Womens Roles in Seventeenth-Century America (Womens Roles in American History)


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Women's History vs. Gender History

Pinion family members were prosecuted 26 times over two generations, for offenses ranging from profanity to gossip, theft, absence from church and infanticide. Especially egregious, in the colonists' eyes, was Pinion's inability to control his wife.

One of Pinion's daughters was charged because she tried to leave her own husband. When he ordered her to return home, according to court transcripts, she, "contrary to the duty of a wife," refused to do so, thus "casting contempt upon Authority whoe had enjoined her returne to him.

With intriguing parallels to contemporary discussions on sexual identity, Norton describes the case of Thomasine Hall, who as a young adult in London cut her hair and joined the army. In , Hall traveled to Virginia as "Thomas;" the colonists quickly grew curious about their new neighbor, who had a penchant for switching gender identities. They would examine Hall while he slept, undress him on the street and issue court-ordered examinations. Few American scholars are more equipped than Norton, a member of Cornell's faculty since , to make sense of these complex legal cases, made even more inaccessible by their period spelling and punctuation and their reliance on a calendar that is now obsolete.

Norton, a former student of political theory and intellectual history at the University of Michigan and of colonial social history at Harvard, is one of the nation's leading scholars of American women's history. Looking to the colonists' experience is instructive, Norton believes, because it "raises a lot of questions about what happens when the state gets seriously involved in the internal affairs of families.

It gives us a model from the past to contemplate in the political climate of the s. Media Inquiries. Brown has argued, the General Assembly cast Africans in the role of moral corruptor, distancing African women in the colony even further from white women.

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Extant county court records indicate that mothers of free black and mulatto children took it upon themselves to learn about the colony's laws and protect the fragile freedom of their children. Elizabeth Banks , of York County, a white indentured servant, arranged to have her mulatto daughters, Ann and Mary, bound out to planters who lived a short distance from her. As an adult, Mary Banks appeared before York County's justices of the peace to make similar arrangements for her children, Hannah and Elizabeth.

These women and other mothers of free black and mulatto boys and girls negotiated apprenticeships, secured food and shelter, and labored so there would be money to buy necessities for their families. The events of Bacon's Rebellion — , and the role that female voices played in them, highlight the instability of Virginia society in the late seventeenth century. By this time, the men at the top of Virginia's social and economic order controlled much of the colony's wealth.

They owned thousands of acres of land, had indentured servants and slaves who labored for their benefit, and had wives and children over whom they had authority. In contrast, many of the men at the bottom of the social order had neither land nor a wife. As tobacco prices dropped due to overproduction, it became harder for these individuals to support themselves. Discontent with their position, many of these men eagerly joined Nathaniel Bacon when he challenged Governor Sir William Berkeley for control of the colony in Berkeley had branded Bacon a rebel, and as such, Bacon could not attend meetings of the county court or parish churches to recruit supporters.

Instead, women such as Lydia Cheesman, Ann Cotton , and Sarah Drummond openly challenged the governor's authority , spread word of Bacon's plans, and urged their husbands to enlist with the rebel. The historian Stephen Saunders Webb has described these women as "news wives. In part because of the efforts of news wives, hundreds joined Bacon's army. Among them were indentured servants and slaves to whom Bacon had promised freedom in exchange for their participation. This coming together of free men, indentured servants, slaves, and women threatened the security of Virginia's nascent patriarchy.

After the rebellion collapsed in , the colony's leaders passed legislation to suppress any future alliances. A series of laws passed in the last quarter of the seventeenth century increased restrictions on slaves, while the "Act of Reliefe" penalized those who "shall presume to speake, write, disperse or publish by words, writeing or otherwise, any matter or thing tending to rebellion.

By the end of the seventeenth century, one's role in Virginia society depended on both gender and race. Black women, whether enslaved or free, occupied a position at the bottom of the social and economic ladder. They could not fulfill the English ideal of the good wife because they were primarily agricultural laborers. In contrast, white females could be good wives even if they spent some time tending tobacco plants.

A good wife in early eighteenth-century Virginia had different responsibilities from her counterpart in England. In Virginia, as in England, a good wife cared for her children, cooked, cleaned, tended the garden, and managed the work done by a staff of domestics. But unlike that of her English counterpart, a Virginia wife's staff included enslaved men, women, and children.

Learning how to manage slaves who had recently been imported into the colony from Africa was an additional challenge for white Virginians of either sex. To them, these slaves were different from the enslaved men, women, and children who had been born in Virginia. Most of the new slaves did not speak English , and many had ritual scarification and body piercings.

Extant documents indicate that some husbands and wives of the gentry class struggled to determine who was in control of the household.

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The planter elite believed they needed to impose their authority on their wives and to manage the domestic work in their homes. The need to control one's wife was crucial because failure to manage a woman was a sign that a man was not in control of his life. William Byrd II , for example, recorded his frustration on the occasions when his wife, Lucy Parke Byrd , did not submit to his authority.

Byrd challenged her husband, perhaps in part because she wanted to direct the work of the slaves who labored in their home. It was uncertain exactly what work was to be done by a good wife if her husband owned slaves to labor for their benefit. By the second quarter of the eighteenth century, however, the role and duties of a good wife in Virginia were clearer. An elite woman's main responsibility was to prepare her children to be members of Virginia's gentry.

