Women’s Roles in Colonial America

A colonial family portrait.1747 John Greenwood (American colonial era artist, 1727-1792). The Greenwood-Lee Family

A colonial family portrait.
1747 John Greenwood (American colonial era artist, 1727-1792). The Greenwood-Lee Family

        Relationships and the expected gender roles are in a constant state of flux. As such, the relationships of colonial era gentry in Virginia are very different from those of the present.There have been changes in gender based roles, the amount of education women receive, and the huge leaps forward in women being viewed as equals in domestic relationships. Instead of as accessories to their husbands.

        Women’s roles in colonial America are still mostly roles that women hold on to in the modern day, however how the roles are viewed has changed quite a bit. For instance, women are still more likely to stay at home to care for children, however it is not considered their perpetual role to care for the children and her husband is often expected to help. This is a sharp contrast to colonial times when women were specifically supposed to stay at home, raise the children, have more children, and turn the house into a home.

         Women were also expected to not get too much of an education as it was “seen as defying their

A woman reading (one of the few academic skills taught to females)1748 Robert Feke (American colonial era artist, 1707-1751) Grizzell Eastwick (Mrs. Charles Apthorp)

A woman reading (one of the few academic skills taught to females)
1748 Robert Feke (American colonial era artist, 1707-1751) Grizzell Eastwick (Mrs. Charles Apthorp)

femininity.” (Treckel, 140) or as “degrading herself by studying like an artist or professor” (Hellier 180). The main point of their education was to help them to become housewives and mothers, not to join the workforce. Whereas boys were educated to the furthest extent to which their parents could afford. This educational difference means that women were much less independent than men were, giving their husbands more power over them.

        Also unlike men, women could not have their own honor; they could only gain or lose honor for their husbands and families. For instance is a women had a child outside of wedlock that would taint her families honor. How women behaved, dressed, looked, danced and talked all reflected on her husband and his reputation. As such it was considered a woman’s chief duty to avoid bringing shame on her husband and family from her actions by using her charm, manners and deportment to be the perfect gentlewoman. As honor was of paramount importance to all those who lived in colonial Virginia, this was a quite important role for wives and daughter to fulfill. Women were expected to entertain guests and to attend dances and if a women did something correctly her husband could gain honour, and if she did something disgraceful her husband would lose honour and he would then have a lower reputation. This could then entail that he was less respected and people would not be as eager to interact with him. In comparison if a modern woman does something disgraceful the taint is on her and not her husband. Even though women did not have honor for themselves they did have their own virtues. Chastity, and piety being chief among them. Virtue were what most people would have looked for in a woman.

        Due to the nature of historical documentation from Colonial Virginia, we most often hear the voices of women through the writings and impressions of the men that surrounded them. Though this means that it is harder to understand female experience, it does also provide invaluable insights into gender dynamics of the period.  For instance, women were the property of their fathers until they were married and then they became the property of their husbands. This view of them as property is illustrated in William Byrd’s diary as he never refers to his wife by her name, only ever as “my wife.” Like the slaves he also wrote about, Lucy’s primary value is in the degree to which she accentuates William’s own sense of personal worth. She is an accessory, and a way for him to project his own conceptions of self-identity and social status. He also controls her in almost every aspect as demonstrated when he would not allow her to pluck her eyebrows and viewed himself as in the right (Treckel 149)

        Another demonstration of woman’s place in society is that there was no concept of marital rape. This means that by marrying, the right to say no is signed over to the marriage partner. One example of this is that William Byrd II had “intercourse with his wife throughout her pregnancies, sometimes only days before she delivered, and even when she felt ill or was indisposed.” (Trekel 150) By doing this he was demonstrating his power over her and that he did not care at all about her current state when that was what he wanted. Since the advent of marital rape being recognized this would have been illegal and regardless of legality this is rather abusive. Like the slaves he also wrote about, Lucy’s primary value is in the degree to which she accentuates William’s own sense of personal worth. She is thus being thought of as an accessory, and a way for him to project his own conceptions of self-identity and social status.

        However, girls were not always under constant control and supervision as in their late teens they would go visiting to neighbors or relatives and often were gone for extended periods of time (Hellier 181). These visits not only served to introduce young women to the ways in which older women ran their households and managed household staff, but also functioned to reinforce crucial social values. For example, women learned from example skills ranging from entertaining, to running a dairy, to learning when to quietly submit to the demands of their husbands and when to overlook their failures (Hellier 180-182) Still the main goal of these exchanges was to help girls find a husband so they could get married and start their own families, and more importantly, to control the pool from which they chose their husbands. This brief respite between childhood and married life gave them a breath of “the freedom desired by youth and, for a time, decreased responsibility.” (Hellier 186)

        Among the many things that have changed, the dynamics of relationships is one that, although not overly studied, has changed between the eighteenth and twenty-first centuries. Girls are now allowed to get the same education as that of boys. Relationships no longer mean that the man is in charge of the woman and as we progress the field is becoming more and more level. Looking forward, who knows what acceptable relationships might be in another 300 years. As a population we need to look back at what life use to be like so that the future may be more equal instead of less. Society is always changing and even though gender-based biases still exist, in some countries women have even fewer rights than the gentlewomen of the seventeenth and eighteenth century did. These gender roles are still in play all over, however in America they have faded so that they no longer control every aspect of life for everyone.

 

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