Colonial Women

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Colonial Women

The story of the colonial era has usually been told as if white European males acted alone in settling North America. Prior to the mid-twentieth century, history books generally gave only slight attention to the lives of colonists who lacked access to power—servants, women, Native Americans, African slaves—thus creating wide gaps in the story of America. Yet without the efforts of these silent actors, the new country would never have been built. Scholars eventually recognized this fact, and during the 1970s they began collecting and publishing information about the daily existence and contributions of ordinary European settlers such as servants and other laborers. Anthropologists and ethnologists (scientists who study human culture) also retrieved a rich history of Native Americans dating back thousands of years (see Chapter 1). Efforts to piece together the story of African Americans were ongoing at the end of the twentieth century, producing a better understanding of slave culture (see Chapters 5, 7, 8, and 9). Similar efforts were being made to tell the story of colonial women—European, African, Native American—who worked hard to build their communities but remained essentially voiceless.

The idea that the New World (a European term for North and South America) was a place of unlimited growth, freedom, and opportunity did not necessarily apply to women. This chapter explores the context in which colonial women lived and highlights those who made their mark on American history. Not surprisingly, most of the documents from the period deal primarily with women of European descent because Europeans kept written records, whereas Native Americans and African Americans relied on oral traditions (stories handed down from generation to generation in spoken form). Few accounts remain of the lives of Native American women or female African slaves, and for that reason they are underrepresented here.

The first colonial women

In the early 1600s, before any European women came the New World, Native American women were experiencing profound changes as their communities increasingly came into contact with both hostile and peaceful European settlers, who would eventually displace or eradicate the native inhabitants of the country that became the United States. Native American women found themselves living in two worlds as the boundaries between outsiders and themselves increasingly disappeared. Many became translators and traded goods with these foreign people, often providing a financial and diplomatic service to both communities.

Cultural translators and resisters

Native women were adaptive and resourceful in dealing with the colonists. In times of peace they increased their production of goods for trade with the settlers and enhanced the sustenance and trading capabilities of their people. In times of aggression and violence, native women were also involved in the struggle against colonial forces. Many were sexually assaulted or captured by European colonizers who sought to destroy native culture and enslave native people.

Although most Native Americans initially welcomed Europeans, they eventually began to resist colonization in order to protect their own culture and traditions. This was particularly true in the case of religious conversion. Accounts written by Jesuit missionary priests (members of the Society of Jesus, a Roman Catholic religious order) in New France (presentday Canada; see Chapter 3) show that native women actively resisted Jesuit attempts to convert them to Christianity. The women openly mocked the priests, passing this attitude on to their children, who had to struggle even harder to retain an independent identity. Historical records show that native women tried to adapt to colonization without compromising their cultural, spiritual, and physical integrity.

The "village world, forest world"

Prior to the arrival of Europeans, most Native American groups

Pocahontas and Rebecca

The story of Pocahontas (c. 1595–1617) is one of the most frequently retold accounts of the early days of colonization. The Native American "princess," who was the daughter of Powhatan, the powerful chief of the Powhatan nation, became famous at the age of eleven. According to legend, in 1607 Pocahontas begged her father not to execute John Smith, one of the founders of the nearby Jamestown settlement, who was feared by the Powhatans. Chief Powhatan listened to his daughter's pleas and set Smith free, starting a new relationship with the settlers in which Pocahontas played a key role as a translator and sort of ambassador between cultures. Through the centuries many historians have cast doubt on the accuracy of this story, which Smith told in various versions. Nevertheless the legend of Pocahontas remains a favorite tale of the struggle between Native Americans and Europeans.

In 1613, after renewed local tensions, Pocahontas was kidnaped by the English and converted to Christianity. She took the English name Rebecca and, soon after her release, married an English tobacco planter named John Rolfe (1585–1622). Pocahontas traveled with her husband and son to England, where she was celebrated by the queen in the royal court as a heroine. She died in 1617 at age twenty-one from tuberculosis and pneumonia while onboard the ship that was taking her back to her native land. Her story gives us an idea of how strange and difficult it must have been to stand between two opposing cultures. One reason Pocahontas is so well remembered is that she renounced her native culture in favor of European life—which is also what killed her.

divided the work of men and women along similar lines. Men generally did the hunting and fishing, while women gathered foods like berries and nuts. But women also took charge of planting, caring for, and harvesting food in gardens and fields. In many tribes, women were also responsible for cutting firewood and other physically demanding work. Some even took charge of building houses, like the Pueblo women in the Southwest. Native American women did these jobs in addition to making pottery and clothing and performing other daily necessities. The Iroquois considered that women controlled what they called the "village world," while men were responsible for duties in the "forest world"—hunting, fishing, and defense.

Seeing native women working in the fields caused many Europeans to believe that Native American men treated their women like slaves. It is likely, however, that women enjoyed considerable authority because of the variety and importance of their roles. At the beginning of the eighteenth century, a missionary visiting the Iroquois wrote, "it is they [the women] who really maintain the tribe. . . . In them resides all the real authority" (John Demos, The Tried and the True, pp. 48–49).

Loss of status and support

The arrival of Europeans in the Americas changed life for Native Americans in many ways. One result of colonization was that Native American society moved from a clan structure to a nuclear-family orientation. In societies based on nuclear families (those composed of father, mother, and children), women lost the support of their clan and had to depend more on their husbands. And while clan life had been matrilineal (headed by women) for many tribes, within the new family structure it was the father who assumed control of property and made decisions for the family.

