October 11, 2012
The Role of Women in Early America
A woman’s role often depended upon many factors including: status, wealth, religion, race, and colony of residence. Although the particulars of individuals’ circumstances varied from person to person there were many things that they shared. Unlike modern women, a woman during this period often bore an average of ten children of which only half lived to adulthood. Anne Bradstreet bore eight children who apparently all lived which was unusual, her daughter however loses three children all by the age of four. Many women died at a young age during childbirth. It was a fear shared by all women, Anne Bradstreet writes of her own apprehension of suffering this fate in her poem “Before the Birth of One of Her Children” “How soon, my Dear, death may my steps attend, How soon’t may be thy lot to lose thy friend,” (Bradstreet 205). One of her biggest fears seems to be whom and how well will her children be looked after “Look to my little babes, my dear remains. And if thou lov thyself, or loved’st me, These O protect from stepdame’s injury.” (Bradstreet 205). It was quite common for a man to have multiple wives because of loses during the birthing process.
Women were often considered to be the weaker sex, not as strong physically or mentally as men and less emotionally stable. The Puritans believed that “to imagine that women were more likely than men to submit to Satan. A woman’s feminine soul, jeopardized in a woman’s feminine body, was frail, submissive, and passive—qualities that most New Englanders thought would allow her to become either a [good] wife to Christ or a drudge to Satan.” (Meyers 112). Legally they could neither vote, nor hold a public office, nor participate in legal matters on their own behalf, and opportunities for them outside the home were frequently limited. They were permitted with their husband’s permission to be housekeepers, shop clerics, and school teachers. Some women were fortunate enough to have fathers, husbands, and patrons who were supportive of their writings and thoughts. Anne Bradstreet was supported by her father Thomas Dudley who provided her with an education far superior to what was usually received by young women and her brother-in-law John Woodbridge who in 1650 brought a manuscript of her poems to London to be published. Phillis Wheatley who began life in America as a black slave purchased by John Wheatley, a tailor to be a companion for his wife Susannah, was given a education far surpassing that received by other slaves or even free born women. She was highly respected by people such as Benjamin Franklin and the mayor of London. She was also the first black woman with the help of her husband, to have her writings and letters published. Women were expected to defer to their husbands or fathers and be obedient to them without question. They, in turn, were expected to protect their wives against all threats. At marriage a woman could not enter into any legal contracts by herself and no one could sue her as an individual. As a wife she ceded to her husband control of the property she had brought to the marriage her dowry, and when he died she was entitled to one-third of her husband’s estate even if the largest portion of which may have originally been her dowry, to use during to remainder of her lifetime. She was not allowed to sue for a divorce even if her husband beat her or abandoned her. One example of this was the case of Francis Brooke, “Her husband regularly beat her for refusing to give “the dog the pail to lick before she fetched water in it,” or when she tried to eat the food that he reserved for himself. Mr. Brooke’s weapon of choice was usually made of wood, such as the cane he beat her with until “he [broke] it all to pieces” and the “oaken” board that snapped “in 2 pieces on her.” Brooke’s violent behavior came to the court’s attention after the midwife, Rose Smith, testified that his wife had delivered a dead male fetus prematurely and that “one side of the baby was all bruised.” (Meyers 40).
An abandoned woman was accorded with much less respect than a widow. Even if a husband willingly walked away from his wife he controlled all the assets up to and including whatever his abandoned wife’s earnings and he was not made to pay for her support or that of her children. Abandonment was not legal grounds for a woman to be awarded a divorce by the court system; the only way a woman could be granted a divorce on these grounds was if it could be proven that is wasn’t simply a case of her not wanting to live with her husband. It also had to be proven that she was fulfilling her “wifely duties”. However some colonies passed laws requiring that these absentee husbands support their wives but only so that the women did not become burdens to the community but this did little good if the husband in question could not be found or simply refused to care for his abandoned family. “It was not only those without resources who suffered. Even women who owned some property sometimes encountered problems when deserted by their husbands. Mary Taylor's husband, William, was a silversmith in Philadelphia. Mary was forced to leave him suddenly in 1777 because of his frequent rages and abuse. She fled to her mother's house in Burlington, New Jersey, with their young child. William refused to support them, then left Mary and went to sea after he "sold all of the Household Goods and Effects” (Eldridge 215). Widows were entitled to at least a third of her late husband’s property and if she still had to care for their children she received two thirds if not all of the estate.
On the other hand a wife was responsible for teaching her children to read the bible and the tenets of their particular faith. This was especially true in frontier areas where there were few men who were available or qualified to fulfill these duties. She was also expected to maintain a tidy household and raise not only her own children but if she was not the first wife, her husband’s children from any previous marriage, while her husband did the lion’s share of the money earning. Because of the scarcity of women in the colonies a widowed woman was highly valuable because of her domestic skills; such as sewing, cooking, soap making, and etc. this was true even regardless of whether she had children or not.
Fortunately much of this has changed in recent years. Any man proven to be guilty of abusing his wife facing jail time and a woman can sue for divorce for any reason. If a man deserts his family legal action is made by the state forcing him to provide for them. In the job sector a woman can have any job she wants and is qualified for. Now everyone can pursue an education that was only available to the wealthy. But as many leaps as women’s rights have taken there are still things that as considered “a woman’s place or work”. Being a homemaker while a challenging job and responsibility is still “woman’s work”, men who take on this onerous task are often looked down upon. I have encountered this in my own home. My husband who is disabled for life, feels that it is he’s responsibility to support me and any children we might have. While I have no issue with being the primary earner for our household he however finds it emasculating that I am “forced” to assume this role. Now this being said when I first lost my job over a year ago I did all the housework, errands, and shopping by myself; this caused him to realize that while a “housewife’s” job generates no income is not an easy undertaking.
Meyers, Debra. Common Whores, Vertuous Women, And Loveing Wives : Free Will Christian Women In Colonial Maryland. N.p.: Indiana University Press, 2003. eBook Collection (EBSCOhost). Web. 10 Oct. 2012. Eldridge, Larry D. Women And Freedom In Early America. N.p.: New York University Press, 1997. eBook Collection (EBSCOhost). Web. 10 Oct. 2012. Bradstreet, Anne. “Before the Birth of One of Her Children.” The Norton Anthology of America Literature. Gen. ed. Julia Reidhead. 7th ed. Vol. A. New York: Norton, 2007. 208. Print.