1. The English common law practice of coverture limited the legal and economic opportunities of married women in the English colonies.
2. English colonial courts actively enforced gender roles and women’s subordination.
3. The knowledge enslaved women brought to the English colonies was critical to the economic success of the colonies.
4. Native women played a proactive role in tribal responses to English colonization.
5. In spite of their legal and cultural limitations, English women in the colonies made contributions to the Enlightenment.
Women in the English Colonies, 1607–1715
The history of the early English colonies in North America can be divided into two familiar stories.
In the southern colonies of Virginia, Maryland, and the Carolinas, most of the white colonists were young poor people. They arrived as servants indentured to a small community of wealthy people who wanted cheap labor to grow tobacco on their plantations. They came hoping to work their way up, from a servant controlled by masters to an independent farmer or merchant. In the northern colonies, the area known today as New England, Puritan families settled in small towns. They wanted to build perfect religious communities away from the religious persecution they had lived under in Europe. English communities in the North and South cooperated and clashed with the Native people who already inhabited the lands they claimed. They also forcibly brought enslaved people from Africa who were made to work in building the new societies.
What is less familiar is the role women played during this early period. The traditional role of women in English society was one of subordination or second-class status. Women were expected to answer to their fathers, their husbands, and their religious and political leaders. The English common law practice of coverture made it so married women did not legally or economically exist, so they could not be free.
But women were hard at work affecting the colonies in many ways, from enslaved women bringing agricultural knowledge that made colonies flourish to housewives inventing new ways to perform basic tasks. Women took part in the armed resistance to European invasion, and challenged the gender norms they were forced to live under. The power of women was well recognized by English colonial governments, who made laws to govern their reproduction, tried them for heresy and witchcraft, and severely punished their crimes, even when the women themselves were not at fault. The very first published poet of the English colonies was a woman. Even though the odds were against them, the women of the early English colonies were important to the development of the New World.
Section Essential Questions
1. What roles did women play in colonial England in the seventeenth century? How did these roles change for women of different races and classes?
2. In what circumstances were women allowed to push the boundaries of their assigned roles? How did they challenge boundaries when it wasn’t “allowed”?
3. How did women contribute to the establishment of the economy, society, politics, and culture in New England?
4. What gender-specific challenges did women face in the English colonies?