Relations between the sexes therefore changed in Native American society. The position of women began to resemble that of European women as patriarchal (male-dominated) habits and values were adopted. Decisionmaking power, for example, was one area where women began to have less influence than before. While clan governance had always been largely a man's arena, Native American women had often played an official role in tribal matters. For example, women elders (leaders) in each Iroquois clan had been responsible for selecting the chief, who represented the clan at tribal councils. After the arrival of Europeans, the new Native American systems of governance usually excluded women from political life entirely.

Finally, as trade with the Europeans became a more important source of income and goods for Native Americans, women's work in the village as artisans (skilled craftspeople) and gardeners was no longer as important. As life began to revolve around obtaining furs and other materials to trade for European-made goods, many traditional responsibilities of women—such as the making of baskets, clothing, and other articles for daily use, as well as the tending of gardens—gave way to a role as a helper in trade.

Earliest European women

The first European women who came to the colonies also faced a dual existence, leaving behind familiar traditions for what they hoped would be better lives in an unknown land. No women are known to have been in the so-called "First Supply" of settlers to Jamestown, Virginia, in 1607, and only two are believed to have been in the "Second Supply" a year later. The first group of settlers were men who came to explore a new world considered too rugged and wild for women. This would change as soon as the men realized the need to reproduce and the need for more laborers.

The first real wave of European women arrived in 1619 as indentured servants who worked on tobacco plantations in Virginia. Indentured servants were men and women from the working classes of Europe, mainly England (see Chapter 7). The 150 women who came to Virginia were mainly young urban women. They had signed contracts to work for an employer in the colonies for a specified length of time in exchange for free ship passage to North America and a few benefits when they completed their term of service.

The cost of passage was very high, and it took most of a woman's youth to pay off. Until they had fulfilled their contracts, indentured servants were "owned" and forced to labor under the same conditions as African slaves. By 1625, three-fourths of the original group of women had died from the hardships of the journey or the unending toil on the plantations.

Conditions improved slightly after critics in England charged that the servants were actually slaves. Laws were passed to make distinctions between white female servants, who were given mostly domestic tasks, and black female slaves, whose plight remained the same (see Chapter 6).

This strange new world

Women who came to the South as indentured servants found their new homes very different from those they had left behind. Many were used to living with their extended families on small plots of land. Suddenly they found themselves scattered throughout a vast colony among strangers under extreme living conditions. The roles that had neatly divided women from men at home were blurred by necessity in the plantation colonies. The intensity of cultivating tobacco required everyone to work long, grueling days in the fields. Housing was usually much cruder than what the women had known. Homes were typically 25 by 18 feet with dirt floors and offered none of the luxuries or accommodations that aided sanitation or comfort. Women had to make do with what little they had, sewing clothes out of coarse linen and wool and surviving on ground corn soup. They worked from morning until night for years, and few survived their indentures. Physical hardships made them more susceptible to diseases such as malaria (a disease transmitted by mosquitoes), pellagra (a disease characterized by dermatitis, gastrointestinal disorders, and central nervous symptoms), dysentery (a disease marked by severe diarrhea), and deadly fevers, for which there were no real cures at the time.

Having followed the promise of better lives, the women found themselves alone and completely responsible for their own welfare. In addition to enduring hard labor, they had to obtain food, attend to daily and long-term survival, and struggle to purchase their freedom. They survived, when they could, by any means available. Those who managed to do so carried their hard-earned independence into their new lives as free people. By the mid-1600s women were working as indentured servants throughout the colonies. Although conditions may not have been so grim in the north, women nevertheless encountered a difficult existence in their new home.

"unremitting hardships"

A letter written by Judith Giton records the conditions many women found when they arrived in the New World. She was fleeing the persecution of Protestants in France when she came to South Carolina as an indentured servant in 1685. Her letters tell of "unremitting hardships" and describe her life as filled with "sickness, pestilence [fatal epidemic disease], famine, poverty, and the roughest labor."

Source: Kamensky, Jane. The Colonial Mosaic: American Women, 1600–1760. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995, p. 25.

Slaves replace indentured servants

Several changes in the 1660s shifted the tide for indentured servants in the South and brought yet another kind of exploitation. There was a slump in tobacco prices, combined with rising wages in England and lower mortality (death) rates in the New World, just as women were starting to outlive their servitude and have families. In Virginia rebellions by the lower class against wealthy plantation owners were breaking out and threatening the entire social order (see "Bacon's Rebellion" in Chapter 5). These factors prompted plantation owners to begin using African slaves instead of white indentured servants and laborers. They had decided to rework the system rather than watch it crumble. The rich hoped that by giving freedom and small plots of land to the poorest white settlers they could stifle discontent without decreasing their profits. They also knew that importing slaves would create a new class distinction, elevating poor whites in status; slaves were now the permanent lowest class of workers, who had no hope of upward mobility. In a sense, plantation owners created a new solidarity based on whiteness, which turned poor whites against poor blacks rather than poor whites against rich whites.

A lifetime of servitude

The first African slaves, like the first European women servants, arrived in Virginia in 1619. Initially the slaves had an uncertain status and could eventually buy their freedom, just like indentured servants (see Chapter 7). By the turn of the century, however, their status had changed so dramatically that two-thirds of bound laborers in Maryland and Virginia were slaves doomed to a lifetime of servitude by laws called slave codes (see Chapter 6). Slaves experienced brutality and hardship on every level. They were forced to serve their owner's every need, working day and night to sustain the comfort and wealth of the ruling class. They barely had any time or energy left for their own sustenance. They struggled to survive the slave system and keep themselves alive physically, culturally, and spiritually.

