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Introductory Essay on Gender and Opportunity in Colonial America - Teacher version

by Dave Neumann, Long Beach Unified School District

(This version contains the background essay for students with additional explanatory text for instructors provided in red italics).

The position of women in colonial America varied from region to region and changed from the seventeenth to the eighteenth century. Nevertheless, the general pattern was consistent: women were subordinate in a patriarchal system reinforced through religion, law, and social custom. The different forms of Christianity in the colonies all supported some ideal of women's submission to their husbands. In addition, married women had few independent legal rights. Social practices reinforced women's dependence upon men. There were some exceptions to these patterns, but they were relatively rare.


Patriarchy and religion

People in England and its colonies were concerned with maintaining order in society. Central to the creation of an ordered society was the construction of harmonious families. The family was often thought to represent a miniature version of society as a whole. (See document one). One seventeenth-century Englishman explained it this way. In this miniature society, God had established a patriarchy, an arrangement in which a woman submitted to her husband's authority in an unequal partnership. This submission was supported by reference to various Biblical texts, especially the Genesis passage in which the serpent tempts Eve to disobey God. This passage was used to argue that women were more susceptible to sin than men.(1) The husband in turn protected his wife and their children. Though seventeenth-century Puritans talked the most about the patriarchal marriage relationship as a divinely-ordained design, patriarchy in some form was practiced among all English colonists. (See document two).

Patriarchy and law

The unequal partnership of patriarchy was a legal ideal as well as a religious one. The English legal doctrine of coverture, carried to the colonies, taught that a woman ceased to exist as a separate legal person when she married. In other words, her identity was united with her husband's, and the two spoke with one voice. One historian explains, "No longer acting simply as individuals, together they constituted a special kind of legal partnership, one in which the woman's role was secondary to the man's."(2) This concept was based in part on the assumption that a husband had a right to his wife's company, labor, and body. If she were able to enter into contracts on her own, she could be held liable in ways, such as through fines or imprisonment, that might deprive a husband of services to which he had first claim. Coverture was also designed as a protection for the married woman, but the result was that it left her with little ability to own or acquire property. In fact, "everything women owned before marriage became their husbands' afterwards."(3) Also, she could not initiate lawsuits, sign contracts, or write wills.(4) (See document three and six).

Patriarchy and social custom

Patriarchy shaped women's social experience in terms of housing, education, and economic activities. First, women did not generally live on their own. Married women were expected to live in respectful submission to their husbands. Single women often lived with a brother or some other family member in a household headed by a male, where they did housework and childcare in exchange for their room and board. The literacy rate of women increased slightly by the middle of the eighteenth century with the rise of private elementary schooling for women.(5) The only women who typically lived alone were widows or spinsters, women who had never married. In a society that strongly emphasized male authority, women who lived alone were often looked at with some suspicion or mistrust. Spinsters often accepted their society's view of their situation as lonely and depressing. For example, Rebecca Dickinson, an eighteenth-century spinster, returning to her empty house after visiting her married sister one night recorded in her diary that she "cryed [her]self Sick."(6)

Second, women were generally not trained or educated in the same ways as males. Many girls were taught basic literacy at home. The relatively few women who received education outside of the home did not learn practical skills that would enable them to handle financial matters. Paid education at special schools for girls stressed ornamental accomplishments, such as music, dancing, drawing, painting, needlework, and handicrafts. These skills might allow a woman a chance to display her decorative abilities, but they were not directed toward fostering economic self-sufficiency.(7)

Third, women were unable to engage independently in most economic activities. Some advice literature urged husbands to ask their wives' opinions before making important financial decisions, but evidence reveals that most husbands ignored this input. Women often did not know their husbands' income, the value of tools or property, or the legal language of property transactions.(8)

Limitations to Patriarchy

Religious limitations to patriarchy

Though it may seem as if women had little power or independence, there were some exceptions to the pattern just described. In many cases, however, these exceptions only confirmed the general pattern of patriarchy. For example, alongside discussions of women's subordination to men, some ministers, especially those in the Puritan and Quaker traditions, emphasized the spiritual equality of men and women. In a sermon delivered in 1690, a minister explained that God made Eve from Adam's rib so that he would not "claim Superiority, but be content with equality."(9) But this affirmation of spiritual equality did not overturn the divinely-ordained social order of women's submission to men; spiritual equality before God did not necessarily imply social equality in human relationships.(10)

