The Daily Life of Colonial Women

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Date: 1999
Publisher: Primary Source Media
Series: American Journey
Document Type: Essay
Length: 1,769 words
Content Level: (Level 4)
Lexile Measure: 1120L

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Anne Marbury Hutchinson (1591-1643), a mother of 15, arrived in Boston in 1634. Although a devout Puritan, she soon got into trouble with the authorities for having the effrontery to explain the Scriptures to others according to her own interpretation. Brought to trial in 1637 and 1638, she was accused of stepping out of her proper place in society. As one of her judges declared, "You have rather been a husband than a wife, and a preacher than a hearer, and a Magistrate than a subject." Hutchinson, her family, and her followers were eventually banished from Massachusetts Bay Colony.


The first generations of settlers in Colonial America had to learn to survive the rigors of a harsh environment. Death rates in the 17th century were high for men and women alike. Eighteen women were among the passengers who sailed to Plymouth Colony in 1620 aboard the Mayflower. The following spring only four remained alive, the rest dying of starvation or disease. Women were also victims of the chronic frontier warfare between white settlers and Native Americans. Anne Hutchinson and all but one of her entire household died in a native raid on their new home in what is now Westchester County, New York, in 1643. Other women were carried off to captivity in Canada to be held for ransom or adopted into Indian families. Mary Rowlandson's (c.1635-c.1678) narrative of her kidnapping by Indians, A True History of the Captivity and Restauration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson, published in 1682, is a classic account of the dangers of life on the 17th-century frontier.


Colonial America was based on a hierarchical society in which, by custom and law, women were subordinate to men. Women were not expected to run businesses or to follow professions. They could not vote or hold public office or sit on a jury. They were, for the most part, denied education beyond the skills they would need in their own households. Married women could not own property in their own names; even their earnings were automatically deemed the property of their husbands. And, as the case of Anne Hutchinson revealed, they were expected to remain silent and obedient in religious matters. Governor John Winthrop of Massachusetts expressed this attitude in Volume II of his History of New England, 1630-1648:

"Mr. Hopkins, the governor of Hartford upon Connecticut, came to Boston, and brought with him his wife, a godly young woman and of special parts, who was fallen into sad infirmity, the loss of her understanding and reason, which had been growing upon her diverse years, by occasion of her giving herself wholly to reading and writing, and had written many books. Her husband, being very loving and tender of her, was loth to grieve her; but he saw his error when it was too late. For if she had attended her household afairs, and such things as belong to women, and not gone out of her way to meddle with such things as are proper for men, whose minds are stronger, etc., she had kept her wits, and might have improved usefully and honorably in the place God had set her."

Women remained a minority of the population for most of the first century of settlement of British North America. The first woman arrived in Jamestown, VA, in 1608, a year after the founding of the settlement. But a half century later, men still outnumbered women 6 to 1 in Colonial Virginia. Only after the turn of the 18th century did the numbers of men and women in the population begin to even out. With so few women, and so many men, almost all women found husbands and married early. The average age of a first marriage for a woman was 20-22, while for a man it was 4 or 5 years older. Early marriage extended the years in which women could bear children, and a married woman could expect to bear and raise an average of 8 children.


Women's lives were filled with difficult challenges even in peacetime. The daily lives of most women revolved around the essential and arduous labor of farm households. Most farm families in the Colonial era lived in small, drafty, and poorly-lit houses, which offered little or no privacy and were difficult to keep clean. Families had to share beds, benches, and even tableware. While men labored in the fields or orchards, women put in long days of hard physical labor in the house and its surrounding yards. They gathered firewood and tended the fires necessary for warmth, cooking, and heating water. They gathered eggs, baked bread, milked cows, and prepared meals. Most of the cooking was done over open fires in stone fireplaces, with a few heavy iron pots and cast-iron tongs. Salted meat and fish, cornmeal, porridge, cheese, and butter were the staples of the Colonial diet. In harvest time, women were in charge of preserving food, which had to be dried, smoked, salted, or pickled to get the family through the long, cold days of winter. Most of the clothing worn by Colonial Americans was produced in the home by women: making clothes involved not only sewing garments, but preparing and spinning wool and flax, and dyeing and weaving cloth. Women also manufactured soap and candles for the household. They tended gardens, dried herbs, made their own cheese and butter, and fermented cider for beer. Sometimes they were able to earn a little extra money for the household by selling or bartering the products of their gardens or their spinning wheels. They also raised the children and cared for them and their husbands when illness struck. Bearing children was itself a dangerous venture; with 1 in 30 pregnancies resulting in the death of the mother, far more women died in childbirth than in Indian attacks.