Most slaves worked in the fields regardless of their age or sex, but as the plantation economy grew men were more often diverted into skilled labor, leaving the majority of the intensive field work to the women. Only 20 percent of female slaves were considered "indoor slaves" who worked as personal servants to their masters' families. Often female domestic slaves worked even longer hours than outdoor slaves and were more vulnerable to the abuse from their owners that was prevalent during this time. By the late 1600s African families were almost always separated. Female slaves found themselves raising their children under the cruelest and most hopeless circumstances, often to watch them be sold to another owner and never see them again (see Chapters 6, 7, and 9). They lived in even cruder conditions than those of the indentured servants they were replacing. Exploitation and abuse were rampant, and many women fought back against the cruelties forced upon them.

A different life in northern colonies

In the South the main lure to attract immigration (moving from one country to another) was the promise of economic advancement. By contrast the northern colonies were mostly pious religious communities seeking independence from intolerance and persecution back home (see Chapter 4). Settlers in the northern colonies were more likely to duplicate their old lifestyles, bringing traditions and gender roles with them (see Chapter 8). Most colonizers were extended families who formed religious communities (see Chapter 9). This tendency had consequences for women. Despite major economic and social differences between the North and South, most women in both regions spent lives of continuous toil and hardship.

Resisting Enslavement

Though few names and records exist of early slaves' lives, many performed courageous acts of resistance that made a mark in white colonial history. With the risks of sexual exploitation high, many African women rebelled against this type of abuse. Others used their survival skills to buy them some time or relief from their toil. "Mary" of Virginia faked fits to escape work. "Sarah" had an eleven-month pregnancy, which her owners viewed as a ploy to avoid working in the fields. Other nameless women went further and murdered their owners, set fire to their homes, and ran away in search of freedom. One woman was burned at the stake in 1755 for poisoning and killing the master who had raped her. "Hannah" ran away from the Stephen Dence plantation later in the eighteenth century. She was her master's illegitimate daughter, and her light skin helped her make it North. She used her long straight hair to hide the whipping scars on her back. Slave women survived against unthinkable odds, buying a little time here and there to sustain their children or plan their escapes. Most did not make it out alive, and many of their stories died with them.

Source: Kamensky, Jane. The Colonial Mosaic: American Women, 1600–1760. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995, pp. 42–43.

Life cycles of colonial women

Most women in the colonial era learned their roles and duties from their mothers at an early age. With no other form of education available, this was the primary guide for young women in all areas of life. Girls were expected to begin assuming some of their mothers' domestic duties at the age of twelve or thirteen. Although there were differences—between rural and city life, upper class and lower class, enslaved and free—certain general themes can be seen in women's life cycles throughout colonial society.

Daily toil

Women were kept busy from morning until night. Their responsibilities included cooking, baking, cleaning, sewing, preserving food, fermenting beverages (to make alcohol), spinning yarn, producing soap, making candles, raising children, and serving their husbands. In rural areas this list also included caring for livestock and poultry, milking cows, producing dairy products, and working in the fields or garden. If there was no mill nearby, they had to grind their own wheat or corn with a mortar and pestle to provide daily bread. All meals had to be cooked every day because there was no effective way to store leftovers. Laundry had to be done by hand two or three times a week. In addition to these everyday chores, women were responsible for seasonal work such as raising cattle (spring); making cheese, sausage, and bacon (summer); making preserves (fall); and sewing clothes (winter).

Making Clothes, Soap, and More

Making cheese, soap, clothing, and other essentials took a lot of time and energy. Making clothes, for example, required a spinning wheel and a loom, which were rare and expensive items. A loom was so large that it required its own room. Even if a housewife had these tools, she would spend long, tedious hours working for a small result. Yet there was still an advantage because she could produce necessities for her family and for trade. Before the barrel churn was invented in 1760, women had to make butter with a crude plunger and disk that required about three hours of constant agitation to produce a few pounds of butter. Soap and cheese were slightly easier to make, requiring only large vats or containers and some intensive labor. Soap was made by boiling potash and separating out the potassium carbonate, which was then mixed with animal fat. Cheese simply needed to be curdled and pressed to eliminate excess liquid before cutting it into blocks for consumption.

No relief in sight

Women's work was often tedious and repetitive, being both physically strenuous and boring. There was rarely a chance to break away from a life of toil unless a family became wealthy enough to hire a servant or buy a slave—in which case the woman's work would become managerial at the expense of another woman's toil. In bigger towns and cities, women could sometimes purchase some of the basic necessities, but they often had to work for a wealthy family on the side to obtain the cash to do so. Since women were always working, they had hardly any time to themselves. The few records from the colonial period indicate that women got little satisfaction from their work, and the general attitude was that women's work, like the pain of childbirth, was to be endured as a consequence of "Eve's curse." (According to the Old Testament of the Christian Bible, Eve was the first woman on Earth, and she gave in to sin in the Garden of Eden. Church leaders used this story to explain why humans have to endure hardship.) In times of limited educational opportunity, women were fairly resigned to this reality.

Diaries speak of hard lives

Middle-class women who had been taught to write often kept diaries that provide historians with insight into their experiences and emotions. A passage from Mary Cooper's diary, written in the 1760s in Oyster Bay, New York, reprinted in Jane Kamensky's The Colonial Mosaic is a typical example: "This day is forty years since I left my father's house and come here and I have seen little but hard labor and much sorrow . . . I am dirty and tired almost to death."

Even wealthy women who had servants to help them wrote in detail about the intense labor of their daily lives. For instance, Elizabeth Sandwith of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, was married to Henry Drinker, a prominent Quaker (member of the Society of Friends, a religious group). She gave birth to and raised nine children and kept extensive journals chronicling her life for more than five decades. Though she was aided by servants, her journals show that she was as busy and exhausted as women in the lower classes. Mary Vial Holyoke of Salem, Massachusetts, was a housewife whose diaries speak of her wealth and power as well as a life filled with chores. Even though she also had servants, Holyoke wrote extensively about butchering animals, churning butter, and planting and harvesting crops from her garden, all while leading a stylish social life. Accounts left behind by wealthy women only make more apparent the incredible hardships endured by the poorest white women and African women slaves, who had no hope of relief.

