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.
Kelly A. Ryan
Sheila L. Skemp
Historians once assumed that, because women in the era of the American Revolution could not vote and showed very little interest in attaining the franchise, they were essentially apolitical beings. Scholars now recognize that women were actively engaged in the debates that accompanied the movement toward independence, and that after the war many sought a more expansive political role for themselves. Moreover, men welcomed women’s support for the war effort. If they saw women as especially fit for domestic duties, many continued to seek women’s political guidance and help even after the war ended. Granted, those women who wanted a more active and unmediated relationship to the body politic faced severe legal and ideological obstacles. The common law system of coverture gave married women no control over their bodies or to property, and thus accorded them no formal venue to express their political opinions. Religious convention had it that women, the “weaker sex,” were the authors of original sin. The ideology associated with “republicanism” argued that the attributes of independence, self-reliance, physical strength, and bravery were exclusively masculine virtues. Many observers characterized women as essentially selfish and frivolous creatures who hungered after luxuries and could not contain their carnal appetites. Nevertheless, some women carved out political roles for themselves. In the lead up to the war, many women played active, even essential roles in various non-consumption movements, promising to refrain from purchasing English goods, and attacking those merchants who refused to boycott prohibited goods. Some took to the streets, participating in riots that periodically disturbed the tranquility of colonial cities. A few published plays and poems proclaiming their patriotic views. Those women, who would become loyalists, were also active, never reluctant, to express their disapproval of the protest movement. During the war, many women demonstrated their loyalty to the patriot cause by shouldering the burdens of absent husbands. They managed farms and businesses. First in Philadelphia, and then in other cities, women went from door to door collecting money for the Continental Army. Some accompanied husbands to the battlefront, where they tended to the material needs of soldiers. A very few disguised themselves as men and joined the army, exposing as a lie the notion that only men had the capacity to sacrifice their lives for the good of the country. Loyalist women continued to express their political views, even though doing so brought them little more than physical suffering and emotional pain. African American women took advantage of wartime chaos to run away from their masters and forge new, independent lives for themselves. After the war, women marched in parades, lobbied and petitioned legislators, attended sessions of Congress, and participated in political rallies—lending their support to particular candidates or factions. Elite women published novels, poems, and plays. Some hosted salons where men and women gathered to discuss political issues. In New Jersey, single property-owning women voted. By the end of the century, however, proponents of women’s political rights lost ground, in part because new “scientific” notions of gender difference prepared the way for the concept of “separate spheres.” Politics became more organized, leaving little room for women to express their views “out of doors,” even as judges and legislators defined women as naturally dependent. Still, white, middle class women in particular took advantage of better educational opportunities, finding ways to influence the public sphere without demanding formal political rights. They read, wrote, and organized benevolent societies, laying the groundwork for the antebellum reform movements of the mid-19th century.
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.
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.
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.