What were the roles of women in the early American period from roughly 1700-1780? Although a great portion of the history of families and people in early America during this period is about men and their roles, there are valid reports of women's activities in the literature, and this paper points out several roles that women played in that era.
The Roles of Women in Early America -- 1700 -- 1780
In the "Turns of the Centuries Exhibit" (TCE) relative to family life in the period 1680 to 1720, the author notes that colonial societies were organized around "…patriarchal, Biblically-ordained lines of authority." Males basically asserted the authority over their wives, their children, their servants and any other dependents that may have been in the household. One reason for the male dominance in this era was do to the fact that "…law did not recognize them as economically independent individuals" -- albeit, women did play a "critical economic role in the household" (TCE).
The main occupation for most early settlers was agriculture and the tasks assigned to members of the household were determined by "gender," the TCE narrative explains. While the men "…tilled the soil, mowed the hay, cared for the livestock, made fences, and cut and hauled wood," the women also had plenty of duties and responsibilities. Women certainly cared for the children (which is not unique to this time frame), but they also: a) milked the cows; b) made cheese and butter from the milk; c) butchered the meat; d) planted, weeded and harvested the garden; e) made candles and soap; and f) manufactured the cloth that was used in domestic purposes (Turns of the Centuries Exhibit).
Since the Bible was such an important part of the lives of most colonists in the Protestant culture, the story of Adam and Eve was prominent in the way in which Christians went about their roles. For example, besides the Bible, the story of Adam and Eve was published in schoolbooks, and it showed Eve to have a "…feeble moral foundation" and portrayed her as "the weaker vessel…both physically and spiritually" (TCE). And so women "…inherited the shame and the curse of Eve" who had obeyed the devil (a serpent) when she decided to eat from the tree of knowledge, according to the story that early colonists believed. Hence, after being expelled from the Garden, men were directed to grow food "by the sweat of their brow" and women "labored in childbirth" (TCE, p. 2).
The purpose in explaining the Adam and Eve story is to point out that women's roles were in general subservient to men's roles based not just on male chauvinism, but based on the "Good Book" -- the Bible. Also, women were not encouraged to engage in scholarship and education because "Ministers and leaders warned… the excessive scholarship and study could prove too much for a woman's supposedly weaker intellect" (TCE, p. 2).
On the subject of the colonial woman and learning, often women were taught to read simply because then they would be able to read the bible but "…there was no reason a woman should know how to write" because writing was "the prerogative of men" (Breneman, 2002). The houses that women conducted their lives and duties in during the early 1700s were "small and roughly built," Breneman writes (p. 2). The houses did not always protect against the elements and for a woman, poor died, "constant child bearing and illnesses…took their toll on women as well as days of hard work" (Breneman, p. 2).
Notwithstanding the assertion in the previous paragraph that women were not taught to write, clearly many women were self-educated and there were certainly women who broke from the stereotypical role that had been designed for women. Indeed threw were women who refused to go along with the established role, and who stood up against the male dominance theme. Ann Walker is an example of a colonial woman that had been prevented -- by her husband -- to worship at her own chosen denomination. In 1708 Ann Walker was a participating member of the Church of England in Williamsburg, Virginia. But her husband, George Walker, attempted to prevent her from attending services and George also wished to "direct the religious education of their children" (Library of Virginia - LVA).
So the couple went before the governor and council in Williamsburg, and Ann asked for "full liberty to attend church, to pursue her religious beliefs, and to raise her children as members of the Church of England" (LVA). George asked for a conformation of his authority as father to be in charge of the religious education of their children. The governor and council gave each of the two something of what they demanded. Ann was given legal authority to attend church as she desired to do, and George was granted the right to direct the religious education of his children. Hence, in the words of the court, George could retain "…that authority over his children that properly belongs to Every Christian man" (LVA).
What this story points out about a woman's role in colonial Virginia is while to some degree she could plead for her personal rights vis-a-vis religion, on the other hand, the courts were male and so the man in the dispute often saw his role dominate over the woman's role.
Lydia Chapin Taft
The story of Lydia Chapin Taft offers insights into the life of a woman in the early 18th century. In fact this story is carved forever in the history books because of a simple act that Lydia would engage in. Told by Carol Masiello, Taft was born in 1711 in Mendon, Massachusetts, a town that had just been rebuilt following its having been burned during King Phillip's War. There was a sawmill being built in the town and it was on the move upward following the devastating fire. As Lydia grew up her days were "filled with learning the skills needed to be a successful 'goodwife') (Masiello, p. 1). Her mother, her grandmother, and her aunts taught her how to make soap, how to spin both flax and wool, how to "make candles" and how to "scour her pewter." In addition, Masiello goes on, Lydia was taught how to care for people who were sick and was taught the fine skills that go into food preparation and baking.
While her father and the men in the neighborhood "worried about the bounty on wolves, draining swamps, cutting cedar trees and laying out roads, women were more concerned with mice in the larder, foxes in the henhouse and mountainous piles of laundry" (Masello, p. 1). Meantime, as to the politics of the town of Medfield, Lydia was "on the outside looking in" simply because she was a woman. A new town was established west of Mendon called Uxbridge, and when Lydia became the wife of Josiah Taft of Uxbridge, she was now a married partner of a man that was successfully buying and developing land.
She worked domestically, using all the housekeeping skills she had been taught and dutifully perfected while Josiah bought, sold, and developed land. However her life changed when two of their seven children (the children were born between 1733 and 1753) died. And in 1756 her son Caleb (a student at Harvard) suddenly died; Josiah went to Harvard to bring his 18-year-old son Caleb back. But 11 days after Josiah got back from Harvard, he, too died, hence Lydia was left to care for her children.
At this time the French and Indian war was raging, and the town of Uxbridge decided to meet and vote as to whether or not to raise the amount of money they were to contribute to the war's costs. As was the custom in colonial America, only male property owners were allowed to vote, those that were "free" (not slaves). Since Josiah's estate was considered one of the biggest in Uxbridge, and out of respect "…for his large contribution to the town, the town fathers allowed Lydia to vote as Josiah's proxy" (Masiello, p. 2). Lydia cast her vote to increase Uxbridge's payment to the war effort. Hence, the role of women in colonial American began to change in a small way at least, as Lydia became "…the first woman to vote in the country" (Masiello, p. 2). In fact, Lydia voted again in 1758 to lower the rates citizens pay for new highways, and she voted in 1765 to change the school district.
"She did was she was brought up to do"; after all, Lydia was "…a colonial woman" (Masiello, p. 2).
Cheryll Ann Cody reviews the book Contributions in American History, No. 196, and while she has some problems with the book by Cara Anzilotti, she also sees value in this description of women planters in colonial South Carolina. Titled "In the Affairs of the World: Women, Patriarchy, and Power in Colonial South Carolina," Cody's article points out that planter-class…