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\omen in Colonial America

lolly Brewer, North Carolina State Uniersity




\omen`s lies in colonial America were ery dierent rom our own in so
many ways. 1o a great degree, what your lie was like depended upon your status and
wealth, your religion, your race, and which colony and which century you lied in.
1he ariety o experiences is almost dizzying, particularly when race is actored in.
loweer there are some things they shared which we generally do not. I`ll began with
what they had in common: most importantly, they had many more children than
modern women, across the board. \omen`s adult lies, at least between the ages o
20 and 45, and sometimes earlier, was characterized by motherhood: Most women,
most o the time, were either pregnant or nursing, and sometimes both. On aerage,
women had about nine children, and about 90-95 o women bore children. 1heir
children were typically born about 2 ' years apart, because intensie nursing ,which
they did or about that long, worked as the most reliable orm o birth control. ,Note
that this works in societies where calories are limited, but not as well in modern
America,. Although some scholars hae ound that apothecaries and some women
had knowledge about birth control, in the orm, generally, o powders that could
cause irst term abortions, these do not appear to hae been widely used, or indeed,
terribly reliable. On aerage, women had 9 children, o whom between 5-
,depending on region, suried to adulthood. 1he number o children who died was
greater in the South.
\ealthier mothers, amazingly, had een more children: this was because they
did not usually nurse their own. ,In the eighteenth century, especially, it would hae
been diicult to pick up a newspaper without seeing an ad or a wetnurse ,my aorite
is one rom the Pennsylania Gazette that stated simply: \anted: A good breast.` ,
So lrances Ann 1asker, who was the wie o Robert Carter III and one o the richest
Virginians o the eighteenth century, had 1 children. She was born in 138, the
daughter o Benjamin and Ann Bladen 1asker. ler ather, Benjamin, was a member
o the Council o Maryland ,the upper house, just as her uture husband would be
,and his grandather had been beore,. She married in 154 ,at age 16, and bore her
irst child in 15, just oer two years ater her marriage, when she was 19. ler last
child was born 26 years later, when she was 45. On aerage she had a child eery year
and a hal. She died in 18, at age 49. lers was a glamorous lie: we know she had
an elegant house, went to many balls, owned seeral carriages, had plenty o ood to
eat. A amily tutor, hired to educate the children, claimed that she still looked
beautiul. She was also educated and thoughtul, as the tutor`s notebook reeals. 1he
amily owned many slaes ,more than 300, and aboe 50,000 acres o land, and so
Ann 1asker had to do little o the work that normally accompanied haing so many
children: washing diaper clothes and other laundry, cooking meals and tending ires
were not her lot. Still, it is important to think about what all these children meant in
terms o her lie, imagine or a moment, the grieing that must hae accompanied
each o these children`s deaths ,eight died during her lie, and the joy that came with
each birth. Imagine, too, the many pregnancies, some o which ended in miscarriage,
the atigue, the hope, the ear o possibly dying in childbirth. She still did some o the
work tending the younger ones, but her work` was partly that o a woman whose
husband and amily were so politically prominent: entertaining. It is not clear that she
pushed political opinions, as some wies o prominent colonists did ,such as the wie
o Goernor Berkeley in the seenteenth century, but she was certainly inoled in
political discussions, as een the records o her toasting to the King in 14 indicate.
Still, arguably the most important part o her lie was motherhood, and it would
hae limited her lie signiicantly just as it enriched it in others. \hile many studies o
women`s lies during this period point to what they could not do-they couldn`t hold
political oice, or example-rarely do they consider why. It was not simply prejudice
that preented it, although prejudice, especially as promulgated by some religious
teachings, had a role. It was the acts o lie: they had little control oer their own
bodies. I one is constantly pregnant or nursing-particularly i one does not, like
lrances 1asker, hae slaes or serants to do all o the onerous work that was
required to maintain a amily, it was an all-consuming task. One had little time or
politics or proessions ,nor, I should add, did most men either-at least 90 o men
during this time were armers,. O the other proessions-doctor, lawyer, merchant,
blacksmith, etc., women did some. lew men were either doctors or lawyers, and
certainly midwies ,usually women past childbearing years themseles, did much o
the medical work. Some women were merchants as well, and a ew practiced trades,
such as silersmithing or hatmaking, or sometimes took oer the trade their husband
had practiced, such as did Clementina Rind o Virginia ,whose husband had been
editor o the Virginia Gazette,. Still, ewer women practiced trades than did men, and
I would argue that motherhood was the main reason why.
I go on at such length about these issues because motherhood ramed women`s
lies to such a great degree, it was also greatly alued. Looking at graestones helps
to reeal this in remarkable ways. In the cemetary o Newbury Massachusetts, or
example lies a pair o graestones marking the lies o a husband and wie who died in
104 and 105 respectiely. 1he husband`s is o a modest size, and his epitaph briely
comments on his contribution as Deacon in his church and his economic success.
