Women in Colonial America Holly Brewer, North Carolina State University Women 9s lives in colonial America were very different from our own in so many ways. To a great degree, what your life was like depended upon your status and wealth, your religion, your race, and which colony and which century you lived in. The variety of experiences is almost dizzying, particularly when race is factored in.
However there are some things they shared which we generally do not. I 9ll began with what they had in common: most importantly, they had many more children than modern women, across the board. Women 9s adult lives, at least between the ages of 20 and 45, and sometimes earlier, was characterized by motherhood: Most women, most of the time, were either pregnant or nursing, and sometimes both.
On average, women had about nine children, and about 90-95% of women bore children. Their children were typically born about 2 ½ years apart, because intensive nursing (which they did for about that long) worked as the most reliable form of birth control. (Note that this works in societies where calories are limited, but not as well in modern America).
Although some scholars have found that apothecaries and ... more. less.
some women had knowledge about birth control, in the form, generally, of powders that could cause first term abortions, these do not appear to have been widely used, or indeed, terribly reliable. On average, women had 9 children, of whom between 5-7 (depending on region) survived to adulthood. The number of children who died was greater in the South.<br><br> Wealthier mothers, amazingly, had even more children: this was because they did not usually nurse their own. (In the eighteenth century, especially, it would have been difficult to pick up a newspaper without seeing an ad for a wetnurse (my favorite is one from the Pennsylvania Gazette that stated simply: cWanted: A good breast. d ) So Frances Ann Tasker, who was the wife of Robert Carter III and one of the richest Virginians of the eighteenth century, had 17 children. She was born in 1738, the daughter of Benjamin and Ann Bladen Tasker.<br><br> Her father, Benjamin, was a member of the Council of Maryland (the upper house) just as her future husband would be (and his grandfather had been before). She married in 1754 (at age 16) and bore her first child in 1757, just over two years after her marriage, when she was 19. Her last child was born 26 years later, when she was 45.<br><br> On average she had a child every year and a half. She died in 1787, at age 49. Hers was a glamorous life: we know she had an elegant house, went to many balls, owned several carriages, had plenty of food to eat.<br><br> A family tutor, hired to educate the children, claimed that she still looked beautiful. She was also educated and thoughtful, as the tutor 9s notebook reveals. The family owned many slaves (more than 300) and above 50,000 acres of land, and so Ann Tasker had to do little of the work that normally accompanied having so many children: washing diaper clothes and other laundry, cooking meals and tending fires were not her lot.<br><br> Still, it is important to think about what all these children meant in terms of her life; imagine for a moment, the grieving that must have accompanied each of these children 9s deaths (eight died during her life) and the joy that came with each birth. Imagine, too, the many pregnancies, some of which ended in miscarriage, the fatigue, the hope, the fear of possibly dying in childbirth. She still did some of the work tending the younger ones, but her cwork d was partly that of a woman whose husband and family were so politically prominent: entertaining.<br><br> It is not clear that she pushed political opinions, as some wives of prominent colonists did (such as the wife of Governor Berkeley in the seventeenth century) but she was certainly involved in political discussions, as even the records of her toasting to the King in 1774 indicate. Still, arguably the most important part of her life was motherhood, and it would have limited her life significantly just as it enriched it in others. While many studies of women 9s lives during this period point to what they could not do 3they couldn 9t hold political office, for example 3rarely do they consider why.<br><br> It was not simply prejudice that prevented it, although prejudice, especially as promulgated by some religious teachings, had a role. It was the facts of life: they had little control over their own bodies. If one is constantly pregnant or nursing 3particularly if one does not, like Frances Tasker, have slaves or servants to do all of the onerous work that was required to maintain a family, it was an all-consuming task.<br><br> One had little time for politics or professions (nor, I should add, did most men either 3at least 90% of men during this time were farmers). Of the other professions 3doctor, lawyer, merchant, blacksmith, etc., women did some. Few men were either doctors or lawyers, and certainly midwives (usually women past childbearing years themselves) did much of the medical work.<br><br> Some women were merchants as well, and a few practiced trades, such as silversmithing or hatmaking, or sometimes took over the trade their husband had practiced, such as did Clementina Rind of Virginia (whose husband had been editor of the Virginia Gazette). Still, fewer women practiced trades than did men, and I would argue that motherhood was the main reason why. I go on at such length about these issues because motherhood framed women 9s lives to such a great degree; it was also greatly valued.<br><br> Looking at gravestones helps to reveal this in remarkable ways. In the cemetary of Newbury Massachusetts, for example lies a pair of gravestones marking the lives of a husband and wife who died in 1704 and 1705 respectively. The husband 9s is of a modest size, and his epitaph briefly comments on his contribution as Deacon in his church and his economic success.