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date: 06 July 2022

Women in Early American Economyfree

Women in Early American Economyfree

  • Jane T. MerrittJane T. MerrittDepartment of History, Old Dominion University


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.


  • Colonial History
  • Economic History
  • Women's History

Coverture, Property, and White Women’s Economic Powers in the 17th Century

In the 17th century, the legal status of women delineated their economic activities in North America. English laws of coverture placed married white women under the guardianship of husbands, thus curtailing their ability to run a business, trade goods, get access to credit, own property, or use the court system to protect assets without the assistance of a husband or guardian. In late 17th-century Albemarle, North Carolina, for instance, Diana White and her second husband Thomas went to court to recover a debt owed to her from when she was single. Between 1686 and 1696, Diana White ran an ordinary where court sessions sometimes met; she used that court system to protect her own economic interests, but usually did so through one of her three husbands as proxy.1 Married women in the colonial period did own and operate businesses, and some colonial governments encouraged them, especially in the absence of their husbands. However, few laws protected them outright. Only South Carolina gave married women the legal right to trade retail goods independently as feme sole traders.2 In general, widows and single women had more economic freedoms and were even liable for their own debts, but they still might need the assistance of a male representative to navigate the legal systems that handled property rights, inheritance, or business transactions.3

Because coverture created impediments, women looked for ways to act economically through collective ventures. They partnered with other family members—a husband, a son, or a mother-in-law—to manage entrepreneurial activities, such as retail businesses, taverns, or boarding houses. Middling and elite married women in New York, for instance, could participate in business and trade and “could sue in courts to protect their credit.” However, they were expected to “trade under their husbands’ names,” Cathy Matson asserts, “Even as widows, they often continued to make transactions or bring suits for recovery of debts in dead husbands’ names.”4 The success and number of these women-run businesses rose and fell depending on place and time. Sharon Salinger, for example, saw “the number of women licensed to run taverns in Boston” drop by the late 18th century, even though the number of widows licensed to sell alcohol remained steady.5 The nature of the sources make it difficult to track and enumerate these cases, however. Women’s names, occupations, or economic activities were often hidden behind their husband in merchant account books or court documents; at times this obfuscation was done intentionally to hide family resources from legal action. Only in widowhood did some women merchant’s names appear on ledgers and account records, even if they had been actively buying, selling, and trading for years.6

In fact, widowhood provided white women the best opportunity to accumulate landed property and capital, and to wield economic power. Whether in rural Massachusetts, New York, or the Chesapeake, women who survived their husbands usually received at least a third of the estate as a dower right to provide support for the remainder of their lifetime.7 With property in hand, especially in regions where women were scarcer than men, widows became desirable partners for re-marriage, providing further economic opportunity for women. In 17th-century Maryland, for instance, planters’ wives who survived their husbands could accumulate large holdings of property. Since wives usually outlived their husbands, some women accumulated property through a series of marriages, enjoying economic and social power through the management and use of this wealth.8

Still, widowhood could leave early American women economically vulnerable, since their legal status and the practice of coverture laws differed between colonies. In the Chesapeake, a widow may have retained the management of her late husband’s estate beyond her dower right; however, the property usually passed through to sons once they came of age, thus limiting the capital that women controlled. Indeed, according to Carole Shammas, women held ownership to only 1 in 10 American estates in probate, as compared to 1 in 5 English estates.9 Even if a husband granted an entire estate to his widow, as 1 out of 5 did in 1660s Maryland, the property was meant for distribution to male heirs, and the courts often assigned male guardians to oversee the final dispensation of property in probate.10 For New England, a woman’s age dictated whether she might receive or retain landed property from a husband who passed away. Gloria Main found that by the 18th century young widows in Massachusetts were more likely to control property held for their underage children, whereas older widows could be shut out of inheritance altogether.11 The American Revolution did not necessarily increase the proportion of white women’s ownership of property or capital, but at least inheritance laws changed to encourage the equal distribution of assets among children; by the late 18th century, daughters as well as sons could inherit equal portions of an estate.12 Nonetheless, a daughter often received her inheritance only upon marriage, when the property rights would be transferred to her husband.