Literacy and education

For most of the colonial era, education was not available to girls, keeping female literacy rates extremely low until the latter part of the eighteenth century. When education was offered, it was usually for religious or domestic reasons (see Chapter 12). The Puritans (a religious group that believes in strict moral and spiritual codes) of New England, for example, taught all children basic reading skills so that they could read the Bible. Boys were required to learn reading, writing, and arithmetic, but girls were limited to needlework and reading. This prevented women from becoming involved in business or law. One exception was the Dutch colony of New Netherland (now New York), where both men and women were active in business and legal life. In this region 75 percent of the women could read and write by the late 1600s, in contrast to only 30 percent of women in New England and 1 percent of slave women in the South. Rural girls were not likely to receive schooling, and in the southern colonies the absence of a strong religious motivation to read the Bible made schooling almost nonexistent for girls. Daughters of the gentry (nobility), however, received some education so they could perform social duties as the wives of planters.

Legal status

In an era when few women had the opportunity to support themselves, marriage was the only chance for economic survival. However, a woman's status changed upon marriage, from "free person" to a "femme couvert," which meant that her legal status and civil identity were "covered" and controlled by her husband (see Chapter 6). Women in general also could not vote, own property, run for office, serve in the militia (citizens' army), or become ministers.

Some families created a trust (a property interest held by one person for the benefit of another) in order to protect their daughters' property. Without this provision creditors could take a wife's land and holdings from her as collateral for her husband's unpaid debts. Without a trust a widow could also find herself left with absolutely nothing if her husband's will passed her property on to creditors or his family members.

Though the concept of a trust may at first glance seem to be a positive protection for married women, the real goal was to protect the rights of male children and heirs. If a woman remarried after her husband's death, she typically lost all rights to the trust and her property went to her children or her husband's family. Puritans did not permit the use of a trust because they viewed it as a corrupt device invented by the English aristocracy in order to have two separate households, allowing the husband to keep a mistress (a sexual partner who was not his wife). They believed that marriage itself was the only protection a woman needed. To protect a wife from the most extreme form of property loss, the Puritans did permit a jointure (a marriage settlement). In this case the bride's family contributed a sum of money or land that was matched by the groom's family and set aside. Although the property in a jointure was still under the husband's management, it could not be used to pay off his debts and thus remained insurance for the wife and their children, especially in the case of a husband's death.

Marriage for slaves and indentured servants

Indentured servants and slaves were not allowed to marry. As a consequence, in the southern colonies servant women tended to marry later in life, after their indentures were worked off. A female servant could also get married if she found a partner who would pay off her indenture contract (see Chapter 7). Some poor women had greater freedom in choosing a mate because they had nothing to lose if their father or community disagreed (usually a woman's father and community members had to give their approval before she could marry). However, due to the shortage of women in the Chesapeake region, many were raped and impregnated during or after their indentures, which ruined their chances of a decent courtship or a choice of spouse. Between 1658 and 1705, one-fifth of all indentured maidservants in the Chesapeake region were officially charged with premarital pregnancies. With pregnancy outside marriage defined as a criminal act, women were frequently required to marry the men who had forced them into a sexual relationship or simply ostracized (cast out of society) and fined for their "crime." Similar laws existed in New England, where one out of ten women became pregnant prior to marriage for the same reasons. Slaves were not legally allowed to marry until 1705. Even then the unions were unofficial and unlikely to last because slave owners frequently split up married couples and sold them to different buyers.

The Dilemma of Martha Cross

In 1664 a young woman named Martha Cross, from Ipswich, Massachusetts, became pregnant without being married. The predicament she found herself in was compounded by the fact that the father, William Durkee, had no interest in marrying her. Martha was uncertain about what to do, so she consulted her father. Against the tradition of the day, he decided he would rather keep his daughter at home and help raise the child than give her away to a man who openly professed his indifference to her. However, the county magistrates overruled him and forced the couple to marry before the child was born. Courts often took this action to prevent unwed mothers from becoming a burden on the community. Their actions also reflected a strict legal adherence to biblical moral codes.

Duties and status in marriage

A married woman's responsibilities were to please her husband, bear children, and manage the household. She was considered to be inferior and was expected to obey her husband without question. It was especially important for a woman to comply with her husband's sexual advances, and as a result women spent most of their lives pregnant. Double standards concerning sexual morality punished women for the same acts allowed men. According to the Bible, a married man caught having an affair with an unmarried woman was simply considered a fornicator (one who has sexual intercourse outside wedlock). A woman in the same situation was charged with adultery (having sexual relations with one man while married to another), regardless of the marital status of her lover. The Puritans enacted the Scarlet Letter Law for exactly this purpose: a woman caught in an adulterous relationship was forced to wear a badge of shame, a red "A" sewn to her clothes, for the rest of her life. Punishment was even severer for a woman who got pregnant as a result of adultery; public whippings and standing on a gallows were common punishments in this instance.

Childbirth is dangerous

During the colonial period childbirth was a serious threat to a woman's life. Each pregnancy was a sort of time bomb, largely because women were frequently pregnant and lived under such harsh conditions. A woman weakened by years of toil and malnourishment (lack of food) was usually ill-prepared for the rigors of birthing, particularly if there were serious complications. The worst circumstance occurred when the child was trapped in the womb, requiring a cesarean section, during which the child was cut out of the mother. Since medical knowledge was so primitive at the time (see Chapter 14), these operations were excruciatingly painful and nearly always fatal to the mother. According to historical records, one in three women died before the age of fifty, many in childbirth.

