Women’s Roles and Rights in Colonial America

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Introduction

In the 17th century, the first settlers started arriving on the newly discovered American continent. It is usually thought that since they all came from Britain, they shared a common belief system, and the colonies were relatively uniform in their organization and social structure. In fact, different religious groups gained permission from the government to occupy different territories, each with their own ideology and conception of gender division. Thus, women in Massachusetts and Pennsylvania had slightly different roles in society.

Main body

New England colonies such as Massachusetts were settled by Puritans, who had a very conservative conception of appropriate woman’s behavior. Like Eve, women were seen as more susceptible to sin and thus had to be subordinate to men. Their God-given duty was to be willing servants to their households, husbands, children, and the community (Romeo, 2017). Women were relegated to the private sphere and responsible for domestic affairs, including childrearing, cooking, cleaning, and manufacturing home goods such as candles and soap (Romeo, 2017). They had to “earned the dignity of anonymity,” forbidden from participating in town meetings or making Church decisions (Romeo, 2017, p. 3). Familial relationships and domestic duties defined female identity in colonial Massachusetts.

A woman’s role was slightly different in the Quaker-populated middle colonies such as Pennsylvania. Due to differences in ideology, Quaker society was more worldly and tolerant compared to Puritans. They believed that all people, regardless of gender, were heirs to the gospel and thus to religious authority, so there existed multiple traveling female preachers, which allowed women to enter the public sphere (Ingle, 1991).

Although women were predominantly housewives, some assumed significant positions in the community and possessed “influence and power rivaling that of any male” (Ingle, 1991, p. 588). Many women remained frustrated by male societal dominance and argued that claims of equality were farcical (Ingle, 1991). However, the fact that Quaker communities could accept gender quality as part of their ideology is still unusual for the colonial period.

Different state laws determined women’s rights in colonial America, but their legal status was always dependent on their marital status. In Massachusetts and Pennsylvania, Puritans and Quakers were eager to create a legal system that exemplified their idea of family unity, particularly a wife’s submission to her husband. Once married, women were no longer legal individuals but dependents of their husbands. They could institute legal action, enter into contracts, act as executors, administrators, legal guardians, or own property (Bromfield, 1987). The law recognized these activities only when a husband did them on behalf of his wife, and her consent or participation was unnecessary (Bromfield, 1987). Married women had no legal rights in early America, and husbands acted as their guardians.

The lives of Native American women were radically different from the Quakers and Puritans. Although Native American tribes numbered in the hundreds, most shared a relatively consistent perspective on women’s societal role. In many tribes, families were matriarchal and matrilineal because their creation stories revolved around the female origin of the universe (National History Education Clearinghouse, 2010). Women were responsible for childrearing and fulfilled important internal functions such as controlling the distribution of food and electing chiefs of the village council (National History Education Clearinghouse, 2010).

With the arrival of European settlers, women served as mediators by providing sexual companionship, lessons in local customs, and rudimentary language skills (Hewitt 2005). Native American women had more authority and autonomy than colonial women because they represented the divine cosmic beginning.

Conclusion

In conclusion, women’s everyday lives and legal statuses differed according to the prevailing ideology of the region they occupied. Puritan women in Massachusetts were completely relegated to the domestic sphere and defined by their filial relationships and household duties. Quaker women in Pennsylvania theoretically had the right to religious authority and could assume positions of power in the public sphere. Native American women enjoyed the most autonomy as they were responsible for the internal operations of their tribe.

References

Bromfield, D. H. (1987). Women and the Law of Property in Early America. Michigan Law Review, 85(5), 1109-1116.

Ingle, H.L. (1991). A Quaker Woman on Women’s Roles: Mary Pennington to Friends, 1678. Signs, 16(3), 587-596.

National History Education Clearinghouse (2010). American Indian Women. Web.

Romeo, E.C.K. (2017). The Virtuous and Violent Women of Seventeenth-Century Massachusetts (Doctoral dissertation). University of Chicago. Chicago, Illinois.

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Premium Papers. (2023) 'Women's Roles and Rights in Colonial America'. 11 January.

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Premium Papers. 2023. "Women's Roles and Rights in Colonial America." January 11, 2023. https://premium-papers.com/womens-roles-and-rights-in-colonial-america/.

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Premium Papers. "Women's Roles and Rights in Colonial America." January 11, 2023. https://premium-papers.com/womens-roles-and-rights-in-colonial-america/.