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Women’s Roles and Women’s Rights in Pre-Revolutionary U.S.

Learn About This Lesson

Learning Objectives

After completing this lesson, you will be able to:

  • Describe the status of women in the colonies and explain how it differed from the status of men.
  • Explain how the roles for women were very traditional and defined by the men in the societies.
  • Discuss the reasons that women’s achievements went under-reported and unacknowledged.
  • Summarize the events of the Salem Witch Trials and analyze the reasons for the Salem Witch Trials.

Inquire: How did the Roles of Women Change in the Colonies?

Overview

The roles and rights of women in the annals of human history are nothing short of incredible, yet their stories are rarely told. During the more than 7,000 years of human history, women have shown time and again as individuals, groups, and a gender that they are the equal to men, yet even into the 21st century, societies and even civilizations struggle with creating a world of complete equality for everyone. Life in the colonies was no different. Despite women’s contributions, which were enormous and often overlooked and under-documented, women’s roles and rights changed slowly, if at all.

Big Question

How were the roles and rights of women different – and changing – in the colonies?

Watch: Of Bravery, Fortitude, and Hysteria
Read: Women in America - It Was Not All One Thing

A Kaleidoscope of Rights and Roles Across the Colonies

Every colony was different – every experience somewhat unique.  Just like the men who came to the New World, the women who came were facing a true new world – a world unlike any that had ever been colonized.  However, there were similarities in the experiences, usually depending on the ethnicity of the family or what portion of the North American colonies the women were living.

Women and Their Position

In New England, the Puritan settlers from England brought their strong religious values and a highly organized social structure with them. They believed a woman should 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. Throughout the colonies, men handled worldly affairs and needed to read and write. In most of the English colonies, it was believed girls only needed to read (especially religious materials). Only a few learned to write – as a woman had no need to write.

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.

Additionally, most religions in the colonies held the belief that women were inferior to men, and most societies did not allow women to inherit from their fathers unless they were married.

As the Enlightenment and its philosophies and values began to take hold in America, the view that men ruled over their wives became weaker.  Regardless, women had very few rights in Pre-Revolutionary Colonial America.  There was no right to divorce, any property they did own they lost to their husbands when they married. They had no right to vote or participate in politics in any way.

The Role of Housewife

DecorativeIn Colonial America, few occupations were available to women due to the legal institution of coverture. Under coverture, a woman had no legal identity when married, and everything she did was under her father’s or husband’s authority. In the American colonies, since a majority of the women were married, this meant that the available occupations for women were limited to being a housewife or in New England colonies, a “Goodwife.”

It was within the colonial household that a woman had a responsibility to care for her children, husband, and servants and perform other domestic duties. “Domestic duties” meant the home was the center of the housewife’s responsibilities. It was the housewife’s obligation to keep the home clean, food prepared, the children well-behaved, and the servants obedient. The housewife’s domain, depending upon wealth, would also include “cellars, pantries, brew houses, milk houses, wash houses, and butteries”.

Not only was she responsible for cooking, baking, milking, spinning, washing, cleaning, and child care, a responsible housewife was supposed to be resourceful with her family’s budget.  Her role in creating and selling manufactured goods made a vital contribution to the success of a household.

The spiritual, moral, and civic well-being of the children was the responsibility of their mother. In the Colonial era, good mothers were expected to raise children who would become upstanding citizens in the community. Good wives were expected to be dutiful, obedient, faithful, and subservient to their husbands. Legal statutes and societal norms allowed for husbands to exert power over their wives, which at time led to violence. Some housewives were able to file for divorce, but these instances were not the norm.

Real Women in the Colonial World

Elizabeth Warren (1583 – 1673)

Unlike most Plymouth Colony women, Elizabeth Warren’s name appeared regularly in the records during the many decades after she was widowed. In 1635, the public records listed Warren, by name, as a totally independent agent. In 1652, a petition against Warren was filed in court. Someone had questioned her right to the land she had deeded to her son-in-law. A panel of judges found that Warren:

… shall enjoy all the rest of her lands and all of them to whom she hath already at any time heretofore disposed any part thereof by gift, sale or otherwise, or shall hereafter do the same, to them and their heirs forever without any trouble or molestation.

By remaining a widow, Warren did not have to give up her rights.

Anne Marbury Hutchinson (1591 – 1643)

DecorativeAnne Hutchinson fought for the right to worship as she chose and to voice her opinions at religious meetings. She made the mistake of criticizing the Puritan ministers of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. For that sin, she was put on trial for heresy, becoming the first female defendant in a Massachusetts court. She defended herself admirably – no man was brave enough to speak up for her – but in the end, she was excommunicated from the Puritan Church and banished from the colony.

Thereafter, Hutchinson traveled to the Colony of Rhode Island.  Upon arrival, Roger Williams – Rhode Island’s founder who had himself been banished earlier from the Massachusetts Bay Colony for disagreeing with the leaders- encouraged her and her followers to found the settlement of Portsmouth.

Anne Bradstreet (1612-1672)

Anne Bradstreet was unusually well-educated for her time.  She had been tutored in history, several languages, and literature. Her husband held several government positions and his political duties involved traveling to other colonies. Anne spent her lonely days and nights reading her father’s collection of books and educating her children. In the process, she learned a great deal about religion, science, history, the arts, and medicine.

She was particularly fond of poetry, and she began to write some verse, but kept her work a secret. The Puritans frowned upon women who stepped out of their place in society. Her writing suggests that she believed the search for knowledge was against God’s will, and that women should be relegated to traditional roles. Yet, she continued to read and learn.

