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CHANGING ROLES OF WOMEN
1600 TO 1780
Life in the American colonies between 1600 and 1780, the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries was profoundly influenced by the nearness of the people and the soil. During the colonial period, even the largest cities were never vary far removed from the backcountry farms that supported them with agricultural and household industry products. Townspeople were in close daily contact with farmers for their survival. Farmers relied on the nearest town to market their goods, and city dwellers or merchants relied on goods produced from the farm to maintain their businesses. (Wright 2) The interdependency of these cultures and family units ensured physical survival for all involved.
Only the family unit itself made survival during these times economically feasible due to the vast territory between farms, cities, and the lack of infrastructure. Society and the economy at the time were geared only to accept family units, and not the single individual due to the unsettled environment of the colonies. If there were free single men or women employed by households or businesses this was rare. The role of women in this society was critical to its success, although much has not been written regarding their critical roles and their contributions. Men cleared the land and women saw to the household and reproduction needs of the family. Both functions and roles supported one another and were paramount to the family’s survival.
The basic family unit included the husband, wife, children, and slaves or apprentices. This family unit might include children from previous marriages, and apprentices might be neighbors or related family members. (Crawford 74) Of particular interest were women and their roles in the family unit at the time. The major roles for women included that of “wife” and “mother.” Wifehood and motherhood were regarded as women’s most significant professions during this period.
Maternity and childrearing, the natural biological role of women, was traditionally regarded as their major social role. (Booth 157) For the majority of women during this period their time and efforts centered on the home. Men were the heads of the household and women acted in a supporting role to the family unit. If a woman did not have a husband, she was probably assisting a parent, relation, or master, but this was rare. Women fed the family, made clothing and household goods, cleaned house and clothing, cared for and raised the children, and served as nurse and midwife to other family units and members. Few household items were purchased, and most items were manufactured in the home. Pots and pans, cutlery, salt, and tea would come from shops (most likely these were imported goods), but candles; soap, clothing, and food were domestic products that took countless hours of work to produce. Life and its daily routine were labor-intensive for most women in the beginning of this century.
Diaries of women in this century show hours devoted to ironing, cooking, baking, sewing and knitting. (Booth 201) Women would preserve fruit and vegetables; and then they butcher and prepare poultry, beef, and pork. These were part of women’s chores whether they lived in urban or rural areas. In urban areas, labor and materials were more readily available, for those who could afford it, and consequently less time had to be spent on domestic chores.
As time progressed and the colonies became more civilized the roles of women changed. Instead of merely surviving women began to have leisure time on their hands. This was due to a number of reasons including increased labor availability, population increases, and the success of their husbands in their careers or plantations. Of course, this is merely a few reasons for these changes not all could be mentioned in this paper. What is important is the result. In this time frame of the century, women created or procured households that included items of nonessentials. These items included furniture, books, china, as well as social development opportunities and activities. Women also had time to educate themselves beyond their regular housewifery skills. This included reading, managing the plantation in the absence of a male family member, and cultural development. Socially, women had time to entertain and lead a more gentile lives. They socialized with other women, held parties, while seeing to the management of the household. Of course, not all households were managed at this magnitude. This lifestyle pertained to the upper classes. For those below this level of living and for women in rural areas, life remained the pretty much the same.
During the American Revolution, women played an important part in economic sanctions by boycotting imports and dealing with greedy merchants. (Booth 104) Reportedly, crowds of women took public action by liberating stored goods. Women also traveled with soldiers to cook, clean, load weapons, and tend the wounded. With men away from home and in combat, women assumed a number of unfamiliar roles: caretakers of the home, farm, or family business; agriculture; and nursing the wounded returning soldiers. Women’s wartime efforts had both provided them with an increased sense of independence and led them to set their sights beyond the limited sphere of their home. (Rogers 199) Women’s roles changed due to the war and during this period because of the political and economic factors most societies encounter during strife. Development of the countryside and infrastructure changed the social life of women.