If a mother was fortunate enough to survive childbirth, she had hardly any opportunity to rest. Very wealthy women could take a few days off, but most went back to work right away. In the South many women used a female slave as a wet nurse (one who breast-feeds an infant in place of the mother), but generally women breast-fed their own babies. Children were usually weaned between a year and eighteen months of age. Since most women had several children, they did not have time to give individual attention to each child. In addition, mothers had so many other responsibilities that child care was usually a low priority.

Nevertheless the birth of a child was an occasion that brought women together. While midwives (women who aid during childbirth) took charge of delivering the baby, female neighbors and relatives gathered at the mother's home to help, offer support, and socialize. Depending on the outcome of the birth, they celebrated or mourned together as well.

Escaping a bad marriage

A man's duties to his wife were to support her economically, be sexually faithful, and not go beyond the bounds of "necessary correction" in "disciplining" her. Men were expected to teach their wives to obey and be submissive through whatever means necessary. The only exception was if a man inflicted serious bodily harm, in which case a woman could appeal to the courts for a divorce or separation. The Puritans allowed divorce only on the grounds of adultery or desertion (the abandonment of a relationship without legal justification). Nevertheless this was a humiliating and expensive endeavor, requiring special acts of the legislature (governmental lawmaking body), that few women had access to. Some women ran away from abusive husbands to their families, or with another man, but in either case they lost all rights to their property and their children.

Elizabeth Montague: From Maidservant to Old Lady

Elizabeth Montague came from England to Virginia as an indentured servant in the 1650s and was twenty-five years old when she got married. She and her husband, Doodes, lived with his parents until they could save enough money to buy a few acres of their own. As soon as they moved, Elizabeth started giving birth to children, one after the other. She had six children, three of which survived. In contrast to her own experience, her daughter married in her early teens, surrounded by suitors, in a time when marriageable women were scarce. Elizabeth lost Doodes at an early age and remarried two times, outliving both her second and third husbands and all three of her children. She died at the age of fifty-two, which was considered extremely old at the time.

Mental cruelty was not legal grounds for divorce. Only if a woman feared for her life and showed some capacity for economic survival outside marriage would a court grant her a divorce. More often than not the courts viewed a divorced woman as such a burden on society that they refused divorce requests. Male legal authorities considered the moral, legal, and financial implications of a broken family much worse than an abused wife. Records show very few actual divorces were granted during the colonial period, on average there was one divorce a year during the entire seventeenth century.

Records also show that many women were abused. For instance, in 1736 Jane Pattison of Maryland begged authorities to grant her a divorce on the grounds that her husband beat her ferociously. Her claims were supported by her neighbors and family, all of whom were deeply concerned for her life, and she apparently received her divorce. Rachel Davenport of New Amsterdam (now New York City) was also beaten for several years until she could no longer bear it. Fearing she would be killed by her husband, she was granted a divorce in the 1670s. Also on the books are examples of women who "stepped out of line." They faced stiffer penalties than those given to men. Joan Miller of Plymouth, Massachusetts, was charged with beating and reviling (verbally abusing) her husband and encouraging her children to help her. She had to pay a fine. Goody Lawrence of Massachusetts was censured (criticized) in court for calling her husband a "bald-patted old rogue."


The only way in which a woman might escape direct male domination was through widowhood. Several consequences were possible if a woman was widowed, although laws differed slightly throughout the colonies. Often the death of the husband signified the end of the family unit. For example, if a man's wife died, he naturally gained access to all of her property. If a woman was widowed, however, she received just a small amount of her husband's property and the family was dissolved. At the beginning of the seventeenth century, a woman was legally entitled to one-third of her husband's property and lifetime use of one-third of his estate. By the eighteenth century a woman was entitled to one-third lifetime use of his estate, but access to his property was limited to his clothing. This shift reflected the increased use of British common law (the body of law developed in England that constituted the basis of the English legal system) in the colonies, which made much narrower provisions for women's rights.

Most inheritances were nowhere near a fortune, and a widow had to work any land or property herself to make any kind of a living. She was not able to sell the property because it never legally belonged to her. She occupied her husband's land as a temporary tenant until her own death or remarriage. Many men anticipated the difficulties of economic survival for widows, so they provided for their wives by stipulating that their eldest son was responsible for his mother. Women who could not survive on their inheritance thus became dependent on their sons, essentially repeating the role they had with their husband. Frequently, out of true compassion for his spouse, a man redefined the legal terms of her inheritance and ensured she would get at least half of his property.

New Netherland the exception

The Dutch colony of New Netherland granted exceptional legal rights to widows. There a woman stood to inherit and own her husband's entire property for her own use or sale. In the event that she remarried she was still legally entitled to half of what had been his. This had profound implications because a widow could provide for herself, cash in on the land, or even start her own business. Even after the English takeover of New Netherland in 1664, Dutch custom governed social and legal norms for women in this region (see Chapter 6). Because of Dutch traditions that required women to be business partners with their husbands, women in New Netherland enjoyed more freedom than women in other colonies. Though still viewed as subordinate, a woman could own her own business, have an inheritance equal to that of her brothers, sue on her own behalf, and make a will leaving property to whomever she chose. In extreme cases she could even sue her own husband in court. Naturally, New Netherland women prospered at a much higher rate than their counterparts throughout the rest of the colonies.

