"Gender and Opportunity" Documents: Note to Teachers
The following notes provide background context and additional explanation for the documents linked to this lesson.
Document 1: William Gouge, Of Domesticall Duties (London, 1622)
The family is depicted as a miniature version of society as a whole. It is presented as prior to other social arrangements and as a model, a preparation, for them. By its nature, this document presents an ideal type of what the family ought to be; it is prescriptive rather than descriptive.
Document 2: The Law's Resolution of Women’s Rights, (London, 1632)
The two sections quoted depict the dual aspects of early modern Biblical reflection on woman: as a partner, but a partner with unequal status. Section II focuses on the unity of the marriage relationship. It suggests that woman was made from man, suggesting a complementary relationship with him. Woman is the partner of man. Section III discusses the fall of humanity and its consequences. Though both Adam and Eve are blamed for sin, the emphasis falls on Eve, who "helped to seduce her husband" and has consequently received additional punishment. The legal and social consequences of woman's sin is that she remains in subjection to man, both before marriage (in anticipation of it) and during marriage. God's revealed truth and the laws of England are in agreement with each other: they shake hands.
Document 3 : William Blackstone, Commentaries on the Laws of England, (Oxford, 1765-69)
This is a legal document and reflects the need to find a way to view women's legal status. Coverture is a legal fiction in that it determines to treat the two individuals in the marriage as if they were one. The legal fiction involved is revealed by the uncertain and metaphorical language: "the very being or legal existence...is suspended...or at least incorporated." On the other hand, it must be pointed out that the legal fiction, even when acknowledged as such, had very real and dramatic effects on women's lives, preventing them from engaging in legal or political activities like owning property, suing in court, making wills, or voting.
Document 4 : “Feme Sole Trader Statutes,” South Carolina, 1712, 1744
These excerpts all deal with the very specific issue of the legal status of women engaged in business. These excerpts are double-edged: on the one hand, they make feme sole traders liable for any financial transactions in which they engage; on the other hand, they offer such traders some legal protection as well. The implications of these laws are limited to the particular colony (South Carolina) that had jurisdiction. As mentioned in the background essay, colonies like Massachusetts had no such laws; indeed, South Carolina and Pennsylvania were the only colonies to recognize and protect feme sole status explicitly. It would be reasonable to infer that if these statutes were imperfect at best, women in other colonies without the protection of such statutes would have been all the more vulnerable.
Document 5 : “An Act Concerning Feme-Sole traders,” Pennsylvania, 1718
See Document 4
Document 6 : “An Act for the Prevention of Undue Election of Burgesses,” 1699
This statute, while legally enfranchising freeholders (those possessing legal title to the land on which they labored and resided), explicitly prohibited the political participation of any individual who might have been a freeholder but was still considered incomplete in terms of citizenship: women, whether "sole" or single, or "covert" or married; children, or convicts.
Document 7: James Turner Engraving
This engraving depicts Caribbean Indians and palm trees, suggesting some lack of familiarity with the area or an intentional effort to make the region look exotic. Nonetheless, it accurately depicts some features of eighteenth-century Boston. The variety and number of steeples suggest not simply piety, but religious diversity. Since different demonimations often developed as a result of cultural or linguistic differences, religious diversity could well imply ethnic diversity. Boston was becoming an international port, home to people from various countries of birth. The cramped buildings suggest a large population. The maritime activity hints at lively trade. All of these elements help to explain why this might be an ideal location to open a shop.
Document 8: Trade Bill
This tradebill enumerates a lengthy list of goods available for purchase. Though many of the words are unfamiliar today, most of them are related to clothing or household goods, suggesting the strength of a consumer economy. Though it is perhaps dull by today's standards, this advertisement does use decorative pieces and a variety of fonts to catch the eye. It attempts to attract customers by highlighting goods from London, the source of the most prestigious consumer goods in the mid-eighteenth century. It offers good deals "cheap for the cash," as well as credit. Though the list of goods is quite long, it concludes with "etc., etc., etc.," suggesting a nearly endless supply of articles.
Document 9: 1754 Letter from Elizabeth Murray to James Murray
In this letter, Elizabeth Murray explained to her brother James Murray, after the fact, her decision to travel to London to deal with merchants directly. She displayed not only boldness and initiative but a willingness to test boundaries as well. Her brother did not have legal authority over her, though he exercised considerable social and economic control. Elizabeth was willing to challenge convention, although somewhat indirectly, since she did not inform him until it was too late for him to call her back.
Document 10: 1759 Advertisement Elizabeth Murray
This newspaper advertisement features Elizabeth Murray's name prominently, suggesting that she was well known and respected at this point. Again, as in the tradebill, numerous products are mentioned as are the offers of cheap prices for cash and short-term credit. Because she had recently moved, she included her shop's new location. In an era before standardized postal addresses, locations were described by reference to well known landmarks. Deblois was presumably well known to the newspaper audience, as Elizabeth mentioned his name as a reference point. At a time when printing costs were still relatively high, advertising was a financial investment. In this case, notifying customers of a relocation would have been well worth the expense.
Document 11: 1760 Prenuptial Agreement Elizabeth Murray
This prenuptial agreement is by definition a legal document. As such, the recourse it provided to women would be limited to those who were literate and could afford to pay for the services of a lawyer to draw it up. This prenuptial agreement explicitly sets aside coverture statutes and guarantees Elizabeth Murray control over the use and disposal of the property she brought to her marriage.