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Article

Anne Hutchinson  

Lynn Westerkamp

Anne Hutchinson engaged a diverse group of powerful men as well as the disenfranchised during the mid-1630s in Boston’s so-called Antinomian Controversy, the name given to the theological battle between John Cotton, who emphasized free grace, and other clerics who focused upon preparation for those seeking salvation. Hutchinson followed Cotton’s position, presented his theology in meetings in her home, and inspired her followers, male and female, to reject pastors opposing Cotton’s position. Hutchinson’s followers included leading men who opposed John Winthrop’s leadership of Massachusetts Bay Colony; this dispute also became an arena where Winthrop reasserted his power. Hutchinson represents the Puritans’ drive for spiritual development within, including her claim of revelation. She is best understood within a transatlantic framework illustrating both the tools of patriarchal oppression and, more importantly, the appeal of Puritan spirituality for women.

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

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

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

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

Native American Captivity and Slavery in North America, 1492–1848  

Ann Little

The capture, adoption, and/or enslavement of enemies in North American warfare long predated the European invasion of the 16th century. In every region and among nearly every nation of Native North America, captive-taking continued after the arrival of the Spanish, English, and French and accelerated in the 18th century as a result of the opportunities and pressures that colonialism brought to bear on indigenous peoples. Although the famous narratives of Indian captivity were written by people of European descent, the majority of people who were taken and adopted or enslaved by Native Americans were themselves Native American women, girls, and boys. One scholar estimates that perhaps as many as 2.5 to 5 million Indigenous slaves were owned by Europeans in the Western hemisphere from 1492 to 1900; this estimate excludes the millions more who were retained within other Indigenous communities. Within these Native American communities, captives served a variety of purposes along a continuum: depending on their age and sex, they might be adopted fully into a new kinship network, or they might be ritually executed. Most captive adults seem to have endured fates in-between these dramatic poles: they might be marked as “adopted slaves” and set to the most tedious and repetitive work; they might be traded or given as gifts for profit or diplomacy; they might be subjected to coerced sex; or they might marry a captor and have children who were full kin members of their new community. Most would probably experience more than one of these fates. In the early 21st century, important scholarship on Native American captivity has emphasized its similarities to African slavery and how the African slave trade influenced Native American captive raiding, trading, and enslavement in the colonial era and in the early United States. But there were two possibly interrelated important differences between these two slaveries. First, unlike the adult male African captives who were preferred by Europeans for enslavement in North America, most captives taken by other Native Americans were women and children. Second, this Indigenous slavery was not heritable, although the captives themselves were frequently marked or even mutilated to signify their status as outsiders, or not-kin, in a world defined by kinship ties. Although the differences of intersecting European and Indigenous cultures, chronology, and context made for widely disparate experiences in Indian captivity and slavery over four centuries, one constant across time and space is that captive-taking seems to have been intended to grow the captors’ populations as well as deprive their enemies of productive and reproductive labor. The appropriation of girls’ and women’s sexuality and reproductive power became the means by which female captives might suffer intensely as well as possibly improve their standing and their children’s futures.

Article

Puritan Women in Early America  

M. Michelle Jarrett Morris

Puritan women could be found throughout early America, but the majority lived in New England. More is known about those who were white and of middling or elite rank, but Puritans could be found in all ranks of society, and some Native Americans and Africans converted to Christianity in response to Puritan missionary efforts as well. Puritan women’s lives were multifaceted. They were the backbone of the Puritan church and expert witnesses in court. They were economic partners in domestic economies, household managers, and could if necessary act in their husbands’ stead. Women were dispensers of charity and the workforce of military garrisons. As wives under coverture (a legal doctrine which placed wives’ legal and economic identities under their husbands’ control), they were expected to be submissive, but as mothers and mistresses, their role was to exercise authority. As members of earthly churches they were subordinate, but, as souls in the Church universal, they were equal before God. Although many Puritan women shared basic roles, their experiences and the daily rhythms of their lives varied considerably. Age and life-cycle, as well as inequities of wealth, made some women mistresses and others servants. Married women’s work was focused primarily around food, clothing, and childcare, but geography and their husbands’ occupations shaped what women grew in their gardens and what food they foraged or bought, as well as which raw materials they had available for other types of domestic production. Aptitude and informal education led some women to become sought-after healers or midwives to whom other women turned in difficult times. Puritan women were part of both heterosocial and homosocial communities which might be sustaining or riddled with conflict. In extreme cases, social conflict might even lead to accusations of witchcraft. Often in those cases, both accused and accusers were Puritan women.

