Role of Women: Hardships of a Gentry Lifestyle

Kelby Williamson

Jamestown through the Revolution: Week Two

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Westover Plantation – the home of one of the gentry families, using their house as a way to show their wealth

In early eighteenth century Virginia there was a very clear and distinct “elite class” that controlled much of the colony’s political and social life. This class was known as the gentry. The gentry consisted of families that had great wealth and in this period it was acceptable for one to flaunt this wealth. This social norm greatly impacted the family structure and members of the household.  The role that women played within the family was not an easy one. They did not have the power to be their own person yet they also held a great deal of responsibility. The role that women played within the gentry family in early eighteenth century Virginia was very restricting because of the hierarchy within the family, planned marriage, and the views of society.

The role of women within the gentry family was troubled due to the system of hierarchy that existed within the family. The father or husband was the head of the family and controlled the family’s estate and affairs. Everyone in the house was supposed to respect his wishes and do as he wanted. Below him was the wife that controlled much of the house chores but was supposed to be submissive to the head of the house, the husband. After the wife came the children that simply had to listen to their parents. Lastly came the slaves who did most of the laborious work in the fields and the house. In my opinion the life of the slave would have been the only one worse than the life of the woman in the house. During this time period the wife had to help control the house yet also be controlled by the husband, creating a difficult and confusing time for her.  Women in the gentry class needed to manage the slaves, watching what was being prepared for food and looking over other common chores. However, the husband would “undermine her authority over them [the slaves] and made it more difficult for her to control them” (Treckel, 171). The woman was expected to conform to what the husband wanted and could not make most of her own choices or voice her own opinion. In Lucy Byrd’s case, her husband thought that he could “mold his young wife- her thoughts, her actions, her appearance- to his liking” ( Treckel, 167). This would have been the typical mindset of the husband and this sense of control that the husband expected to have over the wife created tension when the wife did not want to conform to the husband’s ways. The wives’ authority was supposed to come “through submission of their husbands’ will” (Treckel, 163), meaning that as long as the wives did as they were expected they would be able to have some control over their husbands. Essentially, the woman’s gentleness would balance out the husband’s harshness as long as she allowed him to control her. However, because Lucy Byrd did not want to submit, it resulted “in expressions of rage” ( Treckel, 167). Lucy, and I am sure many other wives, would take out her frustration on the slaves by beating them because they were lower in the system of hierarchy within the family. Another element that shows how women were lower than men are the tombstones. Gentry men’s tombstones were typically written in Latin, showing high status and elite class, while gentry women’s tombstones, although technically in the same class, were written in standard English.   This system of hierarchy that placed women in the middle of the family, in between submissiveness and authority, “ neither master nor slave” (Treckel, 177), would have created a difficult and nearly unmanageable time.

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This is a picture by William Hogarth I have in my house- it depicts a planned marriage being finalized as the bride sits in distress in the left corner

Secondly, gentry women of the early eighteenth century had a very difficult role because of planned marriages. Marriages between man and wife in the gentry class were not based upon love and personality, but instead based upon economic status. Due to the fact that marriages were mostly focused on status economically, there could be age separations of many years which created an uneven playing ground. Women would be treated like children because they were so much younger than their husbands, and they would not be as trusted in running the house. The women did not get to choose who they were going to marry, and therefore could be married to terrible men but have no choice but to deal with it. In Jane Ludwell Parke’s case, her husband’s “violent temper and reputation as a womanizer humiliated” her, and she was in that situation because of the planned marriage (Treckel, 165). Also, women tend to want more emotional and affectionate relationships, but gentry men at the time seem to have had a very straight-forward and neutral outlook on marriage, not an intimate one. Whether this was an act to seem rational or true sentiments, it was very evident in their actions. In William Byrd II’s diary he wrote that after his baby was born his cousin and he “drank some French wine and went to bed again”, showing emotional detachment from the family life. Many times, a man married in order to “further his own political ambitions” or because he was interested in her dowry (Treckel, 165). The gentry marriages of that time also took place in order to have children and carry on the family bloodline. If the man and wife had no one to leave the fortune to then their family name would quickly disappear from society. These various realities created little satisfaction within marriages of the gentry, in which the main goal was to reproduce and look good for others. A marriage and life that has been planned out and contains very little real emotion would not be an easy one to maintain.

Lastly, Virginian gentry women of the early eighteenth century had the most difficult task within the family because of the views and expectations of society. Women and their actions were considered to be a representation of their husband. Women needed to act “properly” and there would have been constant pressure to consider how one’s actions appeared to others. At a young age women in gentry families were expected to know how to dance well because “the ability to dance was essential to courtship in Virginia society” (Hellier, 179). Things like this that we would consider unimportant today, were extremely important to gentry families at the time in order to achieve a good, wealthy husband. According to society, “a wife’s chief responsibility was obedience to her husband” (Treckel, 168), however this did not apply to the husband. If a husband was unfaithful to his wife then it was supposedly the wife’s punishment for some sin she had committed. This mindset, the fact that men did not have to be faithful but women did, shows a very clear discrimination against women and the power of men. For Jane Ludwell Parke (and many other women) an unfaithful husband was a reality. When her husband arrived back from England he brought his mistress that soon had his child, she “silently submitted to her husband’s flagrant infidelity” and did not speak up or show resentment (Treckel, 168). This would not have been an easy thing to do but it was what society expected of her. Men also viewed their wives as a way to gain honor and attention in society. William Byrd II was “doubly honored when Lieutenant Governor Alexander Spotswood asked Lucy to be his partner in opening the ball” (Treckel, 174).  Even young women were shown off and “spent extended periods in the homes of relatives” so that they could be introduced to prospective husbands ( Hellier, 181).Women were like items to show off and gain attention, with little opinion of their own, creating the hardships women must have faced as a member of a Virginian gentry family.

Overall, the role of the wife in Virginia’s gentry families in the early eighteenth century was a very difficult part to play. Women did not have equal respect and they had many responsibilities within the family. This is an important topic to discuss because some of the conditions that women faced during the eighteenth century are still present in some cultures and societies today. We should look closer at those societies and ask ourselves a question: Why have the conditions for women in those cultures not improved beyond those of the eighteenth century?

 

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