a masquerade party just after Christmas and was probably back home in bed by midnight. The friend, John Simes, was also brought before the grand jury for running his household with such debauchery.

I’ve not been able to find exactly what happened to Dorothy before the grand jury. Sometimes penalties are listed in the record, but nothing is shown for her or Simes. But I’ve loved imagining what a stir she caused, whether her husband was with her at the party, and how this bit of excitement affected their relationship. Ultimately I decided to explore these imaginings in a poem from the viewpoint of the other women in the community – some who were likely cheering her on, and others who might’ve been horrified.

Thanks to the museum of americana for including “Questions from the Women for Dorothy, Wife of Richard Cantrell, Before the Grand Jury for Masking in Men’s Clothes, Walking, and Dancing at Nine O’Clock at Night, 1703” in Issue 13!

Dorothy Jones Cantrell, by the way, is my 9th great grandmother. I can’t say I’m as “prone to society” as she and her mother likely were, but I love being descended from this independent-minded woman with such a good story. There’s a fair amount about her on the web; here’s one good genealogy article.

* “Well-behaved women seldom make history.” – Pulitzer Prize winning historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich.

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