Famous women of the time related to their families in different ways. One woman, Anne Dudley Bradstreet was born in 1612 and immigrated to the colonies with the Puritans in 1630. Anne and her family had enjoyed the advantages of wealth. Even with her household duties, Anne found time to write poetry. Several of her poems were written to her husband telling him how much she missed him, while he was absent on government business. (Roger 12) Anne and her husband had eight children. Her husband encouraged her to educate herself and to write since he believed in her abilities and supported her development. Truly independent thinking of the time pertaining to men in his class. Along with these activities, she found the time to raise her children and see to her household. I believe that is was do the wealth of the family. Not all women of the time could read, let alone became famous poets. She died in 1672 leaving behind a legacy of writings and poems, and a successfully raised family. (Rogers 25)
Betsey Griscom Ross was born in 1752, in Philadelphia. Her parents were Quakers, and she attended a Friends school and received her education in that community. She became a seamstress in an upholstery shop, where she met and married her first husband John Ross in 1773. (Booth 279) Because Betsy Ross was married outside her church, the Friends disowned her. Betsy Ross is an example of a strong woman who did not need her husband’s approval or support to be a success. She was widowed three times, yet she still was strong enough to care for her business and family, and simultaneously create flags for the army. History does not create her legend until years later by her resourceful relatives. People believe she created the first flag, but most merely heard her claim she did and gave her credit. (Booth 279)
The practical and functional roles of women changed during the Revolutionary War. Women had to take up positions that they normally would not have had to before. They had to manage the house while their patriotic husbands were gone. This also opened other doors to women. For Deborah Sampson it meant cross-dressing as a soldier and taking up arms. She was placed into indenture at the age of ten and upon completion entered the army. (Ferguson 183) She was noted to be a woman who wanted to see the world. If not for the war, where would she have ended up, and what path would this creative, energetic and brave woman have taken? Her husband subsequently received a veterans pension for her efforts. (Evans 54)
If women’s roles had not changed and evolved, our society could not have survived through the war. Society would not have developed into a gentile society of the time, reflecting grace and the strength of the women. Our country has women to thank for keeping the home fires burning and developing our culture. Women like Eliza Lucas Pinckney, who developed indigo cultivation in the early plantation days, was a scientist, farmer, businesswoman, and matriarch of the leading family in South Carolina. She was a noted “obedient and ever devoted daughter (Ferguson 184).” Her strength, creativeness, and character were the epitome of womanhood during her time. She related to her husband as an equal and fulfilled her role as mother and homemaker simultaneously. Factors many believed women could not do or would allow them to undertake in their unenlightened thinking of women and their respective roles.
Women of this time had their lives shaped by extraordinary events such as political and economic upheavals, religious conflict, and intellectual transformation. (Mack 1) During this time middle class women gained a certain degree of intellectual autonomy during this century. With extra time on hands, the first time in centuries, they were able to educate themselves and reflect upon their lives. During this, time roles were reversed for the first time allowing women to take control of estates, while husbands where away, thus gaining confidence and ownership of their abilities. It is during this time that women first started to establish themselves and their rights. These changing roles from chattel to individual mark the period of Enlightenment. Women believed that their birthright made them free and equal to men. (Jacob 54)
Many belittled the roles of women believing that they could not be the intellectual equals to men. This time in history saw changes to these views. Mary Wollstonecraft wrote that women were naturally rational but their inferior education often taught them to silly and emotional. Education, she believed, should cultivate the natural reasoning capacity in girls. She also claimed that the best marriages were marriages of equals, in which husband and wife were friends as well as legal partners. Wollstonecraft argued that equality in marriage would only come about with equality and opportunities of education. (Wollstonecraft 127)
In summary, women’s roles during this century evolved as a result of the Revolutionary War and the slave system as its catalyst. Education is the key to their ultimate rights. Proving themselves capable individuals and not only frivolous women brought us to the thinking of today. From mere survival to autonomy, this period shows that with education and confidence women can create more than simple houses and reproduce successfully. They can write, dream, and undertake roles specifically designed for them. Their grace and virtue inspired the next generation and helped form our republic, as we know it today. Their efforts and strength make me proud to be of their descent.
Booth, Sally Smith. The Women of ’76. New York: Hastings House Publishers, 1973.
Crawford, Deborah. Four Women in a Violent Time. New York: Crown Publishers, 1970.
Evans, Sara M. Born for Liberty – A History of Women in America. New York: Free Press Paperback, A Division of Simon & Schuster Inc., 1989
Ferguson, Robert A. The American Enlightenment 1750-1820. London, England: Harvard University Press, 1997
Jacob, Margaret, and Mack, Phyllis. Women and the Enlightenment. New York: Haworth Press, Inc., 1984
Rogers, Katherine M. Early American Women Writers. New York: Meridian, 1991
Wright, Louis B. The Cultural Life of the American Colonies 1607-1763. New York: Harper & Row, 1957
Wollstonecraft, Mary. A Vindication of Rights of Women. England, 1791
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