<br><br> Judith 9s stone is much bigger, and memorializes her contribution as mother and grandmother: cTo the memory of Mrs. Judith late virtuous wife of Deac. Tristram Coffin, Esqur.<br><br> Who having lived to see 177 of her children and children 9s children to the 3d generation died Dec. 15, 1705 aged 80. Grave, sober, faithful, fruitfull vine was she\ A rare example of true piety\ Widow 9d awhile she wayted wisht for rest\ With her dear husband in her Savior 9s breast. d Anne Bradsteet, who was of her same generation, reflected on women 9s lives in early New England in poetry, which has amazingly survived the centuries (so many of our sources about women are lost and/or never written (partly because fewer women were taught to write, partly because records for this period in general were poorly kept).<br><br> Bradstreet saw having children as the most intense joys of her life. Her poem cbefore the birth of one of her children d written in about 1650, reflects on the possibility that she might die in childbirth (as happened to perhaps 5-10 percent of women during one of their births): cAll things within this fading world hath end/ Adversity doth still our joys attend; No ties so strong, no friends so dear and sweet But with death 9s parting blow is sure to meet . .<br><br> . If any worth or virtue were in me, Let that live freshly in thy memory And when thou feel 9st no grief, as I no harms, Yet love thy dead, who long lay in thine arms, And when thy loss shall be repaid with gains, Look to my little babes, my dear remains, And if thou lov thyself, or loved 9st me, These O protect from stepdame 9s injury. d Bradstreet 9s poem makes clear that she thought of her husband as a friend and loved him dearly, just as she did her children, and worried what would happen to them if she died. In fact death and remarriage were common facts of family life then, just as divorce is now (divorce then was extremely rare).<br><br> The deaths of children, especially under age five, was very common and painful. Sometimes epidemics would carry off several children in single family in a few weeks time, as did diptheria to three daughters of Martha Ballard in Massachusetts in the 1760s. (Modern medicine has helped dramatically; diptheria is now one of the diseases all American children are vaccinated against).<br><br> Puritan religion in New England idealized marriage and family at the same time as it sought 3more than in contemporary England or mainstream Anglican faith 3to privilege the rights of husbands. This meant for many women, like Anne Bradsteet, a loving and appreciated place in society. For others, however, who transgressed boundaries, it might make them more likely to be accused of witchcraft (more than 300 people were accused of witchcraft in seventeenth century New England, of whom 80 % were women).<br><br> The women who had life the toughest were at the lower end of the social order: white servants and black slaves. For them, the laws offered few protections from violence and potentially harsh punishments. White servant women, a significant portion of the population in the southern colonies, especially in the seventeenth century, could not marry without their master 9s permission.<br><br> If they came over as indentured servants from England, they were bound until age 24. If they got pregnant before that age (again, remember there is almost no access to birth control) then in Virginia, for example, they would have to serve their master an additional two years and either pay a fine (which they could not normally do) or have 25 lashes on their bare back at the public whipping post (each last would draw blood). Their master could pay the fine for them, but they ususally then had to agree to serve him one additional year (total of 3).<br><br> They had few protections against harrassment or even rape, as study after study of court records reveals. Technically they were supposed to be able to complain against masters who mistreated them and transferred to new ones. Also, masters who fathered children on their servant women were not supposed to reap the benefit of the extra time.<br><br> However if a woman wanted the master to pay her fine (and avoid the public whipping post) she might not complain. (I ran across a shocking case in the early 1750s in Virginia where a woman initially refused to state the father of her child and the master was assigned her extra two years. Then, during childbirth, she admitted that the child 9s father was her master.<br><br> After this evidence was presented in court and her extra two years were transferred to another, her master refused to pay her fine, and she had to be publically whipped. Her son was then bound to her master as an apprentice, the normal policy for illegitimate children. In this case, they were binding the boy to his father.) In short, such women had few rights.<br><br> No case of a servant successfully charging a master with rape has been uncovered. This is not to say that every master would take advantage of a servant woman, but merely that men so inclined could. Still, once such women finished their indentures, they had the chance to marry, and they usually did.<br><br> If they were lucky, they married well enough to be able to have a farm that their family owned, or had a husband with a good trade. This might be out on the frontier, where they were in danger of attack from Indians if war should come, for land there was much cheaper. If not, they became tenants with their husbands on others estates.<br><br> Their lives would then have been full of children, though fewer than the typical nine, as they started later. Also, they generally lived on the margins, such that if they or their husband were injured or died, their children would likely be indentured as apprentices, and they forced to try to earn an income, perhaps, as a washerwoman (which paid badly) or worse. Life on the margins in early America wasn 9t pretty.