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Indentured Servitude in Colonial America  

Anna Suranyi

Indentured servitude was a constitutive factor in the development of colonial America and helped shape patterns of immigration, labor relationships, citizenship, and the economy of the colonies. During the 16th through the 18th centuries, about 320,000 indentured servants, primarily from England but also from Scotland, Ireland, and elsewhere, crossed the Atlantic Ocean to the British colonies in the Americas, making up about 80 percent of white immigrants. About three-quarters of them were male, a quarter were female, and approximately a tenth were children. Most indentured servants were impoverished individuals, aged 18 to 25, who had agreed to a term of four to seven years of servitude with a payment of “freedom dues” at the end, but some were shipped or “transported” overseas involuntarily by the government, as vagrants or to serve criminal sentences, or were trafficked into servitude by kidnappers. Even those servants who had nominally agreed to indentured servitude had little understanding of what awaited them on the North American continent, because the indenture relationship gave their masters and mistresses much greater control over servants’ lives than employers had in Britain. Once indentured servants began their term of labor, many found themselves in abusive situations, with women and children particularly vulnerable to mistreatment. However, their circumstances were better than that of enslaved people of African ancestry, as a consequence of the limited duration of indentured servitude as opposed to lifelong enslavement and because indentured servants possessed legally and culturally defined rights as members of British society that were unavailable to the enslaved, including guidelines regulating their terms of labor, protections against abuses, and the ability to sue in court if mistreatment occurred. After servitude was completed, indentured servants were expected to join colonial society, and while many remained in dire poverty, some prospered.

Article

Female Slaveholders in British America  

Christine Walker

Women actively contributed to the expansion of chattel slavery in British America. During the colonial era, female inhabitants living in every region claimed by Britain, from the northernmost colonies to the southernmost islands in the Caribbean, held other people in bondage. As enslavers, women exercised their authority over captives in various capacities. Female slaveholders treated enslaved people as personal property that could be bought, sold, or rented out in the marketplace. They commanded enslaved people to perform diverse types of labor. Some worked in households as servants, cooks, and laundresses, while others labored in taverns, shops, fields, and on waterways. Women also bequeathed captives to descendants, often preferring to transfer enslaved people along female lines. Inheritance became an important mechanism for women to maintain control of, and benefit from, slaveholding. Finally, women exercised their authority by subjecting enslaved people to a spectrum of abuses ranging from corporeal punishment, imprisonment, and transportation, to starvation and execution. Early modern gender inequalities intensified women’s participation in slavery, offering them an alternative form of support, profit, and command. By offsetting the economic, legal, and social limitations imposed by patriarchal societies, slaveholding thus empowered women.

Article

Washington, DC  

Mary-Elizabeth B. Murphy

Since its founding as the nation’s capital in 1800, Washington, DC, has been typified by an atypical urban history—a city that was home to the federal government and a diverse population of local inhabitants. This local–federal dynamic has shaped nearly every aspect of its history. The central industry has always been the federal government, local governance has ebbed and flowed, and federal officials have exerted authority in moments of political strife. Washington is the only major US city devoted to administration rather than commerce, industry, or finance. At times, policies in the nation’s capital were envisioned as programs that could be implemented across the country, while at other moments, Washington fell behind other cities. As the nation’s capital, Washington has attracted a diverse group of residents, giving the city a distinctive, cosmopolitan presence. Washington began as a Southern city, and then shifted to become a Northern one, and by the mid-20th century, it became national and global. Since its founding, multiracial Washingtonians waged sweeping campaigns for social justice, often inspiring national movements but were tempered by the persistent lack of statehood, an ongoing struggle.

Article

Home-Based Labor  

Eileen Boris

Home-based labor has persisted over time and space but has varied in processes performed, earnings gained, and working conditions. Women and men have made and assembled goods, copied and manipulated data, minded dependents, and conducted enterprises in their residences or entered other people’s homes as domestic workers and caregivers. They have done so as unwaged family laborers and slaves, as employees, and as the self-employed. From rural outworkers in early America to urban immigrant homeworkers into the 20th century, from New England to the South and Puerto Rico, mothers and daughters sought to generate income along with engaging in unpaid work for the family. Most found it impossible to combine caring and earning without lengthening the workday into the night. Concentrated in seasonal and fashion industries, in which workers were paid by the piece, homeworkers were at the mercy of national and global markets. Though a family survival strategy, home-based labor challenged the ideology of separate spheres, the separation of home from work that made such labor invisible. Trade unionists joined women reformers to campaign against the home sweatshop for violating domesticity and undermining the male breadwinner wage. The resulting protective laws—minimum wages, maximum hours, and limits on child labor—rarely included home-based work, while the tenement location complicated enforcement of labor standards. New Deal reforms banned the most pervasive forms of industrial homework but excluded the often home-based domestic and agricultural sectors in which African Americans predominated. By the 1990s, new campaigns against the sweatshop linked the local and the global, while domestic workers organized to fight for inclusion in standards related to wages, working hours, and health and safety. Emerging after World War II, white-collar, home-based labor only expanded with the COVID-19 pandemic. Adding new forms of surveillance, such remote work continued to extend the working day, especially for women with care responsibilities.

