1492 – 1734 Early Encounters English Colonies

Key Ideas

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.

Introduction

Henry Popple, A map of the British Empire in America with the French and Spanish Settlements adjacent thereto, 1734. New-York Historical Society Library.

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.

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?

Resources

This document illustrates how women in English society were economically marginalized by the common law practice of coverture.
CURRICULUM CONNECTIONS:
daily life, legal status of men and women, colonial New Jersey, colonial agriculture
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The Virginia colony laws collected here demonstrate how the colonial government used legislation about women to shore up race-based slavery.
CURRICULUM CONNECTIONS:
slavery, colonial Virginia, legal status of men and women, legal status of black people, history of race in America
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This image of a mortar and pestle evokes and illustrates the agricultural techniques brought to the English colonies by enslaved women.
CURRICULUM CONNECTIONS:
slavery, agriculture, women's labor, black history, colonial Carolinas
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The first patent issued to an English colonist was for a new invention created by Philadelphian inventor Sybilla Masters. The patent was filed under her husband’s name because women could not be legally recognized.
CURRICULUM CONNECTIONS:
agriculture, women's labor, colonial innovations, colonial Pennsylvania, women in STEM
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The four poems collected here demonstrate the hardship of living in a time when the mortality rate was much higher than today.
CURRICULUM CONNECTIONS:
daily life, colonial Massachusetts, colonial culture, poetry, social class
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This document details the trial of Jeane Gardiner, who was accused of witchcraft during the Bermuda hysteria of 1651–1655.
CURRICULUM CONNECTIONS:
witchcraft trials, colonial Bermuda, Puritanism, legal status of women, colonial culture
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Life Stories

This is the story of a sachem of the Pocassett people who led her warriors in support of Metacom/King Philip’s war against the Puritans.
CURRICULUM CONNECTIONS:
history of the Wampanoag, Native American history, King Philip’s War, colonial Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Rhode Island
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This is the story of an intersex person who ran afoul of a small community in colonial Virginia.
CURRICULUM CONNECTIONS:
indenture, gender history, legal status of men and women, daily life
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This is the story of a mother and daughter in Maryland who became trapped in a perpetuating cycle of indenture and transgression.
CURRICULUM CONNECTIONS:
indenture, legal status of men and women, gender history, history of sexual violence, daily life
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