(WOMENSENEWS)–In her early 20s, Mary Dyer and her young husband left England, settled in Boston and began a family. Within four years, Mary had given birth three times. In 1637, the fourth child was stillborn and secretly buried. Dyer nearly died.
These events were common in early America. What happened afterward was not.
Among the women skilled in midwifery who attended Mary Dyer’s last labor was Ann Hutchinson, friend and troublemaker. A year later, Hutchinson, who had organized intellectual and theological salons for Boston’s women and believed God spoke directly to individuals–not through the intervention of the clergy–was put on trial for what amounted to subversion of male authority in church and state.
Hutchinson left those proceedings excommunicated from the Puritan church. Mary Dyer rose and walked out with her. Both rebellious women moved with their families to the more tolerant Rhode Island colony, leaving behind a vicious campaign against them led by Governor John Winthrop. A chance remark had brought news of Mary Dyer’s stillborn infant to the governor’s attention and he had the body dug up.
Winthrop used the body to demonize Dyer and her friends, including Hutchinson, as “unnatural” women. “Monster child,” he declared in broadsides loaded with lurid details, “talons instead of toes!”
Dyer heard ideas from George Fox, founder of the Religious Society of Friends, that reminded her of Ann Hutchinson’s ideas. The Quakers believed not only in the primacy of individual conscience, but in gender equality.
Mary Dyer later became a Quaker preacher and minister. But Massachusetts was off limits. As Quakers were arrested and threatened with death in that increasingly repressive colony, Dyer returned from Rhode Island several times to plead for their lives. In 1658, she was arrested and sentenced to die herself. As she stood on the gallows with two fellow Quakers, noose around her neck, a last-minute reprieve came through.
She was, however, once again, banished. And once again, she returned, determined to be a witness for freedom of conscience. This time–June 1, 1660–there was no reprieve. Surrounded by drummers to drown out anything she might say, she was marched to the giant elm on the Boston Common and hanged.
Today, two statues stand near the site–one of Ann Hutchinson, one of Mary Dyer–martyrs to freedom of belief.
Louise Bernikow is the author of seven books, including “The American Women’s Almanac.” She takes her lecture-and-slideshow about activist women’s history–“The Shoulders We Stand On: Women as Agents of Change”–to campuses and communities around the country.