The Lightly Heavy Load: Women in Colonial America

Introduction

Women have in the present age been accredited with playing a pivotal role in the building of our nation. However, this task did not begin in the recent years but can trace its beginning back to the colonial American era where the traditional role of women was reinvented due to the realities of the new world. Prior to the colonial era, the roles of women were greatly limited by the traditional attitudes of women as the “weaker sex”.

However, with the movement to the New World, their previously clearly defined roles began to be blurred mostly as a consequence of the labor deficit in colonial America which led to a state where the contribution by the women was most vital for the survival of the family. However, this new definition of women led to the women being involved in labor that had previously been taken up by men in addition to their domestic chores. This resulted in women being generally faced with multiple hardships.

The life of the American woman in the colonial era is thus interpreted in different light by many a historian. However, the commonly held notion that the society generally devalued the contribution of the women and subjected them to inhuman treatment and suffering is a gross misinterpretation as is demonstrated by the “notes on Virginia” by Thomas Jefferson[1].

While the lives of the women in Colonial American were inevitably marked with multiple responsibilities and hardships, the women also took the time out to make merriment thus helping to lighten their weary loads thus creating a balance that made life bearable.

This paper shall set out to document the typical life of the women in that era by doing an extensive research and analyzing firsthand accounts from these women. The paper shall then delve into the activities that made the daily lives of the women fun to some extent.

Colonial America and women

The first colonists were men who traveled to North America and claimed lands for the Kings and Queens of their homelands; these lands were known as colonies. The colonies proved to be a major attraction to many Europeans who were either unemployed or did not own land.

The prospects of a new country where land was in abundance and the space was in plenty as opposed to the crowded cities of London and Paris saw thousands of Europeans move to the colonies. Some women traveled together with their husbands or independently with the hope of marrying off and starting new families in the new world. However, the realities that met the hopeful new immigrants were very different from what they had anticipated.

Kalman and Walker state most colonists originated from the European cities and were thus ill prepared for the harsh realities that met them in the wilderness that was the new world[2]. The cities, despite their many ills were equipped with social amenities. However, in the colonies, there were no farms, roads, homes or hospitals and the colonists were faced with illnesses and food shortages. This new realities bore down on the women population who had to reinvent themselves in order to cope.

The daily life of the colonial American Woman thus became characterized by the dual role of wife and family co-provider therefore making the colonial American Women fulfill a very important function in society. In addition to the traditional role of wife and mother, the women also played an economic role as they worked together with their male counterparts to produce foods and other supplies necessary for the survival of their families.

The colonial society was run by men and married women were expected to be subordinate to their husband. The role of the woman as dictated by society was that of primarily playing a supportive role to her husband and family. This can be demonstrated by an extract from the Godey’s Lady’s Book which advised that a woman must strive to live within the provisions of the man and take care to be grateful that the man has allowed her to keep his house[3].

This state was fortified by the law which dictated that the man held control of all property and married women had to relinquish their rights to any property to their husbands who were the sole controllers of both the women’s labor and access to economic resources[4].

Bearing in mind that most of the colonial American’s were practicing Christians, this stance of male women as subordinate to men was justified by use of the Old Testament’s patriarchal model which emphasized female inferiority and male superiority. As such, women could not undertake any economic activity independent of their husbands or fathers thus making them financially dependent on the male figures.

The English Common Law adopted in America dictated that through marriage, the husband and wife became as one person thus suspending the legal existence of the woman. In essence, this meant that a married woman’s inheritance, property, income and even her very clothing belonged to her husband and she could do nothing without her husband’s consent.

Some of the women who came to the new world came as Indentured servants. This were women whom, unable to pay for the trip from Europe, made deals with colonists sponsors to pay for their trips in return for which they agreed to work as servants to repay their sponsors by working in their homes, fields or workshops for as many as 7 years[5].

The fate of these women was far worse than that of the women who came with their husbands or families. First and foremost, the productive and reproductive labor of the indentured servants was completely controlled by their masters for the term of the indenture[6].

Most of these masters were not benevolent and thus forbade the women from marrying, leaving or even purchasing any property without their explicit permission. In addition to this, the women were paid wages that were below the current rates and despite the stipulation by the law as to the specified provisions they could receive, most masters provided only a bare minimal of food and cloths.

