Women in Colonial America

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Throughout most of history women generally have had fewer legal rights and career opportunities than men. Wifehood and motherhood were regarded as women's most significant professions. Since early times women have been uniquely viewed as a creative source of human life. Historically, however, they have been considered not only intellectually inferior to men but also a major source of temptation and evil. Colonial women faced the harsh realities of childbirth, housework, and serving their husbands because it was tradition. The ways of the ‘old country’ culture was forced upon a new one, disallowing any room for new ideals. Although constrained by society Colonial women have had their part in shaping America.

European nations came to the Americas to increase their wealth and broaden their influence over world affairs. The Spanish were among the first Europeans to explore the ‘New World’ and the first to settle in the present-day United States. By 1650, however, England had established a dominant presence on the Atlantic coast. Propelling the English settlers were various factors including: establishment of bases for commerce raiding, discovery and development of resources, improve England’s future greatness, establish new means of commerce, and extend the power of the English church.

Marking the beginning of English exploration and colonization, Sir Walter Raleigh led the first expedition to North America in 1584 . Raleigh sent Philip Armadas and Arthur Barlowe to North America to find a suitable place to settle. They arrived at Roanoke and upon returning to England described it as a “Garden of Eden” to Queen Elizabeth thus convincing the Queen of Roanoke’s many opportunities and beautiful vista. In 1585, the first settlement attempt (and failure) at Roanoke was made by Richard Grenville and Ralph Lane. This was followed by John White’s settlement, later to become known as “The Lost Colony” .

After two failing attempts of colonizing America the English finally proved successful. In 1607, settlers landed in present-day Virginia and founded Jamestown, the first permanent English colony . By 1732 England had settled thirteen colonies which were grouped according to region: New England (Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Connecticut), Middle (New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware), and Southern (Virginia, Maryland, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia) . This expansion led to more diverse people immigrating to the New World on a regular basis. By 1765, 2.5 million people lived in America (besides the Native Americans)compared to the mere 230 people who were in Jamestown in 1607.

Lifestyle in Colonial America differed mainly by region. In all the colonies, however, there were clear social statuses, the lowest of society being African slaves . Next above the slaves were the white indentured servants . Many of these were criminals or those who could not afford to purchase land in the colonies. The servants signed on for a temporary period of servitude to a master in exchange for passage to the New World . The next higher class - and most numerous of all - comprised the traders, shop-keepers, and small farmers . At the top of the social scale was the ruling class . In New England this class include the clergy, magistrates, college professors, and other professional men . The proprietors of the great plantations in the South were considered the ruling class . Another social class, although not classically defined, is that of women.

Colonial women had a specific place in the lives of their communities. This placement was due in part to the “deeply rooted convictions about the inferiority of women” the colonists had brought to America. Their role was made clear: “to obey and serve their husbands, nurture their children, and maintain their households.” While the women had to sew, cook, take care of domestic animals, make many of the necessities used in the household; the men were busy building, plowing,...
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