<br><br> Remember that this was a world where firewood had to collected and brought in even to have heat in the winter. Water, likewise had to be collected from wells and streams in heavy buckets. Washing clothes alone thus meant carrying water and wood to boil it, soaking and scrubbing the clothes in a strong lye solution, etc.<br><br> Clothes and sheets were fantastically expensive compared to today, partly because spinning and weaving, especially, was all done by hand, often by women in families. Food had to be grown or raised. Cookbooks began with such instructions as: kill the piglet; scrape off the hair; remove the innards .<br><br> . . And women and men had to do all of these jobs just to live.<br><br> Life was physically demanding for everyone. The lot of enslaved women was the hardest. Their had fewer children, undoubtedly because they got less to eat and had to work so hard (some body fat is usually essential for women to conceive).<br><br> Mortality was also higher among enslaved children. Most importantly, however, enslaved women were not allowed to legally marry at all, and had no rights to their children. Both marriages and families could be (and were) broken apart as masters died or needed money, or whatever.<br><br> Thus black women, whose lives like those of white women were circumscribed by the cycle of pregnancy, childbirth, and nursing, had those bonds cut away even more frequently than by simply death. Once a child had been sold, or deeded to a relative, or sent away to live with the white daughter of the master 9s family when she married, they might not ever be heard from again. Marriages too could be broken up in such a way.<br><br> Evidence indicates, I should note, that in the eighteenth century such sales were less common than in the nineteenth: before the Revolution, legal codes (entails) prevented the ready sale of slaves in some circumstances. Still, the lack of recognition of slave families must have been a heavy burden. These stories are difficult to fully recover, but consider the enslaved woman cArrabell d who lived in Berkeley County, South Carolina, in 171.<br><br> She named one of her children cMines, d which indicates her attachment, and when her master died soon afterwards, Arabell and Mines were sold together, which often happened when the child was under five. Still, she was lucky, that time. Slave women, much more than white women of any class, were more likely to have to work in the fields.<br><br> In Anglo-American culture, most agricultural labor was considered men 9s work, except in the case of slaves. Occaisionally, white women would be pressed into service in emergency, such as if the harvest needed to be brought in in a hurry. However generally this was considered inappropriate work for white women.<br><br> The cultural norms were so strongly against it that when European observers saw Indian women doing the main cultivating, they accused Indian men of enslaving their wives. These are of course cultural norms, and Indian women were definitely not enslaved by their husbands (they in fact had more privileges, politically and otherwise, than white women, compared to their men). Indeed, Indian women played roles in, for example, treaty negotiation.<br><br> Indian men 9s work 3of hunting to provide all of the meat and furs (clothes) for themselves and tribes 3was much more onerous than whites realized (of course Europeans raised cattle and pigs, so hunting for them was a luxury). This brief survey leaves so much unsaid. In closing I 9d like to talk briefly about the American Revolution and its impact on women.<br><br> The Revolutionary rhetoric, with its appeal to call men are created equal d potentially meant opportunity for women too. However the Common Law, as that was being reinterpreted in the late eighteenth century, actually was cutting down on married women 9s rights, granting more control to husbands over the wife 9s property and giving him more authority over her. The early nineteenth century would open new chapters in women 9s experiences in more ways than one: the revolutionary promise inspired some women to try to fulfill it, leading to the growth of the women 9s rights movement (made more fierce, I think, by the countervailing trend in the common law); in some places, women who met property requirements were allowed to vote in the wake of the Revoluiton (in New Jersey) or thought they should, like Abigail Adams.<br><br> They ceased to punish women for illegitimacy and stopped using public whipping posts, except for slaves; indeed indentured servitude became much rarer for whites. At the same time, knowledge about birth control was spreading (and arguably the costs of having a family were going up) 3 by the middle of the nineteenth century, women were having on average half the number of children that they did in the colonial period. Freedom from the joys and cares of childbirth and rearing would give some women more options in terms of professional lives, that meant that more women sought to challenge emerging norms about work boundaries.<br><br> This is complicated, because mens options in terms of trades and professions were changing so profoundly during this period as well, with many of the traditional trades in decline, with the emergence of factories, with growing opportunities for doctors (and the decline of midwifery) and lawyers. Many historians who write about women 9s lives in the colonial period focus on their legal and cultural restraints: noting, for example, that they couldn 9t be lawyers. However I prefer to focus on the what they could and did do, what made their lives rich and fulfilling, which was to a great degree their role as mothers.<br><br> It is pretty clear that most women, however, given the choice, would have fewer children. Arguably, control over fertility has made the biggest difference in women 9s lives, in their ability to pursue work outside of the home and professional careers. <br><br>