Women and Reproduction

Death was a constant reality to the early colonists both male and female alike. However, death as a result of childbirth was especially reserved for women. The population of the early settlers in America was fairly low and owing to diseases and other factors which raised the mortality rate, the population was greatly diminished.

This was in contrast to the high demand for labor that the new colonies demanded. As such, women were greatly pressured to have children as there was a heavy dependence on child labor for the family’s advancement[7]. On average, the colonial woman had 8 children in her lifetime. This was in spite of the bleak realities that each childbirth event held for the woman.

The possibility of death during childbirth was a constant reality to the women and in cases where the baby happened to be trapped inside the womb, any attempts at a Cesarean operation almost always resulted in the death of the mother. Middleton tells of the story of a young colonial wife, Mary Clapp who buried four of her infants before having her life prematurely ended as a result of a childbirth complication[8].

As if the childbearing task was not hard enough, most mothers were only allowed to rest for a few days before they were forced to resume their daily household chores.

This was especially hard for the women who were greatly weakened by the child bearing episode. In addition to this, the women had to carry with them their children to the fields where they worked since most families could not afford house helps to take care of the baby. In most cases, the first child had hardly been fully weaned before the next child was conceived and the cycle ran on.

Room for fun

Despite the many hardships that the women in colonial America faced, they also engaged in a lot of activities that enabled them to ease the hardships by enjoying themselves if only for a while. As has been noted in previous discussion, women were burdened with work throughout their lives. To liven up the drudgery that they were subjected to, women mostly took up working in groups.

This had a positive effect since the women could uplift each other’s spirits and generally encourage each other. A particularly interesting activity that the women undertook was competing in their work. They organized corn-husking parties and competed to see who could pick the most berries in the plantations or even spin the most thread[9]. This had the effect of converting an otherwise tiring and mundane task such as spinning yarn into a joy for the participants.

In addition to this, at times they would organize quilting bees. This was the most common activity that the women would comfortably do and deem as fun. In essence, they would carefully cut different pieces of clothes then sew them together so as to make a quilt. The one with the most beautiful quilt and with the best time was declared the winner of that competition. As mentioned earlier, women always worked in groups and as they worked they entertained themselves by singing.

This could be done randomly, or by forming designated groups which would compete against each other as they worked. To add on this, they would occasionally indulge themselves with spelling bee. In these bees, they would each ask for spellings and the one who got the most answers would have their chores done by the other women in that particular group.

Due to the strictness of the rules that governed these women regarding to their social freedom and responsibilities, they learned how to make their chores fun. For example, weddings and holiday preparations was the highlight of many women. They often enjoyed cooking and preparing such festivities.

In some states, women coming from high class families either through the parents or husband were allowed to play card games, smoke and even gamble. This was however under very strict supervision by a dominant male to monitor their behaviors and ensure that they do not shame the family’s name and status.

Harvest time was perhaps the worst time for the women during the colonial age. This was because they were supposed to help out in the fields while at the same time fulfilling their homely roles and obligations. Many hours were dedicated to this process in order to avoid spoilage and also to get better market value before the markets flooded with the same harvests.

After the busy harvest season, women engaged in the harvest fairs which were marked by celebration. To celebrate a good harvest, the women folk prepared savory dishes and indulged in little luxuries such as cakes and wild turkeys[10].

In some states, the harvest fairs were characterized by the preparation of a particular meal. This task was carried out by the women. The older women were expected to teach the younger ones how to do this in a bid to pass the knowledge through generations and consequently preserve the valued culture.

While the harvest fares were mostly simple in nature, modestly sized and lasted only for short durations, they offered a sense of solace and a variation to the months of self-denial and having to bear with hard work, extreme weather conditions and worst of all a society filled with disrespectful and unappreciative men.

Women in the colonial age often did some differentiated activities during the little free time they got. These activities went along way in showing their craftsmanship. Pottery was one such activity. Originally introduced by the Native women who worked as slaves, the craft over time became a common activity amongst the American women too[11]. Other than that, the women also perfected the art of knitting during this age.