Maria van Cortlandt van Rensselaer

Maria van Cortlandt van Rensselaer was an upper-class housewife who lived in the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam. When her husband died she became the overseer of his family's estate, Rensselaerswyck, so that her children would have an inheritance. Van Rensselaer was raised in the tradition of seventeenth-century women in the Netherlands, who were considered the freest in Europe. This freedom was the result of their being educated and trained to manage household accounts and to take over the family business if they were ever widowed. Dutch women in the New World were also expected to hold on to the family's wealth so that their children would have an inheritance. Van Rensselaer lived her life in accordance with these expectations and thus was able to keep one of the largest estates in New York secure for her children.

Women and religion

One crucial aspect of a colonial woman's life was her experience with religion. Regardless of the denomination, all religions had some effect on women's roles in society because religion was the basis for morality and law at the time. Stories in the Old Testament (the first part of the Christian Bible), for example, showed the dangers of allowing a woman too much freedom. In this case Eve, the first woman, was evicted from paradise because she could not resist the temptation to eat the forbidden apple, which represented sin. This simple story had an enormous impact on women's lives because women were considered sinful, even evil, by nature. Sermons, laws, and social opinion reflected the idea that women were living out some form of punishment for Eve's original sin and that they should never again have the freedom to repeat this sort of offense against God.

The Puritan way

New England was populated mostly by Puritans, who based all laws and customs on the Bible. One of the most popular topics of discussion in Puritan society was the nature of women. Between 1668 and 1735 at least seventy-five printed treatises (a formal, written account) were written on women's lives and roles. Many of these concentrated on Eve's original sin as the rationale for keeping women silent and submissive. Only a few Puritan leaders gave a different perspective in their sermons. As women became the majority of the congregations (groups of people gathered to worship) in most communities, sermons rejecting the inheritance of Eve's sin became popular among common people. One preacher, John Cotton (1585–1652), taught that in a godly society women were an asset rather than a necessary evil. He viewed women as joint heirs to salvation (forgiveness of sins) and saw marriage as a chance for both men and women to find sweet companionship. Cotton's sermons drew women to the church in such great numbers that by the mid-1670s they made up well over half of every Puritan congregation. Even though their status remained inferior, many women clung to the idea of moving on to a better place and waited out their time on Earth in hopes of going to heaven. One of Cotton's followers was Anne Hutchinson (1591–1643), who was excommunicated from the church and banished from Massachusetts as punishment for criticizing the Puritan power structure (see "Religious dissent: The Anne Hutchinson trial" in Chapter 5).

Religious Ecstasy

Sarah Piedmont Edwards was the daughter of a prominent Puritan minister in New Haven, Connecticut. At age seventeen she married Jonathan Edwards, a Harvard-educated minister. She was known and respected for her intense religious fervor and piety, which her husband encouraged her to write about. Once she heard an extremely moving lecture by Puritan minister Samuel Buell, which gave her such a surge of joy that she stayed up the entire night experiencing a state of ecstasy and a "perfect union with god." Edwards became famous for her spirituality and preached widely until her death in 1758. This religious experience gave her a voice in a community that usually did not grant such freedom to women.

The Society of Friends

The Society of Friends, or Quakers, as they called themselves, were radically different from most other religious groups in colonial North America. They granted women autonomy and equality, believing that anyone who felt the "inner light" of God could become a lay minister. Out of the fifty-nine Quakers who arrived in America in 1656, twenty-three were female preachers. Margaret Fell, one of the early Quaker leaders, argued that the Eve story was irrelevant to godly people who had experienced "the light." The Quakers were quickly banned from New England and pushed south toward the middle colonies, where a diverse array of immigrants had created a more tolerant society. In 1681, King Charles II granted huge areas of land along the Delaware to Quaker William Penn (1644–1718), and many Quakers moved en masse to what would become Pennsylvania (see Chapters 4 and 11). They started what they called "The Holy Experiment," and by 1715 they had gathered twenty-three thousand immigrants (people who move to another country) from many denominations to live in their new settlement, which spread from Pennsylvania to parts of Delaware and New Jersey. This area became known for the encouragement of female participation by preachers who claimed that "in souls there is no sex."

Quaker women started holding their own meetings (religious services) so they could express themselves freely and take care of community business. Penn stated his opinion on the matter in his pamphlet Just Measures (1692): "Why should women meet apart? We think for very good reason . . . women whose bashfulness will not permit them to say or do much, as to church affairs before men, when by themselves, may exercise their gift of wisdom and understanding, in a direct care of their own sex."

Mary Dyer Challenges Puritans

Mary Dyer (d. 1660), a former follower of Anne Hutchinson, traveled to England in 1652 and became a Quaker. She returned in 1657 to preach the Quaker doctrine in New England and was quickly hounded out by Puritan ministers. She went to New Haven but continued to return to Boston, Massachusetts, and attempt to convert the Puritan masses. Each time she returned she was forcibly removed until the Puritans decided she should be hanged in public for disobeying their authority. As she was being led to her execution the sentence was dropped and she was banished instead. She returned for the last time in May 1660 to protest the Puritans' outlawing of the Quaker faith. This time she was finally hanged for her crime of trespass, as ordered by Puritan leader John Endecott. Today Dyer is considered a symbol of religious freedom.

Southern Anglicanism

Southern women enjoyed even less power to speak out in their communities than their Puritan sisters up north. Though high mortality rates made it difficult for the Anglican Church (the official religion of England; also known as the Church of England) to become established, it became more popular as the southern colonies began to prosper (see "Church of England [Anglicanism]" in Chapter 11). Southern Anglicanism was supported by taxes and gave power to elite laymen (unordained religious leaders) called vestrymen, thus allowing the church to grow virtually unchallenged. Governed by the instruction of Saint Paul (one of the prophets in the Bible), which ordered women to be silent, the Anglican Church offered women nothing but the role of quiet piety and obedience. They believed strongly in women's innate (inborn) inferiority and felt that women needed instruction from men on matters of life and religion.