White women’s legal and marital status affected whether they owned and how they controlled property. But in the largely rural agricultural communities of 17th-century America, women’s productive work and labor tell us more about their economic experience, which also varied from region to region. In New England, where the sex ratio tended to be more balanced and the economies based on subsistence agriculture, white women’s labor and its value centered around marriage and the household.13 In the Chesapeake, however, fewer married women migrated to early settlements; instead, more single women arrived as indentured servants, hoping to find economic betterment eventually through marriage.14 Men tended to be ambivalent about their presence. Some planters saw little value in the domestic chores that female laborers performed, such as cooking, washing, cleaning, and mending clothes. Traditionally, they expected wives to perform these tasks for no pay. But, since marriage partners were limited, single men “had to pay exorbitant sums” for the domestic services of female servants. If they needed to economize, planters chose to dismiss female servants, forcing male laborers to take on domestic chores in a haphazard manner.15

Whether free or bound, early female migrants to the South were considered valuable as potential wives, but perhaps even more so as field workers. In either case, women in early America did much more than cook and clean. They prepared tobacco fields for planting and helped in the cultivation and harvest process. They kept vegetable gardens, tended livestock, gathered native fruits, vegetables, and nuts. By the 18th century, white women in the Chesapeake hired out their labor, or, if they had accumulated human property, the labor of their slaves and servants, to spin flax, knit, weave, and make candles.16 In fact, according to Kathleen Brown, the value of women’s labor “in Virginia presented a challenge to rhetoric about female economic dependence, bodily weakness, and domesticity.”17 Because labor was scarce in 17th-century Virginia, English women often worked tobacco fields rather than working in the household economy. Still, as Brown argues, white women’s domestic labor was often “invisible” and “ultimately conferred status upon her husband. With her labor carefully excised from the family’s living space and largely replaced by that of servant and slave women, an elite woman thus became an important element in the architecture and material culture of male gentility.”18

Indeed, as wealthier white women became “planters’ wives” and their status rose by the late 17th century, plantation owners shifted the burden of agricultural labor onto slaves. Thus, paradoxically, African and African American women joined the early American economy as both property and producer. In the household and field, black women produced far more on southern plantations than their white counterparts. As slave populations grew, black women were tasked with spinning, weaving, and other domestic chores for the household. But, separated from the assumptions of southern female gentility, women bound as slaves or servants more often worked in Chesapeake tobacco fields or rice and indigo fields in the Carolinas, and performed “taxable labor” that was no longer assessed of white women, further emphasizing the commodity value placed on tobacco cultivation as well as female slaves and their labor.19

Women in Household and Market Economies

Whether part of agrarian communities of the South or on subsistence farms in New England, in early America women were crucial to the operation of the household economy and acted as conduits between home and local markets, where they bought goods and sold surplus produce. Although women’s domestic work often went without compensation, and thus, perhaps undervalued by settlers and historians alike, colonial market economies depended on women’s production and labor. The early American household economy as described by Laurel Ulrich in Good Wives: Image and Reality in the Lives of Women in Northern New England, 1650–1750, encompassed “the kitchen and its appendages, the cellars, pantries, brewhouses, milkhouses, washhouses, and butteries which appear in various combinations in household inventories, to the exterior of the house, where, even in the city, a mélange of animal and vegetable life flourished among the straw, husks, clutter, and muck.”20 Ulrich admits that these boundaries extended occasionally into a nearby village or a neighbor’s house “to bargain for needed goods and services.”21 As “Good Wives,” New England women had to manufacture family clothing, tend a garden, raise milk cows, chickens, and pigs, and generally manage a complicated set of people, animals, produce, tasks, and household inventories so that the family might prosper, or at least survive. In addition, these women were expected to step into the role of “deputy husband” if needed, to run a family business. Most women were limited by education, law, and custom from having occupations outside the household, but “wives were presumed capable of husbanding property which male heirs would eventually inherit.”22