Legal limitations to patriarchy

Coverture laws provided some protections to a wife. If a husband chose to sell property during their marriage, the wife was supposed to be interviewed independently of her husband by the court to confirm that she agreed with his decision. On occasion this practice gave women some means to influence financial decisions.(11) However, courts did not always strictly follow this practice, as (male) judges had some latitude in applying the law. Also, colonies like Massachusetts that had been founded by Puritans tended to frown on legal traditions that undermined the unity of the marriage relationship and therefore did not provide for separate interviews.(12) Coverture also provided that a widow receive rights to one third of the total value of her husband's estate to protect her from poverty. However, this amount was seldom enough to maintain the standard of living she enjoyed while he was alive. Also, she could not sell the property or transfer it to another person in a will.(13)

Furthermore, a separate legal tradition called equity developed in both England and America as an alternative to coverture. Equity courts allowed a woman to retain control of property she brought to a marriage if her husband agreed by signing a prenuptial agreement. Again, though this right was available to some women, it was rarely exercised.(14) Also, colonies like Massachusetts, that had been founded by Puritans (see above), did not establish equity courts, so prenuptial agreements there in the eighteenth century were informal, and therefore somewhat insecure.(15)

Social limitations to patriarchy

In the pre-industrial world, the home was the center of family economic activity. Therefore, on occasion, married women conducted financial business on their husbands' behalf. The wife was allowed to behave in ways outside her traditional role because she was acting as a representative of her husband. William Blackstone commented, "A wife, a friend, a relation, that use to transact business for a man, are quod hoc his servants, and the principal must answer for their conduct: for the law implies, that they act under a general command; and, without such a doctrine as this, no mutual intercourse between man and man could subsist without any tolerable convenience."(16) Under certain conditions, a woman might help plant crops, order supplies, or keep shop. A merchant might appoint his "loveing wife, my Lawful Attorney," to collect debts on his behalf.(17) But, though women were occasionally given limited authority, "few women were prepared either by education or by experience to become 'independent women of affairs.'"(18)

In some cases, married women were permitted to conduct business on their own apart from husbands and even own their own businesses. But this practice was not technically legal in most colonies, and it could be challenged in court.(19) (See document four and document five). It could also make enforcement of contracts difficult. There were few laws governing women who acted as feme sole traders or as agents of their husbands. This area was handled by precedent. It is unknown how well this system protected women's rights, but one legal historian's tentative conclusion is that "informality of the law could be dangerous."(20)

Women's opportunities to engage in business independently "varied according to their assets, as well as their class, training, and place of residence."(21) Women who engaged in businesses that were considered men's work - shoemaking, printing, shipwrighting - were usually carrying on professions begun by their now deceased husbands. Widowed women might become shopkeepers, using resources they inherited from their husbands; single women shopkeepers were rarer. Large ports like Boston offered some women the opportunity to work as midwives, teachers, tavernkeepers, and shopkeepers.

In the 1750s, nearly three dozen women were keeping shop in Boston. Britain and America were part of a rising "consumer revolution." There was a rapidly growing demand for consumer goods from Britain like "cloth, ceramics, glassware, paper, cutlery," items that transformed the character of everyday life.(22) This growing demand enabled many women to try their hand at shopkeeping.(23)


1. Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, Good Wives: Image and Reality in the Lives of Women in Northern New England, 1650-1750 (New York: Knopf, 1982), 106-107.
2. Marylynn Salmon, Women and the Law of Property in Early America (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1986), 14.
3. Salmon, 41.
4. Salmon, ibid., Ulrich, 7; Mary Beth Norton, Liberty's Daughters: The Revolutionary Experience of American Women, 1750-1850(Boston: Little, Brown, 1980), 45-80.
5. Norton, 41. On literacy statistics, see Kenneth A. Lockridge, Literacy in Colonial New England: an Enquiry ito the Social Context of Literacy in the Early Modern West (New York: Norton, 1974), 58.
6. Norton, 42.
7. Norton, 259-260.
8. Norton, 5-6.
9. William Seeker, A Wedding Ring (Boston, 1690), n.p., cited in Ulrich, 107.
10. Ulrich, ibid.
11. Norton, 45-47.
12. Salmon, 22-24.
13. Salmon, 141-147.
14. Norton, 45-47.
15. Salmon, 120-121.
16. Ulrich, 35-50; quotation is from Salmon, 205-206, no. 10. 
17. Quoted in Ulrich, 40.
18. Ulrich, 50.
19. Salmon, 45-46.
20. Salmon, 56.
21. Patricia Cleary, "'Who shall say we have not equal abilitys with the Men when Girls of 18 years of age discover such great capacitys?': Women of Commerce in Boston, 1750-1776," in Conrad Edick Wright and Katheryn P. Viens, eds., Entrepreneurs: The Boston Busines Community, 1700-1850 (Boston, 1997), 41-42.
22. The quotation is from T. H. Breen, "'Baubles of Britain': The American and Consumer Revolutions of the Eighteenth Century," Past and Present [Great Britain] 1998 (119), 77.
23. Cleary, "Women of Commerce," 42-44.