According to the cultures that prevailed, all women were expected to master this craft before they got married. It was considered as a key point in showcasing one’s responsibility and care towards their family. It also showed that the woman was not lazy and minded her family’s perception in the community. It was also a good way of passing time as opposed to gossiping.

The women also involved themselves in making quilts. They were not merely for competition reasons. Some of these quilts were carefully mended with specific material/ cloths to ensure that they provide warmth for the families during winter and other cold seasons. To further show their craftsmanship, the women were also in charge of making candles and soap for family use. This was done after the slaughtering seasons.

It was the most disgusting job as they worked with suet from the slaughter houses. After heating the suet the removed fat would be used to make the candles or be mixed with burnt ash to make soap. This just goes to show the ingenuity possessed by these women considering the working conditions that they were entitled to. It was also during this age that the use of rugs was discovered.

The women would weave these rugs from worn out clothes and blankets and later use them in the house floor to prevent against splinters from the then wooden floors[12]. Even though these crafts were done in a bid to avoid confrontation from the men and society, they provided the women with avenues for both learning and socializing with each other.

The foundation of the new world was on godliness as dictated by the bible. Religion played a significant role in the lives of the women in the colonies. The women were devoted to establishing an orderly and religious colony and therefore had much spiritual zeal which came about as a result of their devotion to a good cause[13]. A particularly interesting facet of the life of the colonial woman was the organization of bible study groups and prayer groups.

In many homes it was more likely to find a bible than any other book. It was a daily ritual to read the Bible after meals and early in the morning before the members embarked on their daily activities. These tasks were done by the men who probably got an education but it was the duty of the women to ensure that the teachings are imparted in the lives of the children.

The women were not allowed to preach or speak in the presence of men. These were rules derived directly from the bible and were to be strictly followed. Disregarding them called for stern action against the culprit and would also bring shame to the family.

Women were also supposed to attend bible study sessions in which they were given biblical citations as to how they are supposed to live, their position in the society and their roles in the family setting. At the same time, they were taught the importance of prayers and how to pray.

Marriage to them was a privilege and sacred. Promiscuity especially on the women side was considered as the greatest sin of all and the women found guilty for this would forever be banished from the community and the family would be carry that shame through generations to come.

In accordance to dressing, women were supposed to wear a loose dress and cover their hair. This was a sign of decency as well as high morals. These gowns were to fully cover their necks up to the ankles. This was because of the general belief that a woman’s body was a source of temptations. Therefore dressing in this manner was to avoid tempting men into having impure thoughts.

Conclusion

This paper set out to illustrate that the women in colonial America faced a lot of challenges in their lives and to reinforce this statement, a detailed discussion has been provided as to their chores, children and husbands. However, despite this, this paper has also conceded that these women still managed to find the time to do things which were fun so as to lighten their otherwise very heavy loads.

By reviewing the lives of women at that time and other relevant literature, this paper has showcased the different tasks that women undertook so as to overcome the difficulties inherent in their lives. Examples have been given which demonstrated that despite the challenges, prejudices and difficulties that faced women, they focused on what was most important; building a better tomorrow.

Their ingenuity in terms of craftsmanship and nurturing instincts portrayed in colonial America have ever since evolved leading to advances in the pottery, candle and soap making industries.

From this research paper, it can be authoritatively stated that the women did manage to overcome the limits that society and the realities of their everyday living presented to make a comfortable life for their families and themselves. In today’s society which is characterized by wide spread disillusionment and a broken down family structure it would seem that we have a lot to learn from the lifestyle experienced by women in the colonial age.

Bibliography

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Kalman, Bobbie and Walker, Niki. Colonial WOmen. Crabtree Publishing Company, 2003.

Kamensky, Jane. The Colonial Mosaic 1600-1760. Oxford University Press, 1995.

Marble, Annie. The Women Who Came In The Mayflower. Babylon Dreams, 2009.

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Miller, Marie, Brandon. Good Women of a Well-blessed Land: Women’s Lives in Colonial America. Twenty-First Century Books, 2003.

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Jane Kamensky. The colonial mosaic 1600-1760, (Oxford University Press, 1995), 56
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Annie Marble. The Women Who Came In The Mayflower, (Babylon Dreams, 2009), 9.

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