Judith`s stone is much bigger, and memorializes her contribution as mother and
grandmother: 1o the memory o Mrs. Judith late irtuous wie o Deac. 1ristram
Coin, Lsqur. \ho haing lied to see 1 o her children and children`s children to
the 3d generation died Dec. 15, 105 aged 80. Grae, sober, aithul, ruitull ine was
she` A rare example o true piety` \idow`d awhile she wayted wisht or rest` \ith
her dear husband in her Saior`s breast.`
Anne Bradsteet, who was o her same generation, relected on women`s lies
in early New Lngland in poetry, which has amazingly suried the centuries ,so many
o our sources about women are lost and,or neer written ,partly because ewer
women were taught to write, partly because records or this period in general were
poorly kept,. Bradstreet saw haing children as the most intense joys o her lie. ler
poem beore the birth o one o her children` written in about 1650, relects on the
possibility that she might die in childbirth ,as happened to perhaps 5-10 percent o
women during one o their births,:
All things within this ading world hath end,
Adersity doth still our joys attend,
No ties so strong, no riends so dear and sweet
But with death`s parting blow is sure to meet . . .
I any worth or irtue were in me,
Let that lie reshly in thy memory
And when thou eel`st no grie, as I no harms,
\et loe thy dead, who long lay in thine arms,
And when thy loss shall be repaid with gains,
Look to my little babes, my dear remains,
And i thou lo thysel, or loed`st me,
1hese O protect rom stepdame`s injury.`
Bradstreet`s poem makes clear that she thought o her husband as a riend and loed
him dearly, just as she did her children, and worried what would happen to them i
she died. In act death and remarriage were common acts o amily lie then, just as
diorce is now ,diorce then was extremely rare,. 1he deaths o children, especially
under age ie, was ery common and painul. Sometimes epidemics would carry o
seeral children in single amily in a ew weeks time, as did diptheria to three
daughters o Martha Ballard in Massachusetts in the 160s. ,Modern medicine has
helped dramatically, diptheria is now one o the diseases all American children are
accinated against,.
Puritan religion in New Lngland idealized marriage and amily at the same time
as it sought-more than in contemporary Lngland or mainstream Anglican aith-to
priilege the rights o husbands. 1his meant or many women, like Anne Bradsteet, a
loing and appreciated place in society. lor others, howeer, who transgressed
boundaries, it might make them more likely to be accused o witchcrat ,more than
300 people were accused o witchcrat in seenteenth century New Lngland, o whom
80 were women,.
1he women who had lie the toughest were at the lower end o the social order:
white serants and black slaes. lor them, the laws oered ew protections rom
iolence and potentially harsh punishments. \hite serant women, a signiicant
portion o the population in the southern colonies, especially in the seenteenth
century, could not marry without their master`s permission. I they came oer as
indentured serants rom Lngland, they were bound until age 24. I they got pregnant
beore that age ,again, remember there is almost no access to birth control, then in
Virginia, or example, they would hae to sere their master an additional two years
and either pay a ine ,which they could not normally do, or hae 25 lashes on their
bare back at the public whipping post ,each last would draw blood,. 1heir master
could pay the ine or them, but they ususally then had to agree to sere him one
additional year ,total o 3,. 1hey had ew protections against harrassment or een
rape, as study ater study o court records reeals. 1echnically they were supposed to
be able to complain against masters who mistreated them and transerred to new
ones. Also, masters who athered children on their serant women were not
supposed to reap the beneit o the extra time. loweer i a woman wanted the
master to pay her ine ,and aoid the public whipping post, she might not complain.
,I ran across a shocking case in the early 150s in Virginia where a woman initially
reused to state the ather o her child and the master was assigned her extra two
years. 1hen, during childbirth, she admitted that the child`s ather was her master.
Ater this eidence was presented in court and her extra two years were transerred to
another, her master reused to pay her ine, and she had to be publically whipped.
ler son was then bound to her master as an apprentice, the normal policy or
illegitimate children. In this case, they were binding the boy to his ather., In short,
such women had ew rights. No case o a serant successully charging a master with
rape has been uncoered. 1his is not to say that eery master would take adantage
o a serant woman, but merely that men so inclined could.
Still, once such women inished their indentures, they had the chance to marry,
and they usually did. I they were lucky, they married well enough to be able to hae a
arm that their amily owned, or had a husband with a good trade. 1his might be out
on the rontier, where they were in danger o attack rom Indians i war should come,
or land there was much cheaper. I not, they became tenants with their husbands on
others estates. 1heir lies would then hae been ull o children, though ewer than
the typical nine, as they started later. Also, they generally lied on the margins, such
that i they or their husband were injured or died, their children would likely be
indentured as apprentices, and they orced to try to earn an income, perhaps, as a
washerwoman ,which paid badly, or worse. Lie on the margins in early America
wasn`t pretty. Remember that this was a world where irewood had to collected and
brought in een to hae heat in the winter. \ater, likewise had to be collected rom
wells and streams in heay buckets. \ashing clothes alone thus meant carrying water
and wood to boil it, soaking and scrubbing the clothes in a strong lye solution, etc.