Article

The Quaker “Invasion”  

Adrian Chastain Weimer

Founded in the late 1640s, Quakerism reached America in the 1650s and quickly took root due to the determined work of itinerant missionaries over the next several decades. Quakers, or members of the Society of Friends, faced different legal and social challenges in each colony. Many English men and women viewed Friends with hostility because they refused to bear arms in a colony’s defense or take loyalty oaths. Others were drawn to Quakers’ egalitarian message of universal access to the light of Christ in each human being. After George Fox’s visit to the West Indies and the mainland colonies in 1671–1672, Quaker missionaries followed his lead in trying to include enslaved Africans and native Americans in their meetings. Itinerant Friends were drawn to colonies with the most severe laws, seeking a public platform from which to display, through suffering, a joyful witness to the truth of the Quaker message. English Quakers then quickly ushered accounts of their sufferings into print. Organized and supported by English Quakers such as Margaret Fell, the Quaker “invasion” of itinerant missionaries put pressure on colonial judicial systems to define the acceptable boundaries for dissent. Nascent communities of Friends from Barbados to New England struggled with the tension between Quaker ideals and the economic and social hierarchies of colonial societies.

Article

The Salem Witch Trials  

Emerson W. Baker

The Salem Witch Trials are one of the best known, most studied, and most important events in early American history. The afflictions started in Salem Village (present-day Danvers), Massachusetts, in January 1692, and by the end of the year the outbreak had spread throughout Essex County, and threatened to bring down the newly formed Massachusetts Bay government of Sir William Phips. It may have even helped trigger a witchcraft crisis in Connecticut that same year. The trials are known for their heavy reliance on spectral evidence, and numerous confessions, which helped the accusations grow. A total of 172 people are known to have been formally charged or informally cried out upon for witchcraft in 1692. Usually poor and marginalized members of society were the victims of witchcraft accusations, but in 1692 many of the leading members of the colony were accused. George Burroughs, a former minister of Salem Village, was one of the nineteen people convicted and executed. In addition to these victims, one man, Giles Cory, was pressed to death, and five died in prison. The last executions took place in September 1692, but it was not until May 1693 that the last trial was held and the last of the accused was freed from prison. The trials would have lasting repercussions in Massachusetts and signaled the beginning of the end of the Puritan City upon a Hill, an image of American exceptionalism still regularly invoked. The publications ban issued by Governor Phips to prevent criticism of the government would last three years, but ultimately this effort only ensured that the failure of the government to protect innocent lives would never be forgotten. Pardons and reparations for some of the victims and their families were granted by the government in the early 18th century, and the legislature would regularly take up petitions, and discuss further reparations until 1749, more than fifty years after the trials. The last victims were formally pardoned by the governor and legislature of Massachusetts in 2001.

Article

Women and Medicine in Early America  

Rebecca Tannenbaum

Women from all cultural groups in British North America—European, African, and Indigenous American—played a central role in medicine in early America. They acted as midwives, healers, and apothecaries and drew on a variety of cultural traditions in doing so, even as they shared many beliefs about the workings of the human body. Healing gave women a route to authority and autonomy within their social groups. As the 18th century opened, women healers were able to enter the expanding world of capitalist commerce. Anglo-American women parlayed their knowledge of herbal medicine into successful businesses, and even enslaved midwives were sometimes able to be paid in cash for their skills. However, as academic medicine took more of an interest in topics such as childbirth, women practitioners faced increasingly bitter competition from professionalizing male physicians.