Although still tied to household economies in largely rural communities, after 1660, longer lifespans, more stable colonial organization, and a decline in white servitude slowly transformed women’s participation in expanding commercial marketplaces. Increased availability of new household equipment for spinning, weaving, and dairy work allowed women to produce more thread, textiles, butter, and cheese, which became commodities for trade with neighbors and in nearby market towns.23 Domestic production and the exchange of skills and goods with other women helped create collaborative networks and laid the foundation for economic opportunities. Married women on New York and Pennsylvania farms, for instance, produced butter, cheese, wool and linen textiles, cider, and other goods for the market; in fact, Deborah Rosen asserts that rural women participated more often in this exchange economy than urban women, who were not as well equipped to produce excess goods for sale.24 Similarly, in the South, propertied white women leveraged their wealth to exercise new economic opportunities that linked plantation with local markets and beyond. Eliza Lucas Pickney of South Carolina famously managed the family plantation in the 1740s, successfully experimenting with new strains of indigo. She oversaw the cultivation of indigo, but also made decisions about its pricing and sale in Charleston.25

Eliza Lucas Pickney and other elite women in 18th-century America could find economic opportunities and accumulate wealth because they commanded the labor of others.26 Enslaved women, as property and producers, could only occasionally control the economic outcome of their labor. In the American south and Caribbean colonies, enslaved women cultivated rice, handled tobacco, and cut sugar cane. In households, they did laundry, raised white children, and prepared food and domestic goods.27 At times, enslaved women enjoyed economic agency when they participated in the expanding market economy. In a town such as Charleston, they might collect cash when they “washed clothes and cooked meals for the soldiers stationed in town,” as Ellen Hartigan-O’Connor contends.28 Even when acting under the orders of white owners, enslaved women, as shoppers and consumers, created retail networks that bought a measure of public autonomy.29 Simultaneously, and more problematic, however, enslaved women were expected to reproduce labor through childbirth, thus conveying slavery and its legal limitations onto their progeny.

Productive skills learned in household economies became the basis for women’s wage labor, and both rural production and women’s productive skills connected market towns and their outlying hinterlands in economic networks that women dominated. Towns provided more opportunities for single white women to peddle their skills and become self-sufficient. For example, by the 1770s, more than one-third of Philadelphia’s “adult female population were unmarried and living in the households of nonrelatives,” most likely working as domestic servants for wages or room and board.30 If not working in another household, women in early American towns might take in laundry, work as seamstresses, or do piece-work for a textile merchant. Perhaps some of the women who were better educated or trained took up professions such as schoolmistress, midwife, or nurse.31

But wage labor could be a trap; women earned half of what men could command and domestic work kept women poor as they struggled to eke out a living. Indeed, many of these poor working women, who relied on the informal economies of market towns, were also transient. Ruth Wallis Herndon, in her study of the poor in Rhode Island, found that “two-thirds of the adult transients were female” and women without husbands (separated, single, widowed, or abandoned) headed half of the households (49.6%) among 772 transient families in Rhode Island between 1750 and 1800.32 Being poor was hard work and these poor women worked hard. Some had once been slaves or indentured servants, but freedom did not always bring good jobs or economic stability. Many were “warned out” of towns where they were not recognized as legal residents and they worked a series of low-paying jobs. Olive Pero, a mulatto woman from Rehoboth, Massachusetts, bound out as a servant when young, ended up in Narragansett Bay to labor until age 18, washing, cleaning, and cooking for a merchant’s household. As an adult in the mid-18th century, Olive had only accrued skills as a domestic laborer; she drifted to Providence, Rhode Island, where she gave birth to a daughter out of wedlock, further complicating her livelihood.33

Dire straits, such as Olive Pero’s circumstances, sometimes pushed the poorest of women to turn to illegal or barely legal economies on the margins. Serena Zabin examined criminal records in 18th-century New York City to reveal that a number of poor white and African American women, especially during war time, sold sundry stolen items on the black market, peddling their wares one step ahead of the law. Although laws targeted the small economies of unlicensed or illegal trade and local governments sought to arrest those selling stolen goods, city officials also recognized that easing or waiving license fees for the poor might encourage them to turn toward legitimate means of support.34 Even women who sold sexual favors to survive could avoid the heavy hand of the law. Prostitutes in 18th-century Philadelphia were often targets of moral reprimands and reforms but were brought before the courts only when their activities intersected with other criminal activities.35

Indeed, urban women’s economies sometimes intersected with new institutional reforms initiated to “improve” the lives of the poor. Charitable organizations in the 18th century, such as the poor house or workhouse, treated poverty as both sin and a deficiency of moral character. In Philadelphia, for instance, the Bettering House established in 1768, created a manufactory that required able-bodied poor women residents to spin set quotas of linen yarn or to perform piece-work to provide for their care. Still, even the poor preferred to make their own economic decisions. Some women refused to enter the Bettering House, or fled its prison-like atmosphere, especially if they found they could get better pay for producing yarn and textiles outside the workhouse.36

