Case Study: Justice & Women in Colonial America, 1500-1775

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Justice & Women in Colonial America, 1500-1775
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+Honors Colonial American History
Becky Chen

Introduction:

In the beginning of this time period, there was an unmarried woman on the throne in England; she was Queen Elizabeth. Descended from royalty, this was the first time England had ever had a woman rule her people. Yet even with this remarkable step for women, the roles of women in society were still very much limited. Elizabethan England had very clear-cut expectations of men and women; men were expected to support the household, and women were expected to take care of domestic chores. Across the Atlantic Ocean, the colonies in North America were very much the same.

Much of the colonies in North America followed their mother country’s footsteps in gender roles. It was a general trend that colonial society was patriarchal. Men were considered to be the leader of the household, and women were expected to be subordinate to men. The reason for this being that women were traditionally thought to be “weaker” in the general sense of physical work, but also in the sense of emotional well-being. However, there were cases where women were able to demonstrate their worth by pursuing positions such as merchants, printers, and even doctors. In addition, women often had to assume the leadership role if the husband was away or injured.

There were few women who could assume power and make decisions for their family. The few that could make decisions and hold important positions generally had great influence. Women were able to learn how to use the legal systems to receive rights, but at the same time, women were able to learn how to abuse the legal system as well for personal gain and ulterior motives. The following attempts to explain how fair or unfair the legal systems were towards women in different colonies, and how women interacted with the legal systems in various colonies, whether they were witnesses or whether they were criminals.

Background:

There are cases where women have shown to be on the disadvantaged side of the legal system in America, and there are cases where women have shown to hold great influence on the results of the colonies’ legal systems.

In the Chesapeake Bay colonies, due to the law of “coverture”, married woman had neither legal nor political existence, but were rather represented by their husbands when dealing with societal matters. In addition, in places such as England and the Chesapeake Bay colonies, authorities rarely intervened in domestic disputes. By law, only the head of the household, which was the male, could own land, make contracts, and be involved in politics. Women had no such role other than supporting their husbands and being represented by their husbands. In cases like these, women were at a disadvantage with the legal system due to their gender and could not full express their opinions.

In contrast, New England magistrates and church congregations routinely protected women from insult and abuse. Furthermore, women had more freedom of their natural rights such as speech, and could also exert influence over politics in the colony as well. For example, women routinely appeared as plaintiffs, defendants, and witnesses in 17th century New England courts.

As time extended on, the women’s role in societal life steadily decreased as more and more power was transferred over to men. Legal System: Fair Play

As mentioned before, the New England colony was particularly adequate in preserving the rights of women and allowing them to participate in the outside society. Women could more easily obtain divorce when abandoned or sexually betrayed by husbands. Women were also protected from insult and abuse by the New England magistrates and churches as well. Because the women could keep these rights, they were able to exercise their freedoms more without being...
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