In addition to providing instruction in reading, writing, arithmetic, and religion , gentry wives made sure that their sons and daughters knew proper etiquette, how to converse with guests, and how to dance. The wife of a prosperous planter also taught her children how to manage enslaved laborers, including the personal slave who would tend to their daily needs.

Establishing these behaviors helped gentry families maintain their power, which was consolidated largely through marriage.


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While the patriarchal ideal dominated both theory and practice by the mid-eighteenth century, a minority of adult women operated successfully outside this norm. This was especially true of widows, who as feme soles continued to buy and sell land, negotiate contracts, and manage households with servants and slaves. A majority of widows remarried, but many did not, preferring instead to remain single and independent.

In some areas of Virginia, these widows and other single women were a significant economic force, representing up to 15 percent of the landowners and owning nearly 20 percent of the land. Women also participated in the political life of the colony even though they had no official role. While it is possible that a few wealthy widows may have voted in the seventeenth century, a law made clear that this was a male-only activity.

London's Central Criminal Court, 1674 to 1913

Women did, however, help enfranchise men through land they brought to a marriage and this in turn gave some of them indirect power to influence the voting behavior of their husbands. Candidates, too, understood that treating wives with cordiality and respect might impact the outcome of an election. Middling and poor women also worked to make sure that their children were ready for adulthood. They taught sons and daughters the basic math and writing skills that would enable them to keep accounts and manage their households or plantations. By mid-century, some middling and poor females decided to move to one of the colony's urban areas, such as Williamsburg or Norfolk, where they might run taverns, work as milliners, become midwives, or wash and mend clothes.

Christiana Campbell and Jane Vobe kept two of Williamsburg's most popular taverns and counted the colony's leaders, including George Washington and Thomas Jefferson , among their customers. Catherine Rathell and sisters Margaret and Jane Hunter later Jane Charlton opened shops that helped Williamsburg residents and visitors to keep up with the latest British fashions. The midwife Catherine Blaikley used a red morocco pocketbook to hold money, receipts, and notes. When she died in the Virginia Gazette reported that Blaikley had delivered more than 3, babies born to white and black women in the Williamsburg area.

Thomas A. Foster, ed. Women in Early America

Ann Ashby also known as Ann Jones , a free black woman, laundered clothing, repaired torn garments, and knit stockings for her customers. Although Rathell, Hunter, Charlton, Blaikley, and Ashby worked to support themselves and their families, their actions did not challenge gender roles because their businesses were an extension of the domestic work performed by women.

By the mid-eighteenth century, the majority of enslaved people in Virginia had been born in the colony. They spoke English and knew how to negotiate with their owners to gain small concessions in work demands, food, and clothing.

Parents tended to select marriage prospects for their children based on religious, financial or morals and it was expected that children would heed the advice of their parents [14]. Practicality was favored over romantic love when it came to the selection of a spouse. Despite encouraged and expected adherence family structure, rape and adultery occurred and became both a legal and a social issue for men and women. The contrasting roles of men and women dictated the consequences for both parties following an instance of rape or adultery.

Women in History Documentary

Though men and women tended to be persecuted equally for crimes that threatened the family structure such as rape and adultery , women tended to be more heavily blamed [16]. Though rape was a crime, the requirements for an event to be prosecuted as rape as well as differing views regarding conception made justice for the victim nearly impossible [17]. The law required that a women who came forward seeking justice because she had been raped needed to be accompanied by witnesses who had seen the rape and heard the woman express that she needed help [18].

Along with this legal challenge for women came ideological roadblocks that made the conviction of rape even more difficult. The general belief was that women needed to be controlled because they were governed by emotion and unable to regulate their sexuality. These ideas led to women being blamed for their own rape.

In addition, the overwhelming opinion was that family was the heart of societies. This meant that it was ideal for a family to remain intact for the good of the community. However, this dictated that women and men in abusive or other harmful relationships were rarely granted divorce [19] because of the value placed on family.

Overtime, laws changed in response to different events such as the rape of an eight-year-old girl in [20] as well as changes in the attitudes of the governed. Men and women tend to play different roles in society. In 17th century America, patriarchy reigned supreme. Women were property and men were authoritarians. Over time, gender roles change as a result of many factors but the roles of women and the roles of men affect law, dictate social conventions and shape every aspect of a society.

Womens Roles in Seventeenth-Century America (Womens Roles in American History) Womens Roles in Seventeenth-Century America (Womens Roles in American History)
Womens Roles in Seventeenth-Century America (Womens Roles in American History) Womens Roles in Seventeenth-Century America (Womens Roles in American History)
Womens Roles in Seventeenth-Century America (Womens Roles in American History) Womens Roles in Seventeenth-Century America (Womens Roles in American History)
Womens Roles in Seventeenth-Century America (Womens Roles in American History) Womens Roles in Seventeenth-Century America (Womens Roles in American History)
Womens Roles in Seventeenth-Century America (Womens Roles in American History) Womens Roles in Seventeenth-Century America (Womens Roles in American History)
Womens Roles in Seventeenth-Century America (Womens Roles in American History) Womens Roles in Seventeenth-Century America (Womens Roles in American History)
Womens Roles in Seventeenth-Century America (Womens Roles in American History) Womens Roles in Seventeenth-Century America (Womens Roles in American History)

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