On the other end of the social spectrum, women of means found ways to reap rewards from urban market economies. Although they were largely excluded from participating in contractual agreements, thus limiting their control over capital and large commercial enterprises, white women still operated small businesses or found ways to invest in trade ventures for profit. In 18th-century Philadelphia, women ran as many as half of all retail stores. Throughout the colonies, women bought wholesale goods to resell in other venues they operated, such as taverns, ordinaries, or small shops.37 Linda Sturtz notes that between 1701 and 1761 in York County, Virginia, 22% of all ordinary and tavern owners were women.38 In New York City, women leveraged court systems to protect business assets.39 Even if they did not act alone, as in New York, elite women could invest and trade with the assistance of male partners. Jane Fenn, a single woman who arrived in Philadelphia during the 1730s, sought the help of fellow Quakers to provide a reliable stream of income in her new home. Using book credit in London and two Bills of Exchange, she financed the purchase of a large parcel of tea, which she then sold with the assistance of merchant John Reynell and storekeeper Samuel Coates. The growing demand for tea by the early 18th century helped Fenn invest and profit on its resale in a liquid Philadelphia market.40

The Intersection of Non-English and Native American Economies

Non-English women also experienced a variety of economic practices in North America. Dutch women, for example, probably enjoyed more economic independence than Anglo-American women because of legal protections. According to Susanah Shaw Romney, Dutch women in the 17th century created “intimate networks” that connected Amsterdam with North America. In the Netherlands, men legally empowered their wives and kin to act financially for the family in ways that the English did not. Thus, women could establish family credit and incur debt, and created trade partnerships, sometimes as employees of the Dutch West India Company.41 Both in Amsterdam and New Netherlands, women acted on the behalf of their husbands, but also sought to profit from their own financial activities. They lent money at high interest rates to sailors who pawned goods to go to sea. Women took in lodgers or sold their sexual services. They petitioned courts to return dead husbands’ belongings so they might sell the property.42

For Dutch women, crossing the Atlantic Ocean brought new opportunity. Like 17th-century English women who signed labor contracts to gamble on a better life in the Chesapeake, some Dutch women indentured themselves for a chance to find economic opportunity or social betterment through marriage. Indeed, for many European women in the early modern period, marriage was as much a financial arrangement as it was an emotional one.43 If a woman had experience in trade or could read and tally a basic account book, in many respects she was considered a great partner for a merchant or Atlantic trader. Servitude, usually to the Dutch West India Company, did not always bring betterment or mobility, however. Dutch women risked exploitation and abuse by the Company or their contracted masters.44 Still, women in New York benefited from the persistence of some Dutch laws, even though the English practice of coverture was introduced in the late 17th century. After the English took administrative control of the colony, marital status did not keep women from controlling the use and transfer of property that they inherited.45

German settlers also brought their own economic and legal practices to bear in a New World setting. In early-18th-century Pennsylvania, German Moravian immigrants lived in communal economies, sharing tasks and resources among and between separate residential “choirs” of single and married people. For women, collective subsistence helped lighten the individual burden of maintaining a household. The communal economy ended in 1760, however, and according to Katherine Carté Engel, the Single Sisters’ Choir especially struggled to support itself. Limited to performing “household work and traditionally female tasks, such as spinning and cooking,” for hire, they brought in less money than their male counterparts. They had to scrape together their wages from domestic work to pay for other necessities and services that had been provided previously through the communal economy.46

Besides their participation in settler societies, Dutch and German Moravian women provided crucial links to nearby Native American economies in the mid-Atlantic region. Women of all cultures often acted as facilitators and translators for the fur trade. During the 17th century, Dutch women extended familiar kin networks, which they used to establish business credentials in Amsterdam, to bring together Euro-American traders and Native American peoples in the Hudson River Valley, Manhattan, and Long Island.47 In mid-18th-century Pennsylvania, Moravian women also reached out to nearby native communities to share resources and negotiate trade agreements, even as they hoped to change native economic habits.48