Some women were forced to endure even greater hardships. Perhaps as many as half of all white women who came to British North America in the 17th and 18th centuries did so as indentured servants, bound to work for a master for a period of 5 to 7 years to pay for the cost of their passage from England. These servants worked long hours for little pay; they were not free to leave their masters or to marry; often they were poorly housed and fed; sometimes they were sexually exploited. The conditions faced by African women brought to America as slaves were far worse. Unlike white indentured servants who could look forward to eventual freedom, black slaves were considered the property of their masters for life. The marriages of enslaved men and women had no legal standing and could be ended at the whim of the master. The children of enslaved mothers could be taken away from them and sold at any time. Slave women toiled in the fields along with the men; they also worked as servants and cooks in plantation households in the southern colonies and in many homes in the North.

Colonial American women found some compensations to ease their burdens and enrich their lives. Many domestic tasks could be shared with other women: friendly groups of neighbors would gather to do washing or spinning, or to help in the harvest and preservation of food. The imminent birth of a child was also an occasion for women to gather. Most babies were delivered by neighbors or female midwives, not by male doctors. Women devoted spare hours to a variety of crafts, including needlework, and rug and quilt-making. And, of course, religion was a great comfort, as the journal of Mary Fish Noyes Silliman Dickinson shows.


Although women writers were frowned upon, some still ventured to put their thoughts to paper. One such literary pioneer was Anne Bradstreet (1612-1672), who came to Boston in 1630 and raised eight children. Her book of poems, The Tenth Muse Lately Sprung up in America, was published in London in 1650 and recorded the worries and joys of domestic life. One of her most famous poems celebrated the process of raising children: "I had eight birds hatcht in one nest/Four Cocks there were, and Hens the rest,/I nurst them up with pain and care,/Nor cost, nor labour did I spare,/Till at the last they felt their wing./Mounted the Trees, and learn'd to sing." Bradstreet wrote another poem about domestic life, Matron, that reveals the virtues of a good wife: being loving, obedient, friendly, kind, religious, pure, a good manager and "Instructer" of her family. Englishman George Savile, Marquis of Halifax, wrote Advice to a Daughter in 1668, which was widely recommended to young women of the South and in which he too recommended these characteristics.


Despite the belief that women's place was in the home, some Colonial women, called "she-merchants," ran their own businesses or worked as skilled artisans. Elizabeth Lucas Pinckney managed her family's plantation in South Carolina, experimenting with indigo, ginger, cotton, and other crops. In 1744 she shipped six pounds of her indigo to England for making blue dye. The quality was so much better than than that of the indigo the British usually bought from the French islands that a new market for the crop was created in Britain, and for many years these indigo sales sustained the colony's economy.

When a woman was widowed, she could again legally own property and make contracts. (Some married women, who signed special prenuptial contracts, never lost the rights to their own property.) Widows ran farms, owned businesses, traded merchandise, and published newspapers. Others found employment as butchers, printers, silversmiths, teachers, and in a variety of other crafts.

In the 18th century, women began to lay claim to a wider sphere of influence. Women played a prominent role in the religious revivals of the 1740s known as the Great Awakening. And they contributed to the triumph of the American Revolution, running farms and businesses while their husbands and sons went off to fight for the cause of American independence. By the end of the Colonial era, some women were beginning to think it was time they proclaimed their own declaration of independence. As Abigail Adams of Boston wrote to her husband John in 1776, when he was in Philadelphia taking part in the deliberations of the Continental Congress: "In the new Code of Laws which I suppose it will be necessary for you to make I desire you would Remember the Ladies, and be more generous and favourable to them than your ancestors." If not, she warned, "we are determined to foment a Rebellion...."

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Gale Document Number: GALE|EJ2161000673