Inconsistent Roles Inconsistent Roles The Colonial era spans nearly two hundred years with each settlement in the New World containing distinctive characteristics. Location in the new world is one factor that shaped women’s lives but religion and economics also played a massive role. These roles however were constantly changing and often contradicting. Since there is numerous factors that contributed to the shaping of women’s private and public roles in the seventeenth and eighteenth century it is impossible to categories all colonial woman in one group. Some historians refer to this period as the golden age of women; however, I tend to see this period as oppressive, with only few examples of women exercising social and public powers.
The vast amount of women who came to the New World in the earliest days of colonial settlement came as indentured servants to the Chesapeake region. The New World was underdeveloped and sparsely populated; therefore, the women were expected to not only perform their traditional female work but also engage hard manual labor. Early colonial women in some respects were allotted more freedom than women of latter generations; yet, this was not a product of ideology, but rather necessity. European men did not support the idea of equality and saw women as their inferior; however, female inferiority was minimized due to the harsh conditions affecting the entire populous of the New World. The women who lived out the duration of their contract or who were bought out of servitude were quickly married and just as quickly widowed.
This factor granted women more power and access to land. Some widows would assert power through courts to guarantee claims to their deceased husbands land. Lois Green Carr and Lorena S. Walsh in The Planters Wife describe how many husbands left their entire estate to their widows entrusting them with the responsibility of managing his estate and dividing the land between their children. “A husband made his wife his executor and thus responsible for paying his debts and preserving the estate.” By today’s standards the practice of leaving property to a wife is the norm; yet, prior to seventeenth century this practice was virtually nonexistent. Carr and Walsh continue by stating, “Evidently, in the politics of family life women enjoyed great respect.” Therefore, while the Chesapeake colonies remained underdeveloped women enjoyed a limited kind of independence.
When the Chesapeake region stabled and became self-populating, life expectancy increased creating longer marriages and less widows. Land rights were restricted and the reestablishment of traditional gender roles emerged reverting to the “old way.” Patriarchy deepened with the southern man regarding himself as the lord of his domain, the master of his home. White southern women envied urban women because of the common belief that the household duties of the northern colonies were not as laborious. In contrast to the south New England colonies of the seventeenth century women did not come as indentured servants but rather with families to form a little commonwealth. The Puritans of New England created a patriarchal pattern of authority in which women played virtually no public role. The family structure was based on subordinate-superordinate relationships where the father was the unquestioned head of the Puritan household, to whom both his wife and children owed obedience. The ideal woman was a wife and mother. These roles of wife and mother could be extremely different between differing northern families. Beatrice Plummer of Newbury, Massachusetts lived an active life diligently performing her household duties.
Upon inspection of her home after her passing her and her husbands diet and lifestyle could easily be predicted. Besides the expected cooking and daily fires Beatrice engaged in numerous seasonal responsibilities. Autumn was the season of slaughtering, “Beatrice could well have killed the smaller pigs herself, holding their ‘hinder parts between her legs’ .. ” Elias Wear of York, Maine unlike Beatrice Plummer could not afford the necessities. Elias Wear lived in poverty resulting in the “blurred distinctions between the work of a husband and the work of his wife.” Traditional roles were not as rigidly defined when the survival of the family relied on mutual contributions of every member.
One aspect of life that Puritan women of the seventeenth century did have full domination of was birthing, male doctors did not interfere with the actual birth or any of the traditional rituals associated with birthing. Also Puritan women occasionally acted as deputy husbands where they would speak on behalf of their husbands when necessary. The men of Puritan society did not view this as an encroachment into their public sphere but rather as simply another expectation of “their” women. In terms of church governance, too, women played little or no role except on rare and anomalous occasions. Women who strayed from their roles threatening the establishment of the church were quickly put down.
Anne Hutchinson a well-educated Puritan in the mid-seventeenth century strayed from the traditional orthodox Calvinist theology. She denounced the belief of the fierce Puritan God who saved only a few church-going souls. Hutchinson was guilty of political treason for disagreeing with orthodox religious ideas and the fact that she was a woman added fuel to the fire. The male leaders were highly offended not only because of her crime but also because of her masculine sureness of mind that provoked other women to denounce their roles. The close of the seventeenth century in New England and specifically Salem marks a low for colonial women. The witch trails that plagued Salem in 1692-1693 focused on women. Women had always been viewed as more susceptible to the devil because of the story of Adam and Eve. Carol Karlsen’s work describes the type of women who are prime candidates for suspicion of witchcraft as women who “stood in the way of orderly transmission of property from one generation of males to another.” Karlsen suggests that the most important risk factor for a woman in accusations of witchcraft in the seventeenth-century New England was to be a widow without sons or brothers. Of the nineteen executed 90% were female thus enhancing the lower status of women.