Despite Euro-American pressure to conform to a market economy, Native American women maintained many traditional practices or adapted those best suited to their lives. Matrilineal kinship structures among eastern tribes conferred the right to cultivate land and its productive capacity to women. Delawares, Mahicans, and Shawnees in eastern Pennsylvania and New York’s Hudson Valley followed seasonal cycles of planting and hunting. Besides collecting local natural resources, such as cranberries, blackberries, wild honey, and hemp, native women cultivated and harvested corn, squash, and beans in well-tended fields.49 The growing presence of white colonists changed some of the daily decisions about household organization, production, and consumption, but Indian women adapted by selling surplus produce at local markets, performing wage labor for nearby German and Scots-Irish residents, and manufacturing new goods for sale. Native women traveled to small towns between Philadelphia and the Susquehanna River where they “pulled flax and turnips, reaped oats, or gathered pine knots, for which they usually received the going rate for women’s labor, one shilling a day.”50 They turned to entrepreneurial activities to help support their households; they often spent the winter months manufacturing broom, baskets, wooden spoons, bowls, and sleeping mats to exchange for trade goods or cash.51

By the 18th century, a consumer Revolution and cross-Atlantic trade increasingly defined local North American economies. Still, native women who lived more distant from Euro-American communities adapted to these new economic networks, creating alliances through the fur trade. Along the English colonial frontier, native women married white traders, providing access to native hunting skills and resources; they processed and sold skins, incorporating “innovative technologies into their societies, such as labor-saving devices—needles, awls, cloth, and kettles—that had an impact on the daily lives of their communities.”52 Similarly, Native American women in the French colonial world took an active role in the fur trade economy, where the elevated status of native and metis women provided a model of autonomy that French women in Quebec wanted to imitate, as Karen Marrero argues.53 Still, Native American women were never solely bound by trade activities with English or French colonizers. Susan Sleeper-Smith uncovers a remarkable 18th-century “Agrarian Village World” in the Ohio Valley, which underscores the productivity and prosperity that native women brought to North America. They elicited high crop yields from their cornfields, planted extensive fruit orchards, and “raised domesticated animals before the arrival of the French.”54

The 18th-Century Consumer Revolution and Transition from Market Economies to Commercial Markets

Agriculture remained a staple that linked rural America to market towns. By the mid-18th century, however, commercial markets had multiplied and global trade networks helped accelerate a consumer revolution that gave women new economic opportunities. The increased prosperity of American families and proliferation of new goods in America gave women the wherewithal to drive markets as consumers. The American Revolution did not necessarily empower women politically, but their participation in consumer markets gave women a political voice when they were called on to join non-importation boycotts during the 1760s and 1770s. The politics of consumption became a powerful platform for women that resonated beyond the Revolution.

Some early American colonists trivialized consumption as an economic activity that had little resonance beyond a local shop. Indeed, 18th-century critics tended to be suspicious of the growing market in goods considered superfluous to daily needs, and were dismissive of women consumers. New luxury consumables, such as tea, sugar, and chocolate, or textiles like silk, were viewed as extraneous at best. The critics of luxury thought the dangers supposedly embedded in these items would harm women, in particular. Tea and sugar allegedly made women weak, idle, licentious, and prone to scandalous gossip. In reality, however, merchants and shopkeepers (not to mention nations that increasingly relied on consumer tax revenue) could not afford to alienate or discourage women consumers. They became central to the growth and strength of early American commercial markets.55 Merchants used new modes of advertisement to appeal to women consumers, and gladly catered to their demands for specific goods.56

Women’s consumer powers became clear in the 1760s and 1770s, when British economic policies and practices helped initiate the American revolutionary movement. Activists called on women to stop buying certain British goods listed on non-importation agreements, such as textiles or tea sold by the English East India Company. Although reluctant to give up small luxuries like tea, women acknowledged the political necessity to change their shopping habits.57 Patriots in Boston, New York, and Philadelphia implored “Young ladies in town” to wear clothing “of your own make and spinning” and to “Throw aside your Bohea, and your Green Hyson Tea” for home-made herbal brews.58 Women joined boycotts and sought non-British sources for goods; they used their productive household skills to spin, weave, and sew “homespun” clothing and later conserved the remnants of those textiles to make paper.59

