Women and Patriarchy in Early America, 1600–1800
- Kelly A. RyanKelly A. RyanIndiana University Southeast
Patriarchy profoundly affected social relations and the daily lives of individuals in early America by supporting the elaboration of both racial differences and sexual hierarchies. Patriarchal ideals held that men should supervise women and that economic, sexual, legal, and political power rested with men. Laws and religious practices demanded women’s subordination to men, and governmental and extralegal controls on women’s sexual and familial lives buttressed patriarchal ideals and practices by enforcing their dependence on white men.
Women played a variety of roles within households, which differed according to region, race, generation, and condition of servitude. Marriage was central to the delineation of white women’s roles, and slavery was critical to developing ideas and laws affecting African American women’s place in society. Interactions with Europeans brought patriarchal influences into native women’s lives. Indian servitude and slavery, European missionary efforts, and cross-cultural diplomacy resulted in the transmission of patriarchal practices that undermined Indian women’s access to political, sexual, economic, and religious power
Women gained esteem for fulfilling their duties within the household and community, while others resisted patriarchal customs and forged their own paths. Some women served as agents of patriarchy and used their status or positions to oppress other women. White women often held power over others in their households, including servants and slaves, and in the early republic some of the public sphere activities of middle-class white women targeted the homes of Native Americans, African Americans, and poor women for uplift. Other women resisted subordination and found autonomy by pursuing their own goals. Sexuality was a critical arena in which women could breech dictates on behavior and advance their own agenda, though not always without consequences. Women in urban communities found greater economic opportunities, and some religious communities, like the Society of Friends, allowed women a larger role in decision making and religious speech. Though patriarchal structures would change over time, the idea of men as the leaders of the household and society was remarkably resilient through the 19th century.