As we gear up for a season of presidential campaigning, it is obvious, but worthwhile pointing out, that none of America's presidents have been women. Women serve as a small minority on the Supreme Court, in Congress, and on the president's Cabinet, but none has attained the nation's highest office. Most noted women in our political life are first ladies, such as Abigail Adams and Eleanor Roosevelt. Just last year, booksellers attributed the remarkable success of Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton's memoir to her "status as a dual symbol of female victimhood and power." During the four centuries since Europeans colonized America, that combination is as far as we've gotten.

But on Independence Day weekend, there is another worthy point, and a more easily remedied wrong, about the place of women in American history: none of the people we recognize as our founders is female.

The colonial rebel Anne Hutchinson, a tenth great grandmother of President George W. Bush, was a Puritan preacher's daughter, midwife, and mother of 15 from Lincolnshire, England. Born in 1591, Hutchinson crossed the Atlantic in 1634. In an era when no woman could vote, hold public office, or teach outside the home, she held meetings at which she interpreted Scripture and critiqued ministers' sermons before growing audiences of women and, eventually, men, including the colonial governor, Henry Vane.

By 1636 Hutchinson's power rivaled that of her next-door neighbor John Winthrop, Massachusetts's first governor. Winthrop derided her as "a woman not fit for our society," an "ally of Satan," and--referring to the ancient Israeli queen widely recognized as the most evil woman in the Bible--"this American Jezebel." Unable to silence her, he brought her to trial before the Massachusetts General Court in 1637 and had her banished as a heretic. A week later, she became midwife to the nation's first college when the court voted to build Harvard to fortify orthodox power and prevent a charismatic radical like her from ever again holding sway. Released from five months of imprisonment in 1638, Hutchinson walked to Portsmouth, Rhode Island, with more than 50 of her followers, becoming the only woman ever to cofound an American colony.

Last summer, as part of an exploration of her life and times, I rented a beach house in that coastal town north of Newport on the island for which the state was named. "Welcome to Portsmouth, Birthplace of American Democracy, established 1638," a road sign announces. The local public library displays household objects--clay pipes from England, Delftware pottery, spoons, thimbles, and a chamber pot--that she and her neighbors threw into a midden, or garbage heap, in the first half of the 17th century, according to Brown University archeologists who excavated the site. Our landlord mentioned that the elderly man who had discovered this site while walking his dog on the beach in the 1950s lived a few doors away.

I ventured to talk to him, and he offered me a tour. The site of the excavation was inaccessible on foot because of a tidal estuary, but he drew a map that enabled me to reach it in a rented kayak with my daughters the next day. Afterwards I thanked him for showing me the way to the isolated strand on which Anne Hutchinson lived. "You know," he said, "Anne Hutchinson had nothing to do with the founding of Rhode Island." I thought he was joshing me. "Nothing to do with it."

"What do you mean?"

"Her name isn't on any of the documents," he said of the woman who refused to stay in her place. To prove his point, he listed the signers of the Portsmouth Compact that in 1638 transferred ownership of this island from Narragansett Indians to 19 English settlers. They were Anne's husband, several of her sons and sons-in-law, and her strongest male supporters from Boston, who accompanied her voluntarily.

Of course her name isn't present. Women in early America couldn't sign land deeds or any legal documents. Female names appear in the paper record only at their births, marriages, and deaths. It is almost as though women did not exist in 17th-century America.

During most of Hutchinson's life she, too, was present mostly as an absence. As soon as the men of power in Massachusetts learned of her teaching and leadership, they brought her to court to silence or remove her. The only reason we know any of her thoughts is that she so irked these men that they recorded her every word at her two trials. Her power was by definition private, outside the public sphere. As a woman of power, she was an oxymoron. She had to be cast out.

Even with 20th-century improvements such as female suffrage and equal rights, the absence remains. "The problem of Anne Hutchinson," the scholar Amy Schrager Lang wrote in 1987, "is the problem of the public woman." I hope to see the day when John Winthrop will no longer be correct in observing, as he told Anne Hutchinson in 1637, that public power "is not tolerable [or] fitting for your sex."

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