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Women, Gender, and the Economies of Colonial North America  

Ellen Hartigan-O'Connor

North American women were at the center of trade, exchange, economic production, and reproduction, from early encounters in the 16th century through the development of colonies, confederations, and nations by the end of the 18th century. They worked for the daily survival of their communities; they provided the material basis for economic and political expansion. There were no economies without them and no economy existed outside of a gender system that shaped and supported it. Connections of family, household, and community embedded the market economies in each region of North America. Gender acted through credit networks, control over others’ labor, and legal patterns of property ownership. Colonialism, by which Europeans sought to acquire land, extract resources, grow profitable crops, and create a base of consumers for European manufactured goods, transformed local and transatlantic economies. Women’s labor in agriculture, trade, and reproduction changed in the context of expanding international economies, created by the transatlantic slave trade, new financial tools for long-distance investment, and an increasing demand for tropical groceries (tea, coffee, and sugar) and dry goods. Women adjusted their work to earn the money or goods that allowed them to participate in these circuits of exchange. Captive women themselves became exchangeable goods. By the end of the 18th century, people living across North America and the Caribbean had adopted revised and blended ideas about gender and commerce. Some came to redefine the economy itself as a force operating independently of women’s daily subsistence, a symbolic realm that divided as much as connected people.