During the American Revolution women continued to make political statements as consumers. Toward the end of the war they questioned the pricing and distribution of goods that had become scarce. Women complained that merchants created artificial shortages of some commodities in order to keep prices high, and they took direct action against them, if necessary. For example, in August 1776, a group of women marched into Jacobus Lefferts’ Fishkill, New York, store and “proceeded to weigh, measure, and sell the tea [he hoarded] for the congressionally sanctioned 6 shillings per pound.”60 They had learned lessons from non-importation protests of the pre-revolutionary period and applied them to local circumstances. Still, the economic empowerment of the American Revolution should not be overstated. As Cathy Matson points out, the “more significant reality may have been about disrupted regional and international markets that seriously undermined urban women’s abilities to regularly and successfully realize their potential for economic participation outside the home.”61 In other words, although women gained economic confidence through political activism during the Revolution, they lost some ground as producers once the war ended, when ports opened to an influx of ready-made goods.

Indeed, after the Revolution global markets and new consumer goods penetrated deeper into America’s interior. By the late 18th century, women in the Virginia and North Carolina backcountries could more easily trade household production with neighbors and in nearby small towns, and access goods through peddlers and small shops that came with settlers to Appalachia. Women who migrated to the Cumberland Valley in Pennsylvania, for instance, brought a greater sense of independence and autonomy as “indispensable members of the household economic unit.”62 Many widows, who had acted as family provider during the American Revolution, later petitioned courts for access to property or pensions the Continental Army promised their late husbands. Similarly, in the North Carolina backcountry, women found new economic opportunities. English, Scots Irish, and German immigrant women in Rowan County used their skills to produce eggs, butter, milk, soaps, yarns, and textiles, with which they traveled great distances to exchange for needed items through informal networks or to sell for hard cash.63 Account books in Caroline County, Virginia show that women purchased goods, paid debts, and exchanged labor for merchandise. For example, midwife Martha Hellier used the Dixon, Virginia store as a clearinghouse. She bought shoes and other items on credit and community members then “paid” for her medical services by reimbursing the store for her debt.64 Book credit and third-party payment were common means of economic exchange in communities with little hard currency. Like the 17th-century colonial world, women in the American backcountry at the turn of the 19th century managed their husbands’ businesses in their absence and provided the productive powers to turn the wheels of household and local economies.65

Whereas women’s economic experience expanded into the interior of America, urban markets also grew, providing new opportunities for women. Rather than being cut off from economic affairs, women of all classes and races crossed the permeable boundaries between household and public spaces to participate in an Atlantic commercial economy. Indeed, as Ellen Hartigan-O’Connor, in The Ties That Buy, argues, “interaction with the Atlantic economy fundamentally altered the scale and meaning of women’s domestic labors.”66 Women in mid-size port cities, such as Newport, Rhode Island, and Charleston, South Carolina, understood well “the intersection of money, credit, and everyday work life.”67 Between 1750 and 1820, women participated extensively in the urban service economy. They lodged maritime workers and migrants in their households and provided additional services to them such as washing, ironing, and mending clothes. Women cooked and cleaned for their tenants, but some also kept taverns or made cheap and ready-made goods available in retail shops. They had to marshal a number of economic strategies to create and manage housefuls, a unit that often included a family but also encompassed new networks of mutual economic dependence.68 Women did not just shop for their households; they also purchased wholesale goods that could be valuable for resale. As shopkeepers or tavern owners, women were especially tied to the Atlantic market economy and had extensive business dealings with merchants locally and in London.

Because their lives were still entangled with husbands, fathers, or other male family members at the turn of the 19th century, free white women increasingly used the court system to seek economic protections or establish economic activities feme sole. Charleston, South Carolina, for instance, created trade laws “which permitted married women to keep their debt and credit separate from their husbands’.”69 In addition, women demanded safeguards from husbands who might abandon them and put their survival in jeopardy. Even on a national stage, women sought economic justice after the American Revolution. Female manufacturers of home goods, like garments and hats, called on local and state officials to protect their American markets from foreign competition by placing tariffs on imported ready-made clothing. Availability of cheap shirts, jackets, pants, and dresses competed with women’s ability to make a living with their needles.70 Men may have dominated mercantile trade and created state policy that shaped the political economies of the world. Women, however, still drove local economies as producers of foodstuff and clothing, and as domestic laborers and consumers. Their local tastes and desires reverberated back to influence emerging industrial manufacturing and women’s decisions about household needs affected the course of commercial ventures across the Atlantic and beyond.