Article

Women and Religion in Colonial North America and the United States  

Catherine A. Brekus

Historically, women in colonial North America and the United States have been deeply influenced by their religious traditions. Even though world religions like Judaism, Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Islam are based on scriptural traditions that portray women as subordinate to men, women have made up the majority of most religious groups in America. While some Americans have used religious arguments to limit women’s legal, political, and economic rights, others have drawn on scripture to defend women’s dignity and equality. Women’s religious beliefs have shaped every aspect of their lives, including their choices about how to structure their time, their attitudes toward sexuality and the body, and their understanding of suffering. Unlike early American Catholic women, who saw their highest religious calling as the sisterhood, most white colonial women identified their primary religious vocation as ministering to their families. In the 19th century, however, white Protestant women become increasingly involved in reform movements like temperance, abolitionism, and women’s suffrage, and African-American, Native American, Asian-American, and Latina women used religious arguments to challenge assumptions about white racial supremacy. In the 20th century, growing numbers of women from many different religious traditions have served as religious leaders, and in some cases they have also demanded ordination. Despite these dramatic changes in religious life, however, many religiously conservative women opposed the Equal Rights Amendment during the 1970s and early 1980s, and in the first decades of the 21st century they have continued to identify feminism and religion as antithetical.

Article

Women and War in Early America  

Gina M. Martino

Early American women incited, fought in, and brokered peace in conflicts that ranged from regional to nearly continental in scale during the 17th and 18th centuries. It is true that in most early American societies, warfare was considered a masculine activity. Nevertheless, war making, particularly in periods of endemic war, required the active participation of men and women. In some Indigenous polities, women decided when to wage war and which enemy captives would live or die. Other Indigenous women commanded troops as leaders of their polities, forging and shattering alliances with their Indigenous and European peers. For European women attempting to colonize contested regions of the continent, military readiness was part of everyday life. Even if these women did not participate in the masculinized theater of the militia drill, they did know how to produce ammunition and fire a musket. Beginning in the 1770s, early American women would participate in a conflict that was at once a colonial war, a revolutionary war, and a civil war. The American Revolution did not distinguish between the home and the front or the frontier town and the peaceful hamlet. Women would be touched by a war that mobilized their production skills, intellects, and physical strength. That same war would also displace hundreds of thousands of women, many of whom would never return home. But as they had through the whole of early American history, women would continue to adapt, resist, and mobilize.

Article

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.

Article

Women in Early American Economy  

Jane T. Merritt

From the planter societies and subsistence settlements of the 17th century to the global markets of the late 18th century, white, black, and Indian women participated extensively in the early American economy. As the colonial world gave way to an independent nation and household economies yielded to cross-Atlantic commercial networks, women played an important role as consumers and producers. Was there, however, a growing gendered divide in the American economy by the turn of the 19th century? Were there more restrictions on women’s business activities, property ownership, work lives, consumer demands, or productive skills? Possibly, we ask the wrong questions when exploring women’s history. By posing questions that compare the past with present conditions, we miss the more nuanced and shifting patterns that made up the variety of women’s lives. Whether rural or urban, rich or poor, free or enslaved, women’s legal and marital status dictated some basic parameters of how they operated within the early American economy. But despite these boundaries, or perhaps because of them, women created new strategies to meet the economic needs of households, families, and themselves. As entrepreneurs they brought in lodgers or operated small businesses that generated extra income. As producers they finagled the materials necessary to create items for home use and to sell at market. As consumers, women, whether free or enslaved, demanded goods from merchants and negotiated prices that fit their budgets. As laborers, these same women translated myriad skills into wages or exchanged labor for goods. In all these capacities, women calculated, accumulated, and survived in the early American economy.

Article

Women, Race, and the Law in Early America  

Terri L. Snyder

Everywhere across European and Indigenous settlements in 17th- and 18th-century North America and the Caribbean, the law or legal practices shaped women’s status and conditioned their dependency, regardless of race, age, marital status, or place of birth. Historians have focused much of their attention on the legal status, powers, and experiences of women of European origin across the colonies and given great consideration to the law of domestic relations, the legal disabilities of coverture, and women’s experiences as plaintiffs and defendants, both civil and criminal, in colonial courts. Early American legalities, however, differed markedly for women of color—whether free, indentured, or enslaved, and whether Native or African in origin or descent—whose relationships to the legal regimes of early America were manifold and complex. In their status under the law, experiences at the bar, and, as a result, positions in household polities, women of color reckoned with a set of legalities that differed from those of their European counterparts. The diversity of women’s experiences of the law was shaped not only by race but also by region: Indigenous people had what one historian has labeled jurispractices, while Europeans brought and created a jurisprudence of race and status that shaped treatments of women of color across imperial spaces. A widely comparative analysis of women and the law reflects ways in which race shaped women’s status under and experiences of the law as well as the legalities of their marriages in pre-Revolutionary America.