The word ‘Puritan’ has been associated with prudishness, self-denial, buckle-shoed boredom, and hatred of sex for centuries. Broadly, we use it to refer to anyone who’s uptight or overly conservative. But the interesting thing is that the Puritans weren’t actually “Puritanical”—not the way we understand it today. For their time, they were downright progressive.
1. Their women’s only jobs were to have babies.
While men were considered the head of families, women were considered their husband’s spiritual equals. This was unheard of at the time. It was also common in Puritan society for women to not only run the family’s home life but to literally run the husband’s businesses and manage their properties. The concept of running “the home” wasn’t strictly relegated to a family’s literal house, as it has been in later American family unites. “The household” included everything the family owned, decisions made on education, work, and the management of businesses. They made decisions that determined the future of a family’s prosperity. This made Puritan women’s role far more similar to that of a chief operations officer than of a silent and matronly “good wife” servant.
2. Puritans didn’t like booze.
Puritans were beer lovers. Sam Adams Boston Lager is an ode to Samuel Adams, a Puritan statesman and founding father who came from generations of family who’d produced malt for beer making.
They were such beer lovers that toasting was banned in the New England colonies because it resulting in spilling and wasting the precious gift from God that was beer. When some people wanted to ban the sale of beer to Native Americans, the Puritans protested on the grounds that booze was too wonderful a comfort to deny them.
This is completely contrary to the joyless, fun-hating depictions in prominent American literature such as Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible” where the Puritans are characterized as superstitious, gossip loving, blood thirsty, and repressed. And while Miller himself admitted to knowing absolutely zero about what actual Puritans were like, the image he created took hold anyway because no one who saw the play or subsequent movies knew the truth either.
3. Puritans hated sex.
On the contrary, Puritans saw sex as a gift from God, and a husband who denied his wife sex could literally be banished from society. A husband’s impotence was grounds for divorce. The Puritans adhered to the biblical commandment from Corinthians that every sexual act within the confines of marriage was without sin and that a husband’s body was for his wife and a wife’s body was for her husband.
You were likely forced to read “The Scarlet Letter” in high school where the book taught you that Puritan women would be forced to remain celibate even after their husband’s were dead. Nothing could be further from the truth. Fictionalized storytelling involving Puritans often involves stressing extreme aspects of Puritan and early colonial life, much of which never happened. In the book, Hester Prynn’s husband is believed dead. As such, she would have been considered single and been not only allowed but encouraged to remarry.
However, that doesn’t make for as good a story.
4. The Puritans’ gold standard of purity was virginity.
In the 17th century, Catholics venerated virginity above marriage because it supposedly denied lustful feelings. It was deemed more virtuous to remain a virgin than to get married and give into your passions. To the Puritans, this was nonsense. Puritan writers expressly believed that the purpose of marriage wasn’t just to have babies by ‘doing your duty’, but that husbands and wives were literally “companions for pleasure.”
You can blame the later insistence on female virginity on the Catholic Church, not the Puritans.
5. The Enlightenment freed us from shame surrounding sex.
Much is made of the Age of Enlightenment and how people were finally freed by science from the shackles of religion. However, in terms of sexuality, nothing could be further from the truth. While a more naturalistic view of sex began to come to the fore as scientific study became more and more prevalent, any growing sexual freedom was solely the domain of men. Women were viewed by the Enlightenment community as frigid, passionless, and passive receptacles, because science.
Catholics, with their elevation of virginity above base procreation, were even more sex negative. This left the Puritanical notion that sex was great and important for men and women as literally the most positive view on sex of the entire Enlightenment period.
You can thank the trope that women don’t enjoy sex or care about it on ideas created and spread by those of the Enlightenment Age, not the religious and sexually satisfied Puritans.
6. Puritans didn’t care about art or beauty.
While many of the most recognized poets in the world today are women, this was still unusual during the Enlightenment and early American colonial period. Famed Puritan poet Anne Bradstreet was an extremely well-read woman, the daughter of a man who both insisted on her education and administered it. That she produced the body of work that she did all while raising eight children in a harsh environment that often meant her entire family lived in a one-room building suffering from hunger and fear of disease is a testament to the value Puritan culture actually placed on art.
That she wasn’t discouraged from setting aside her poetic work in favor of fulfilling what would have been seen in the early 20th century as the more traditional gender role of simply raising children speaks volumes regarding the respect she was given as an individual. Her book of poems “The Tenth Muse Lately Sprung Up in America” was the first book of poems by a woman ever both in America and England and was even read by King George III.
Additionally, there are literally more than a dozen famous Puritan poets including John Milton of Paradise Lost fame.
It’s easy to assume that everything that happened centuries before now was somehow regressive, but history seems to move in ebbs and flows. The Puritans are no exception to this rule. While obviously highly religious, they remain more progressive and open in some ways than many modern religious groups and even more than some people who hold no religion at all especially concerning sex where they exhibited a marked lack of hangups. How many people today think about it in such positive terms?