Clothes and sheets were antastically expensie compared to today, partly because
spinning and weaing, especially, was all done by hand, oten by women in amilies.
lood had to be grown or raised. Cookbooks began with such instructions as: kill the
piglet, scrape o the hair, remoe the innards . . . And women and men had to do all
o these jobs just to lie. Lie was physically demanding or eeryone.
1he lot o enslaed women was the hardest. 1heir had ewer children,
undoubtedly because they got less to eat and had to work so hard ,some body at is
usually essential or women to conceie,. Mortality was also higher among enslaed
children. Most importantly, howeer, enslaed women were not allowed to legally
marry at all, and had no rights to their children. Both marriages and amilies could be
,and were, broken apart as masters died or needed money, or whateer. 1hus black
women, whose lies like those o white women were circumscribed by the cycle o
pregnancy, childbirth, and nursing, had those bonds cut away een more requently
than by simply death. Once a child had been sold, or deeded to a relatie, or sent
away to lie with the white daughter o the master`s amily when she married, they
might not eer be heard rom again. Marriages too could be broken up in such a way.
Lidence indicates, I should note, that in the eighteenth century such sales were less
common than in the nineteenth: beore the Reolution, legal codes ,entails, preented
the ready sale o slaes in some circumstances. Still, the lack o recognition o slae
amilies must hae been a heay burden. 1hese stories are diicult to ully recoer,
but consider the enslaed woman Arrabell` who lied in Berkeley County, South
Carolina, in 11. She named one o her children Mines,` which indicates her
attachment, and when her master died soon aterwards, Arabell and Mines were sold
together, which oten happened when the child was under ie. Still, she was lucky,
that time.
Slae women, much more than white women o any class, were more likely to
hae to work in the ields. In Anglo-American culture, most agricultural labor was
considered men`s work, except in the case o slaes. Occaisionally, white women
would be pressed into serice in emergency, such as i the harest needed to be
brought in in a hurry. loweer generally this was considered inappropriate work or
white women.
1he cultural norms were so strongly against it that when Luropean obserers
saw Indian women doing the main cultiating, they accused Indian men o enslaing
their wies. 1hese are o course cultural norms, and Indian women were deinitely
not enslaed by their husbands ,they in act had more priileges, politically and
otherwise, than white women, compared to their men,. Indeed, Indian women played
roles in, or example, treaty negotiation. Indian men`s work-o hunting to proide all
o the meat and urs ,clothes, or themseles and tribes-was much more onerous than
whites realized ,o course Luropeans raised cattle and pigs, so hunting or them was a
luxury,.
1his brie surey leaes so much unsaid. In closing I`d like to talk briely about
the American Reolution and its impact on women. 1he Reolutionary rhetoric, with
its appeal to all men are created equal` potentially meant opportunity or women too.
loweer the Common Law, as that was being reinterpreted in the late eighteenth
century, actually was cutting down on married women`s rights, granting more control
to husbands oer the wie`s property and giing him more authority oer her. 1he
early nineteenth century would open new chapters in women`s experiences in more
ways than one: the reolutionary promise inspired some women to try to ulill it,
leading to the growth o the women`s rights moement ,made more ierce, I think, by
the counterailing trend in the common law,, in some places, women who met
property requirements were allowed to ote in the wake o the Reoluiton ,in New
Jersey, or thought they should, like Abigail Adams. 1hey ceased to punish women or
illegitimacy and stopped using public whipping posts, except or slaes, indeed
indentured seritude became much rarer or whites.
At the same time, knowledge about birth control was spreading ,and arguably
the costs o haing a amily were going up,- by the middle o the nineteenth century,
women were haing on aerage hal the number o children that they did in the
colonial period. lreedom rom the joys and cares o childbirth and rearing would gie
some women more options in terms o proessional lies, that meant that more
women sought to challenge emerging norms about work boundaries. 1his is
complicated, because mens options in terms o trades and proessions were changing
so prooundly during this period as well, with many o the traditional trades in decline,
with the emergence o actories, with growing opportunities or doctors ,and the
decline o midwiery, and lawyers.
Many historians who write about women`s lies in the colonial period ocus on
their legal and cultural restraints: noting, or example, that they couldn`t be lawyers.
loweer I preer to ocus on the what they could and did do, what made their lies
rich and ulilling, which was to a great degree their role as mothers. It is pretty clear
that most women, howeer, gien the choice, would hae ewer children. Arguably,
control oer ertility has made the biggest dierence in women`s lies, in their ability
to pursue work outside o the home and proessional careers.

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