Discussion of the Literature

In the late 20th century, historians of the early American economy debated whether or not the colonial period represented a “golden age” for women. Proponents of this thesis argued that, despite the laws of coverture, free, white women in North America prior to the Revolution had unprecedented economic opportunities and flexibility as compared to their English counterparts. By the early 19th century, however, women’s status had declined, forcing them to retreat from the public sphere to become protected cultivators of private domestic spaces.71 Other historians rejected the notion of a golden age, sometimes flipping the narrative to argue that colonial America was just as restrictive for women’s economic autonomy as the post-Revolutionary period. Deborah Rosen, for instance, noted in Courts and Commerce: Gender, Law, and the Market Economy in Colonial New York, that “women became peripheralized from the economy well before industrialization sent their husbands off to factories.”72 In fact, positing a better economic life for women before the American Revolution assumed that an ideal colonial world was guided by a moral economy and that, according to Marylynn Salmon, “the economic contributions of women in agricultural societies and primitive commercial economies were recognized and rewarded by men.”73 Still, even those who debunked the declension model tended to emphasize the flexibility of the colonial era and the loss of status among white women in the 19th century.74

By the early 21st century, historians moved away from the polarizing narrative of a dichotomous golden age debate to explore rather the complicated array of patterns that made up women’s economic lives in early America.75 As Americans shifted from largely agricultural household economies of the 17th and early 18th centuries, to market economies and capital markets by the early 19th century, women participated throughout as producers, laborers, suppliers, consumers, and even financiers. Although marital and legal status at times limited when and how women could take advantage of economic opportunity, region, class, ethnicity, race, nationality, and personal circumstances also affected the ways that women interacted with the early American economy. Historians, like Ruth Wallis Herndon and Ellen Hartigan-O’Connor, have introduced new insight into class and gender, tracing women in urban spaces as they negotiated poverty and marketplaces to provide for their households.76 Others challenge the Anglophile tendencies of early American scholarship; Susanah Shaw Romney, for example, explores the “intimate networks” that helped build the Dutch-Atlantic economies of New Netherland.77 The early American economy provided more risks than rewards for enslaved women. Indeed, Jennifer L. Morgan deftly argues that the reproductive labor of women was as much part of the slave economy as the agricultural products cultivated on American plantations; “the expectations and experience of reproduction significantly influenced both the violence done to enslaved African women in the Americas and their ability to survive it.”78 Even Native American women contributed to multiple economies in surprising ways; Susan Sleeper-Smith reconstructs the agrarian activities of women as central to late 18th-century “indigenous prosperity” in the Ohio River Valley.79

Primary Sources

No central, easily identified repository of sources exist for women in the early American economy; like many 17th- and 18th-century topics, researchers have to be creative and diligent to excavate materials from a number of archives. However, interested readers can find appropriate citations in the works listed in the “Further Reading” and the “Notes”.

Further Reading

  • Brekke, Linzy A.The ‘Scourge of Fashion’: Political Economy and the Politics of Consumption in the Early Republic.” Early American Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal 3, no. 1 (Spring 2005): 111–139.
  • Carr, Lois Green and Lorena S. Walsh. “The Planter’s Wife: The Experience of White Women in Seventeenth-Century Maryland.” William and Mary Quarterly, 3rd ser., 34, no. 4 (October 1977): 542–571.
  • Patricia Cleary. Elizabeth Murray: a Woman’s Pursuit of Independence in Eighteenth-Century America. Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 2000.
  • Hartigan-O’Connor, Ellen. The Ties that Buy: Women and Commerce in Revolutionary America. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2009.
  • Haulman, Kate. The Politics of Fashion in Eighteenth-Century America. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2011.
  • Hood, Adrienne. The Weaver’s Craft: Cloth, Commerce, and Industry in Early Pennsylvania. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2003.
  • Jensen, Joan M. Loosening the Bonds: Mid-Atlantic Farm Women, 1750–1850. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1986.
  • Jones-Rogers, Stephanie E. They Were Her Property: White Women as Slave Owners in the American South. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2019.
  • Kowaleski-Wallace, Elizabeth. Consuming Subjects: Women, Shopping, and Business in the Eighteenth Century. New York: Columbia University Press, 1997.
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