Article

Motherhood in Early America  

Nora Doyle

Women’s lives in British North America and the early United States were fundamentally shaped by the experiences of childbearing and childrearing and by the ideologies of motherhood that emerged from a range of cultural contexts. Most women in this period became mothers, either through choice or coercion, but their experiences of childbearing and motherhood differed sharply depending on their cultural background, social status, and experience of freedom or bondage. The history of motherhood was marked by significant continuities as well as change over time. For most women, motherhood was fundamentally defined by the physical rigors of pregnancy, childbirth, and breastfeeding, and these experiences remained central across generations. Motherhood comprised a range of roles, activities, and areas of expertise, and as a result many women enjoyed considerable authority as mothers within their families and communities; this too remained constant. Changes to childbearing, motherhood, and maternal ideology occurred gradually and unevenly and affected women from different backgrounds in distinct ways. The incursions of European settler colonialism and the later expansion of the new United States, for instance, brought growing instability to Native American communities and threatened to undermine Native women’s power as mothers, though they formulated strategic responses to preserve their authority. The second half of the 18th century saw changes to women’s experiences and to feminine ideology in Anglo-American society. Middle-class and elite White women precipitated a fertility revolution that resulted in steadily declining family size; in contrast, enslaved women of African descent generally experienced increasing rates of fertility in the 18th century, and their childbearing experiences were shaped by the commodification of their reproductive labor. At the same time, a gradual transition began in the realm of childbirth as some middle-class and elite white women called on male physicians to manage their births. Meanwhile, this same era also saw a significant ideological shift as motherhood gained new significance in Anglo-American culture, making the image of the ideal white mother the most potent symbol of feminine virtue and influence.

Article

The History of Jewish Women in the United States  

Joyce Antler

The story of Jewish women in the United States is one of impressive achievement. Despite their numerically small representation in the American population, they made major contributions to politics and culture, and their organizations were among the nation’s most influential women’s groups. Yet both as women and as Jews, they often confronted troubling inequities in religious and secular life and struggled to balance their multiple identities. Jewish women played vital roles in colonial and revolutionary America, managing their household economies and family life. Highly literate and with extensive social networks, they often engaged in commerce in the interconnected Atlantic world. Jewish women were the mainstays of religious observance, promoting religious worship and the construction of synagogues and schools. Intermarriage was infrequent, with Jewish men marrying out more frequently than women. In the early 19th century, some Jewish women attended the new female academies, becoming teachers, social reformers, and writers. They also founded and managed educational and philanthropic institutions, including the Female Hebrew Benevolent Society, the coeducational Hebrew Sunday School, orphan associations, and mutual aid groups, including the Independent Order of True Sisters, the first national Jewish women’s organization. Jewish women constituted roughly half of the Jewish immigrants who came to the United States from German-speaking European nations in the first half of the 19th century. They also constituted about half of the two and a half million Eastern European immigrants who arrived between 1880 and 1920. Upper- and middle-class Jewish women established sisterhoods, settlement houses, clubs, and schools to aid the new arrivals, inaugurating the first Jewish women’s movement. In 1909, laboring under exploitative conditions, Jewish women garment workers launched an eleven-week strike that transformed the labor movement. Highly represented in movements like socialism, anarchism, and communism, Jewish women also participated in campaigns for birth control and international peace. By the mid-20th century, a new generation assumed leadership at the National Council of Jewish Women, Hadassah, and other Jewish women’s groups. Involved in campaigns against immigration restriction, rescuing refugees from Nazism, and efforts to create a Jewish national homeland, they strengthened Jewish communities throughout the world. In the postwar decades, Jews migrated in significant numbers to the suburbs, where they were the mainstay of synagogue life and helped popularize new rituals like the bat mitzvah. Major leaders in the campaigns for civil rights, nuclear disarmament, and peace, in the 1960s and 1970s they helped launch second-wave feminism. Jewish women were prominent in both liberal and radical branches of the women’s liberation movement. As Jewish feminists, they challenged sexism within Jewish religious and community life and pressed for more egalitarian practices across the denominations. By the early 1970s, Jewish women began to serve as rabbis in the Reform and Reconstruction movements; the first Conservative woman rabbi was ordained in 1985. In the 21st century, Jewish women reflect a more culturally, religiously, and racially diverse population than before. Jewish women and men are increasingly likely to marry or partner with non-Jews, but to raise their children Jewishly. They are more than twice as likely as prior generations to identify with a race or ethnicity other than white. Asian American, Syrian American, and African American women rabbis have been among the most influential voices in their communities. The gay and lesbian synagogue movement, which began in the early 1970s, provided a locus for lesbians to explore their own religious identities. Jewish Women of Color, an expanding group, places itself at the intersection of racism, sexism, and anti-Semitism as it pursues an intersectional vision of social justice.

