In the eighteenth century, life in the American colonies evolved from the conquest and struggle for survival that characterized the earliest period of colonization into a phase that scholars call settler colonialism.
In this period, European settlers from all the major imperial powers expanded colonial territories beyond their original borders, and women of all races and classes were critical to these efforts. The Spanish stretched into Alta California, the French down the Mississippi River into Louisiana. The British took control of the Dutch colony of New Netherland, renamed it New York, and diligently secured their new territory. New powers even appeared on the fringes of the continent.
This expansion did not occur peacefully. Native populations across the continent actively resisted the encroachment of European settlers, and settlers from different countries inevitably clashed with one another. Women were leaders and victims of this constant warfare, which in the East culminated in the outbreak of the French and Indian War.
There were also internal clashes, perhaps fueled by the constant external threats facing the colonies. The Salem witch hysteria in 1692 is the most famous example, but less than fifty years later New York City was swept up in an eerily similar panic over the possibility of slave revolts.
Expansion of the colonies also meant the expansion of slavery across the continent. The buying, selling, and transportation of enslaved black people boomed, enriching the (mostly) white people who participated in the business. Enslaved people continued to resist their systemic oppression, whether by running away, exploiting legal and cultural loopholes, or using the courts to secure their manumission. Those who gained their freedom built free black communities in colonial cities and towns, and sought to provide their children with the education and skills necessary to thrive in colonial society. Even as colonial governments found new ways to oppress these growing black communities, free and enslaved black women subverted their efforts with creativity and determination.
In spite of, and sometimes because of, these crises and cruelties, European settlement flourished in the eighteenth century, and a new culture and identity began to emerge. Trade prospered. Women participated in both international and local trade networks. Biracial women played a critical role as trade facilitators between different communities. The wealth accumulated from trade facilitated the establishment of a genteel class of women, raised from childhood to be ornaments in the homes of their husbands, but not every colonial woman followed this path. Some found creative ways to challenge oppressive colonial regimes. Some moved to the frontier where they helped establish new settlements. Women artists made valuable contributions to the culture of the colonies, producing stunning works of art that recorded the history of their communities and introducing new materials and techniques. Networks of women authors and innovators introduced improvements to colonial life and education. And some completely bucked the intense pressure to conform, challenging gender norms and religious dogma throughout their lives.
For more information about women’s societal roles in the 17th and 18th centuries, watch the video below.