Exceptional women

It is clear that certain aspects of colonial life reinforced the subordination of women. Marriage, religion, childbirth, the law, and social views served as powerful constraints to women's advancement as individuals. However, against these odds, women throughout the colonies led lives outside convention. They became merchants, innkeepers, teachers, plantation owners, and renowned poets. It is important to remember, however, that some of the women who made names for themselves did so because they took advantage of slave labor or independent wealth.


Wealthy urban businesswomen who were widowed or remained unmarried were referred to as "she-merchants." Some opened small grocery stores that sold tea, coffee, spices, salt, sugar, tobacco, and liquor. Others sold goods ranging from fine clothing to farm equipment. In the eighteenth century several women ran bakeries or coffeehouses. These shops became quite fashionable in urban areas for the "entertainment of gentlemen," providing chocolates, newspapers, and coffee.

Mary Taney's Plea

Mary Taney, the wife of the sheriff of Maryland, wrote a letter to the Archbishop of Canterbury, the spiritual leader of the Church of England. She felt her community was in great distress because of the corruption of local leaders and the lack of an official place of worship. Therefore she asked the archbishop for money and a minister to start a church. Her plea went before the king of England and was granted immediately. Although church authorities in her colony would have ordered her to be silent, Mary made her voice heard by a monarch all the way across the Atlantic Ocean.

Elizabeth Murray Smith established what was called a millinery, or dry goods shop, in Boston, Massachusetts, before marrying a prominent local merchant. She returned to the business after her husband's death and drafted a prenuptial agreement before she married again, stipulating her right to stay in the trade. Her business did so well that she became one of the wealthiest people in Boston. Smith was dedicated to encouraging other women to sidestep traditional roles, and she funded small businesses and education to help them get started.

Rural businesswomen

In less urban settings women owned and operated taverns or inns, renting out rooms in plantation homes or in smaller houses on trade routes. Liquor licenses were easily acquired by women who showed some degree of managerial know-how. Many community leaders chose to give women some degree of financial independence rather than risk their becoming a burden on the community. In the southern colonies some women ran entire plantations without a husband or father. Margaret Brent (c. 1600–c. 1671) arrived in Maryland in 1638 as an independent heiress. She chose to remain single, thereby retaining her status as an independent person, or "femme sole." She developed several plantations and was so widely admired that Governor Leonard Calvert granted her power of attorney over his property while he was away and made her the executor of his will.

Elizabeth "Eliza" Lucas Pinckney (c. 1722–1793) also found success in the plantation economy. The daughter of army officer George Lucas of South Carolina, she was given many responsibilities while he was away on military service. She was only seventeen years old when she took over his three large plantations, which spanned more than 5,000 acres. She experimented with different crops and plants from the West Indies and was responsible for the importation and cultivation of indigo (a plant used to make dye) in the colonies. By 1748 she had spread the crop throughout the region and made it profitable not only for her plantations but for others as well. By the time Pinckney died of breast cancer in 1793, indigo had become the main export crop in South Carolina.

Some women found themselves thrust into their late husband's enterprises without warning. For instance, Dinah Nuthead inherited control of her husband's printing press. She took over St. Mary's Press in Maryland with such flair and dedication that she was appointed as the printer for the Maryland assembly. Elizabeth Timothy of South Carolina inherited a similar fate when her husband died and left her with the South Carolina Gazette. She successfully ran Charleston's first newspaper while raising seven children on her own.

Changing laws for women South Carolina was the only colony in which the issue of women in business was seriously addressed. In 1712 the assembly passed a law allowing women to sue and be sued as "femmes sole" in order to give them more equitable legal status and prevent them from escaping creditors. Although Pennsylvania enacted a similar provision, it was granted only temporarily to a woman whose husband was gone for long periods of time. The permission was withdrawn upon his return.

Teaching presented fewer commercial or legal difficulties for women than business. Many communities that could not afford a "qualified" instructor paid a local woman to educate their children. Though the women's schools at first were little more than nurseries or orphanages, they earned money and eventually some of them expanded into boarding schools for the elite. For instance, Sarah Kemble Knight (1666–1727) of Boston was able to pursue her career as a teacher and writer because she had only one child and a supportive husband. Literate and educated, Knight started out by teaching penmanship and reading to local children. After her husband's death she ran a boardinghouse in her home, opened a shop, and traveled extensively throughout the colonies on business. She then moved to Connecticut, buying property in Norwich and New London. From 1714 until her death, she operated a shop and a house of entertainment, managed many farms, and conducted business with Native Americans. When Knight died she left an estate worth 1,800 pounds—a sizable fortune in those days.

Susannah Cooper Beats Odds, Bends Law

When Susannah Cooper was married in Virginia in 1717, she brought her husband a huge dowry. Within three years he had deserted her, leaving behind a massive collection of debts. She rose to the occasion and continued to run the plantation they had started, making it a success. Nevertheless, because she was still technically married to her husband, she could not sell any of her assets, sue trespassers on her property, or even make a will in favor of her children. This prompted the Virginia assembly to pass a private bill on her behalf, granting her status as a "femme sole" so she could operate her business as an independent person. Similar provisions were sometimes made in the colonies to enable other women to run their plantations and businesses. Yet for the most part the law created severe obstacles for women.