Article

Chicago  

Ann Durkin Keating

Chicago is a city shaped by industrial capitalism. Before 1848, it was a small commercial outpost in Potawatomi country, and then it expanded with the US economy between the Great Lakes and the Mississippi River. Between 1848 and 1929, Chicago grew from under 30,000 to more than 3 million, fueled by the construction of railroads, warehouses, and factories. Working-class immigrants built their own neighborhoods around industrial sites and along railroads, while a downtown dominated by skyscrapers emerged to serve the needs of corporate clients. Since 1929, Chicago remained an industrial powerhouse and magnet for Black and Latino migrants, even as its economic growth depended more and more on commerce and the service industry.

Article

The Chicana and Chicano Movement  

Rosie Bermudez

The Chicana and Chicano movement or El Movimiento is one of the multiple civil rights struggles led by racialized and marginalized people in the United States. Building on a legacy of organizing among ethnic Mexicans, this social movement emerged in the decades of the 1960s and 1970s to continue the struggle to secure basic human needs and the fulfillment of their civil rights. To be Chicana and Chicano during this era represented an assertion of ethnic and cultural pride, self-determination, and a challenge to the status quo. Those who claimed this political identity sought to contest the subordinate position of people of Mexican origin in America. They responded to the effects and persistence of structural inequalities such as racism, discrimination, segregation, poverty, and the lack of opportunities to rise out of these conditions. Militant direct action and protest were hallmarks of this sustained effort. A flourishing intellectual and creative atmosphere existed within the movement that included the proliferation and combination of multiple ideological and political positions, including cultural nationalism, internationalism, feminism, and leftism. A major facet was rooted in historical recovery, analysis of conditions, and cultural awareness, represented within a wide-ranging print culture, and various forms of expression such as political theater, visual arts, poetry, and music. Constituted by several organizations and local movements, El Movimiento participants varied in age, generation, region, class, and sexuality. Several long-standing issues, including labor and land disputes that were directly linked to a brutal history of exploitation and dispossession, were grappled with. A lack of political representation and substandard education fueled struggles for an alternative political party and education. Further struggles stemmed from poverty coupled with police violence and suppression. Others took on anti-war efforts, and still others tackled gender inequality which reverberated throughout.

Article

The Role of Women in US Foreign Relations  

Molly Wood

The history of American foreign relations encompasses the study of formal diplomatic relationships between the United States and other sovereign nation states, including analysis of US foreign policy debates, strategies and decisions, and the officials who make and implement those decisions. American foreign policy, in the service and protection of American interests around the world, evolves over time to address ever-changing global environments and events. Like policymakers, who respond in different ways to unique events over time, scholars have steadily expanded both the breadth and depth of foreign relations history as a field of scholarship. By the 1980s, historians began to ask new questions and apply methods from the practice of women’s history, a genre of history that developed in response to the changing social, political, and cultural context in the United States by the 1960s. While women have increasingly held professional positions in formal diplomacy through the 20th century and into the 21st as policymakers, military officials, and other institutional roles, broader approaches to, and questions about, the many more informal or unconventional ways the United States interacts with the rest of the world reveals a much more prominent role for women. The distinction between women and gender is a significant one. The examples provided focus on women as active agents in US foreign relations, either individually or in groups, whether gaining influence in formal professional pathways, through less apparent sites of international activism and interaction, or even less visible and informal networks and partnerships. Some historians refer to “soft power” to describe and explain the kind of behind-the-scenes activity in which many American women have participated through the history of American foreign relations.

Article

Arab American Literature  

Pauline Homsi Vinson

Arab American literature as a category has only become recognized since the 1980s; its origins, however, extend back a century earlier to the 1880s, when writers from Arabic-speaking countries formed literary associations, established printing presses, and participated in a thriving intellectual atmosphere that included literary centers in the United States, Brazil, and Argentina, among other places in the Americas, as well as in Beirut, Damascus, and Cairo. While US-based Arab American literature is heavily enmeshed in the context of its location in the United States, it also intersects with literatures produced in the Americas more broadly and with transnational Arabic literature globally. Prevalent narratives of US–Arab American literature typically divide it into three distinct phases that mirror a wave model of immigration from Arabic-speaking countries to the United States from the 1880s to the early 21st century. A non-linear, and transnational approach to Arab American literature in the United States can yield a layered picture of continuities, breaks, and redirections in Arab American writing, thereby deepening appreciation for the rich history, complex politics, and manifold aesthetics of Arab American literary expression.