The Role of Women in the Colonies

The Role of Women in the Colonies

Women played an integral role in the development of colonial America, despite having few legal rights.

Learning Objectives

Discuss the role of women in the colonies

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The experiences of women during the colonial era varied greatly from colony to colony and among different ethnic groups.
  • Among Puritan settlers in New England, wives almost never worked in the fields with their husbands. In German communities in Pennsylvania, however, many women worked in fields and stables.
  • Generally, colonial women were expected to be subservient to their fathers until they married, at which point they became subservient to their husbands.
  • As the values of the American Enlightenment were imported from Britain, slightly more liberal conceptions weakened the view that husbands were natural “rulers” over their wives; however, women continued to have very few rights.
  • The typical woman in colonial America was expected to run a household and attend to domestic duties such as spinning, sewing, preserving food, animal husbandry, cooking, cleaning, and raising children.
  • Martha Ballard was an American midwife and healer whose diary, in which she wrote thousands of entries over nearly three decades, has provided historians with invaluable insight into the lives of women in the colonial era.

Key Terms

  • husbandry: The management and care of farm animals by humans.
  • Puritan: A group of English Reformed Protestants in the 16th and 17th centuries who sought to reform the Church of England from all Roman Catholic practices.

The Status of Women Throughout the Colonies

The experiences of women during the colonial era varied greatly from colony to colony and among different ethnic groups. In New England, for example, the Puritan settlers brought their strong religious values with them to the New World, which dictated that a woman be subordinate to her husband and dedicate herself to rearing “God-fearing” children to the best of her ability. Among Puritan settlers in New England, wives almost never worked in the fields with their husbands. In German communities in Pennsylvania, however, many women worked in fields and stables. German and Dutch immigrants granted women more control over property, which was not permitted in the local English law. Unlike English colonial wives, German and Dutch wives owned their own clothes and other items and were also given the ability to write wills disposing of the property brought into the marriage.

Often, women were taught to read so that they could learn the Bible, but few were taught to write, as it was thought there was no reason for a woman to know how to write. A colonial woman was expected to be subservient to her father until she married, at which point she became subservient to her husband. Ministers often told their congregations that women were inferior to men and more inclined to sin and err.

Much later during the colonial experience, as the values of the American Enlightenment were imported from Britain, the philosophies of such thinkers as John Locke weakened the view that husbands were natural “rulers” over their wives and replaced them with a (slightly) more liberal conception of marriage. However, women continued to have very few rights. They were not allowed to vote and lost most control of their property (if they had any to begin with) in marriage. They could not divorce, and even single women could not make contracts, sue anyone, or be sued, at least until the late 18th century.

In 1756, Lydia Chapin Taft of Uxbridge, Massachusetts, became the only colonial woman known to vote, casting a vote in the local town hall meeting in place of her deceased husband. From 1775 until 1807, the state constitution in New Jersey permitted all persons worth 50 pounds who resided in the state for one year to vote; free black people and single women therefore had the vote until 1807, but not married women, as their property ownership was invariably limited.

The Role of Housewife

The typical woman in colonial America was expected to run a household and attend to domestic duties such as spinning, sewing, preserving food, animal husbandry, cooking, cleaning, and raising children. Families tended to be large, and childbearing could be dangerous prior to advancements in medicine and health care. A responsible housewife was supposed to be resourceful with her family’s budget, which led to manufactured goods being a vital contribution to the success of a household. Home manufactured goods such as dairy products and textiles were usually created by women, while the woman’s husband was the owner of the goods and received whatever money they sold for.

When necessary, it was the responsibility of the colonial housewife to help her husband in agriculture or artisanal endeavors. Mothers were also responsible for the spiritual and civic well-being of their children. In the colonial era, the commonly held idea was that good housewives would raise good children who would become upstanding citizens in the community. As a wife, the woman was to be dutiful, obedient, faithful, and subservient to her husband. Legal statutes and societal norms allowed for husbands to exert power over their wives, which could result in violent circumstances. Some housewives were able to file for divorces, but these instances were not the norm.

The paining depicts Isaac Royall with three women and a small child. Royall stands; the women are seated at his side. All are dressed formally in the fashion of the times, with the women in low-necked gowns with ruffled sleeves and Royall in a long coat and a white ruffled cravat.

Isaac Royall and his family, 1741 portrait by Robert Feke: Women in colonial America typically held the role of housewife and were responsible for domestic chores and child rearing.

The Diary of Martha Ballard

Martha Moore Ballard (1735–1812) was an American midwife and healer who is known for keeping a diary during the latter half of her life, with thousands of entries over nearly three decades. This diary has provided historians with invaluable insight into the lives of women in the colonial era.