She clearly valued knowledge, and could well be considered an early feminist. She was the first American poet, and her first collection of poems was the first book written by a woman to be published in the United States.

Martha Ballard (1735-1812)

Departing from traditional women’s roles, Martha Ballard was an 18th-century midwife and healer.  From the time she was 50 years old (1785), until her death in 1812, Ballard kept a diary that recorded the hundreds of babies that she delivered and illnesses she 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. According to the entries in her diary, she was also routinely called upon to administer 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 Impact

There is no way to over-emphasize the impact of women in American history. These few examples are but a drop in the ocean of women and their work and accomplishments that created and shaped the United States. It is vital that women and men remember the efforts and sacrifices that have brought us this far, and never take for granted the right of suffrage, access in the workplace, or any of the other civil rights that women have fought for and secured.

Reflect: Women’s Rights

Poll

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If you were a colonial legislator and you were able to change one thing for the women in your colony, what would be the first change you would make?

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Expand: Satan Comes to Salem - The Salem Witch Trials

The Beginning of the Hysteria – Everyone Blames Someone Else

Surely the Devil had come to Salem in 1692. Young girls screaming and barking like dogs? Strange dances in the woods? This was behavior hardly becoming of virtuous teenage maidens. The town doctor was called onto the scene. After a thorough examination, he concluded quite simply — the girls were bewitched. Now, the task was clear. Whomever was responsible for this outrage must be brought to justice.

The ordeal originated in the home of Salem’s Reverend Samuel Parris. Parris had a slave from the Caribbean named Tituba. Several of the town’s teenage girls began to gather in the kitchen with Tituba early in 1692. As winter turned to spring, the townspeople were aghast at the behaviors exhibited by Tituba’s young followers. They were believed to have danced a black magic dance in the nearby woods. Several of the girls would fall to the floor and scream hysterically. The talk turned to identifying the parties responsible for this mess.

The Puritan belief system held that witches and their involvement in human life were normal. They tended to blame the works of the devil for all misdoings in society.

Proof of Witches

Puritans believed that to become bewitched, a witch must draw an individual under a spell. The girls could not have possibly brought this condition onto themselves. Soon, they were questioned and forced to name their tormentors. Three townspeople, including Tituba, were named as witches. The famous Salem witchcraft trials began as the girls began to name more and more community members.

Evidence admitted in such trials was of five types. First, the accused might be asked to pass a test, like reciting the Lord’s Prayer. This seems simple enough. But, the young girls who attended the trial were known to scream and writhe on the floor in the middle of the test. It is easy to understand why some could not pass.

Second, physical evidence was considered. Any birthmarks, warts, moles, or other blemishes were seen as possible portals through which Satan could enter a body.

DecorativeWitness testimony was a third consideration. Anyone who could attribute their misfortune to the sorcery of an accused person might help get a conviction.

Fourth was spectral evidence. Puritans believed that Satan could not take the form of any unwilling person. Therefore, if anyone saw a ghost or spirit in the form of the accused, the person in question must be a witch.

Last was the confession. Confession seems foolhardy to a defendant who is certain of his or her innocence. In many cases, it was the only way out. A confessor would tearfully throw him or herself on the mercy of the town and court and promise repentance. None of the confessors were executed. Part of repentance might, of course, include helping to convict others.

As 1692 passed into 1693, the hysteria began to lose steam. The governor of the colony, upon hearing that his own wife was accused of witchcraft ordered an end to the trials. However, 20 people and two dogs were executed for the crime of witchcraft in Salem. One person was pressed to death under a pile of stones for refusing to testify.

No one knows the truth behind what happened in Salem, no culpability was ever assigned, and no one ever took responsibility. The community of Salem and all those involved apparently just went forward as if it had never happened.

So, what did happen? Once witchcraft is ruled out, other important factors come to light. Salem had suffered greatly in recent years from Indian attacks. As the town became more populated, land became harder and harder to acquire. A smallpox epidemic had broken out at the beginning of the decade. Massachusetts was experiencing some of the worst winters in memory. The motives of the young girls themselves can be questioned. In a society where women had no power, particularly young women, is it not understandable how a few adolescent girls, drunk with unforeseen attention, allowed their imaginations to run wild? Historians make educated guesses, but the real answers lie with the ages.

Glossary

AJAX progress indicator
  • Adolescent
    (of a young person) in the process of developing from a child into an adult 
  • culpability
    responsibility for a fault or wrong; blame
  • Eschew
    deliberately avoid using; abstain from
  • Hysteria
    exaggerated or uncontrollable emotion or excitement, especially among a group of people 
  • Inferior
    lower in rank, status, or quality
  • Mass Hysteria
    a phenomenon that transmits collective illusions of threats, whether real or imaginary, through a population in society as a result of rumors and fear 
  • responsibility
    the state or fact of being accountable or to blame for something.
  • Spectral
    Of or like a ghost.
  • Subordinate
    a person under the authority or control of another within an organization; to treat or regard as of lesser importance than something else 
  • suffrage
    the right to vote in political elections

License and Citations

Content License:

Lesson Content:

Authored and curated by Jay Reynolds, J.D. for The TEL Library.  CC BY NC SA

Media Sources:

USHistory.org; Witchcraft in Salem (2017); U.S. History Online Textbook

 LinkAuthorPublisherLicense
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Matteson-witch

Thompkins H. MattesonWikimedia Commons

Public Domain

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Spinninginthecolonialkitchen

UnknownWikimedia Commons

Public Domain

Decorative

Anne Hutchinson on Trial

Edwin Austin AbbeyWikipedia

Public Domain

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Witchcraft at Salem Village

William A. CraftsWikimedia Commons

Public Domain