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.
Jane T. Merritt
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.