From when she was 50 (1785) until her death in 1812, Martha Ballard kept a diary that recorded her work and domestic life in Hallowell on the Kennebec River, District of Maine. The log of daily events, written with a quill pen and homemade ink, records numerous babies delivered and illnesses treated as she traveled by horse or canoe around the Massachusetts frontier in what is today the state of Maine. Ballard delivered 816 babies over the years that she wrote her diary and was present at more than 1,000 births. Her diary also records her administering medicines and remedies, which she made from local plants and occasionally from ingredients bought from a local physician. Ballard was sometimes called to observe autopsies, and she also took testimonies from unwed mothers that were used in paternity suits. In addition to her medical and judicial responsibilities, Ballard frequently carried out tasks such as trading, weaving, and social visits.

The Salem Witch Trials

The Salem witch trials of 1692 were the earliest examples of mass hysteria in the country.

Learning Objectives

Evaluate what the Salem witch trials reveal about the role of religion and the role of women in the colonies

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The Salem witch trials were a series of hearings and prosecutions of people accused of witchcraft in colonial Massachusetts between 1692 and 1693.
  • The trials resulted in the executions of 20 people, 14 of them women. All but one were hanged; five others (including two infant children) died in prison.
  • What happened in colonial America was not unique, but rather an example of the much broader phenomenon of witch trials that occurred during the early modern period throughout England and France.
  • Women were more susceptible to suspicions of witchcraft because they were perceived, in Puritan society, to have weaker constitutions that were more likely to be inhabited by the Devil.
  • Initially, those accused of witchcraft tended to be outcasts in some way or another, but as the trials went on, even citizens in good standing were not immune from accusations.

Key Terms

  • Puritans: A group of English Reformed Protestants in the 16th and 17th centuries who sought to reform the Church of England from all Roman Catholic practices.
  • due process: The requirement that the state must respect all legal rights that are owed to a person.

Introduction

The Salem witch trials were a series of hearings and prosecutions of people accused of witchcraft in colonial Massachusetts between February 1692 and May 1693. The trials resulted in the executions of 20 people, 14 of them women and all but one by hanging. Five others (including two infant children) died in prison.

Twelve other women had previously been executed for witchcraft in Massachusetts and Connecticut during the 17th century. The episode is one of colonial America’s most notorious cases of mass hysteria. It has been used in political rhetoric and popular literature as a vivid cautionary tale about the dangers of isolationism, religious extremism, false accusations, and lapses in due process. What happened in colonial America was not unique, but rather an example of the much broader phenomenon of witch trials that occurred during the early modern period throughout England and France.

Puritan Beliefs and Witchcraft

Like many other Europeans, the Puritans of New England believed in the supernatural. Every event in the colonies appeared to be a sign of God’s mercy or judgment, and it was commonly believed that witches allied themselves with the Devil to carry out evil deeds or cause deliberate harm. Events such as the sickness or death of children, the loss of cattle, and other catastrophes were often blamed on the work of witches.

Women were more susceptible to suspicions of witchcraft because they were perceived, in Puritan society, to have weaker constitutions that were more likely to be inhabited by the Devil. Women healers with knowledge of herbal remedies—things that could often deemed “pagan” by Puritans—were particularly at risk of being accused of witchcraft.

Hundreds were accused of witchcraft including townspeople whose habits or appearance bothered their neighbors or who appeared threatening for any reason. Women made up the vast majority of suspects and those who were executed. Prior to 1692, there had been rumors of witchcraft in villages neighboring Salem Village and other towns. Cotton Mather, a minister of Boston’s North Church (not to be confused with the later Anglican North Church associated with Paul Revere), was a prolific publisher of pamphlets, including some that expressed his belief in witchcraft.

The Salem Trials

In Salem Village, in February 1692, Betty Parris, age 9, and her cousin Abigail Williams, age 11, began to have fits in which they screamed, threw things, uttered strange sounds, crawled under furniture, and contorted themselves into peculiar positions. A doctor could find no physical evidence of any ailment, and other young women in the village began to exhibit similar behaviors. Colonists suspected witchcraft and accusations began to spread.

The first three people accused and arrested for allegedly causing the afflictions were Sarah Good (a homeless beggar), Sarah Osborne (a woman who rarely attended church), and Tituba (an African or American Indian slave). Each of these women was a kind of outcast and exhibited many of the character traits typical of the “usual suspects” for witchcraft accusations. They were left to defend themselves.

Throughout the year, more women and some men were arrested, including citizens in good standing, and colonists began to fear that anyone could be a witch. Many of the accusers who prosecuted the suspected witches had been traumatized by the American Indian wars on the frontier and by unprecedented political and cultural changes in New England. Relying on their belief in witchcraft to help make sense of their changing world, Puritan authorities executed 20 people and caused the deaths of several others before the trials were over.

A young woman (presumably Mary Walcott) writhes on the floor as a judge and an unruly crowd look on.

The Salem Witch Trials: The central figure in this 1876 illustration of the courtroom is usually identified as Mary Walcott, one of the “afflicted” girls called as a witness at the Salem Witch Trials in 1692-93.