Poets and captives

Several women made their marks on colonial history by publishing poetry or writing accounts of their lives. Anne Bradstreet (1612–1672) remains one of the most famous women of the colonial era. Born in England and schooled by tutors, she had the advantage of an early childhood education. At the age of sixteen she met and married Simon Bradstreet, who would be her partner for life and the subject of many of her writings. They moved to Massachusetts together, and her poetry was eventually published. Some of her writings, ironically, reinforced the importance of women's domestic roles and subservience to their husbands. Bradstreet's poem "To Her Husband Absent on Public Employment" praises Simon as the ruler of her life and home. He was a supportive and financially stable husband, treating her as a partner in life. Her collection of poems, The Tenth Muse Lately Sprung up in America, was published in 1650, receiving critical acclaim, and it remains one of the most widely read works from this era (see Chapter 13).

A few women lived to tell their stories after being taken captive by Native Americans during times of conflict. One of the most famous was Mary White Rowlandson (c. 1635–1711), who lived in rural Massachusetts at a time when tensions between English colonists and a confederacy of Native Americans were running high. In 1676 Rowlandson's tiny village was attacked while her husband was away. After one of her children was killed, Rowlandson and her other two children (all of whom had been wounded) were taken captive with twenty-one other townspeople and marched into present-day Vermont. Separated from her children, she lived with the Native Americans for eleven weeks before she was ransomed by her husband and returned home. Rowlandson's writing skills enabled her to put her story in print. With the publication of The True History of the Captivity and Restauration of Mrs. Mary White Rowlandson in 1677 and again in 1682, she became a popular heroine in the colonies and England.

Hannah Duston (1657–?1736) was another frontier woman who was taken captive by Native Americans. She was living near Haverhill, Massachusetts, with her husband, Thomas, a farmer and bricklayer, when warriors attacked the town on March 15, 1697. Duston had recently given birth to her twelfth child, and a neighbor, Mary Neff, was helping out during her recovery. Thomas witnessed the raid while he was working in the fields. As the war party approached the farm, he took his eleven older children to a safe hiding place. However, he could not rescue his wife, Neff, and his infant son. The captives were taken north toward Canada, and during the march the warriors killed the baby. Eventually they stopped at a Native American settlement on an island off the coast of New Hampshire. There Duston and Neff met Samuel Lennardson, an Englishman who was also a captive. When the three prisoners were told that harsh punishment was in store for them, they decided to fight for their lives. During the night of March 30, Duston and Lennardson attacked their sleeping captors with hatchets. Lennardson killed one Native American and Duston killed nine others. As Duston, Lennardson, and Neff started to run away, they realized the settlers at Haverhill might not believe their story. So they went back and scalped their victims. After they returned to Haverhill they took the scalps to the General Court in Boston as evidence of their daring feat. Duston received a cash reward and became an instant heroine in the region by writing and speaking about her story.

The people who chose to stay with Native Americans Both Mary Rowlandson and Hannah Duston became famous for something other than their piety (devotion to God and family) and silence, which was the usual acclaim given to women of their area. What is interesting, however, is that out of the many people who were kidnaped during these times of conflict, many chose not to return at all. Most captives were women and children, and records show that one-third of them chose to stay with the Native Americans. This became so prevalent that several decades later French traveler J. Hector St. John Crévecouer wrote, "Thousands of Europeans are Indians but we have no examples of even one of those aborigines having from choice become Europeans."

Eunice Williams was kidnaped at the age of seven in 1704, along with her parents and four siblings. They were taken to Kahnawake, a Mohawk village near present-day Montreal, where they stayed for nearly three years until their release in 1707. When they were set free, Eunice chose to stay with the village. She grew up to marry a Mohican, changed her name to Marguerite A'Ongote Gannenstenhaw, and gave birth to three children. She remained in contact with her family, who pleaded with her to return throughout her life. She lived to be ninety-five years old and by all accounts never once regretted the choice she had made in her youth.

Is life better for women?

By the end of the colonial period the non-native population of the colonies reached 2,500,000 people, 65 percent of whom were slaves. The population boom of the eighteenth century had many repercussions on women's lives. For poor families the increase meant lower standards of living and having to make do with less. Up to five generations of one family could be crammed onto a tiny plot of land. The average size of a plot in 1650 was 150 acres; by 1750 this was reduced to 50 acres. Poor families could promise their children little in terms of future land or wealth. For daughters this also meant parents had less control over their marriage choices. By 1750 there was a 40 percent premarital pregnancy rate throughout the colonies, reflecting this shift in control. Though women had slightly more freedom to choose partners themselves, once married they had to survive on fewer resources. They faced a harsher existence than women had experienced in the seventeenth century.

Rich versus poor

One of the factors that made a difference was the existence of the wealthy few in contrast to the expanded poverty. The well-to-do elite in urban centers stood out as bitter reminders to the poor. Wealth was flaunted as poverty spread, creating social unease. Diversity in the cities was marked by contrasts in power. Poor or rich, black or white, enslaved black or freed white—all lived side by side in cramped conditions. In the same way that plantation wealth suppressed servants and slaves, the social structure of cities exploited the poor. Even the freed slave or former indentured servant was reduced to virtual slavery by wages that provided little chance for survival. Many women ended up homeless, and cities were forced to open almshouses to care for them and others who could not support themselves.

Women on the eve of revolution

On the eve of a massive national struggle for freedom and independence from British control, colonial America still had little to offer women. Women watched men across the colonies proclaiming their struggles for emancipation (freedom) from tyranny while slaves continued to be shackled and women continued to lead hard and bitter lives. Although some women managed to claim a voice through preaching, writing, escaping abusive masters and husbands, or choosing not to marry, many were living in conditions very similar to those their grandmothers had faced. Women were still giving birth endlessly and spending every hour of the day doing backbreaking work. The people who ruled them continued to be male, and they still were not receiving expanded opportunities for education. Furthermore, the increased use of slavery throughout the colonies pushed a significant percentage of the female population back into their most domestic roles.