The Quakers, another religious group, settled in Pennsylvania in the latter portion of the seventeenth century did not share in the views of the Puritans on issues of female subornation. Quaker women spoke at meetings and traveled extensively as preachers. Quaker women also had more parental authority in the home with the enormous task of transmitting faith to their sons and daughters. Quakers should be viewed as the exception rather than the rule in seventeenth century New England because they were the only group that embraced any notion of equality; no other groups seemed to have any desire to restructure themselves after Quaker society. During eighteenth century the colonies became more populous and stable reshaping women’s roles. In some cases roles that were established just decades before would be challenged. The consumer revolution that emerged during this era widened the gap between the wealthy and the poor creating a society that is separated not only by location but also by economics.
In the southern colonies during the eighteenth century there was erosion in the position of women. The strengthening of patriarchal family patterns was a result of a more favorable set of demographic circumstances. Southern women also lacked intense religion, therefore, they were not provided with a springboard into public action like their northern New England women and Quakers. The upper class women of New England had increased access to the public domain. They were better educated and literate allowing them to engage in discussions pertaining to the enlightenment. The lower class without the luxury of slaves or servants did not have the time to engage in these leisurely activities.
In general family life in the colonies were becoming more openly affectionate, more intimate, more emotionally intense, and less formal. This new value placed on the quality of emotional life made husbands and fathers loved rather than feared. This change began to erode the material base of patriarchy, and new value systems emerged to foster a more affectionate family. These changes, in turn, cleared the way for more public access for women, because they began to make possible a certain level of female autonomy. As for Quaker women the eighteenth century saw an extension of the prior century. Quakers remained the most advanced group in colonial society in regards to women’s issues. The Quakers pioneered the modern family, replete with political ramifications having to do with authority and consent.
The years just prior to and during the American Revolution incorporate both women and republicanism. When Parliament attempted to gain more revenue from the colonies in 1763 the people sprung into action creating a united state where every individual was expected to surrender some of his or her liberty to make their government possible. Boycotts started taking place in the earliest stages of the Revolution proving to be the most valuable tool, short of the war. These boycott of consumer goods could not take place without enlisting the cooperation of women. Women themselves documented their participation.
One woman wrote: Let the Daughters of Liberty, nobly arise And tho’ we’ve no Voice, but a negative One, The use of the Taxables, let us forebear, (Then Merchants import till yr. Stores are all full May the Buyers be few and yr. Traffick be dull.) Stand firmly resolved and bid Grenville to see That rather than Freedom, we’ll part with our tea And well as we love the dear Draught when adry, As American Patriots, -our Taste we deny. Women made agreements among themselves to boycott goods, and they circulated petitions addressing the issue of nonimportation. The boycott provided a bridge between the private world of the household and public realm of politics.
Kerber demonstrated that even though some women were emerging into politics, there was still ways in which older traditions of coverture presisted. Married women were seen as automatically partaking in their husbands’ political choices rather than being capable of independent choice. While the new state governments in general held woman capable of treason, thus granting them wills of their own in this regard, even patriots who were ardent revolutionaries shrank from suggesting that women married to loyalists should rebel against the will of their husbands and join the revolutionary cause. The revolutionary period was a time in which changing circumstances for women clashed with older traditions of woman’s invisibility. Women of the southern states had increased status during the early seventeenth century not because they were viewed as equal or deserving but rather because they were needed. By the eighteenth century southern women reverted to the “old way” when they were no longer vital to sustaining the population.
New England women were ruled by their husbands and by the church allotting them no rights but many duties. The loving families of the eighteenth century might have been more emotionally pleasing but still the women remained distant from the outside public realm. The Quakers shared in an exceptional amount of equally that was never adopted or accepted by the dominant classes in the colonies. The last years of the colonial era did allow for increased rights and autonomy for women but it still was tangled with contradictions and in no respect could be deemed as the golden age of women. American History.