Role of Women in Colonial America

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  • 0:01 17th Century America
  • 2:46 18th Century America
  • 4:07 Native American Women
  • 4:59 African American Women
  • 5:46 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Erica Cummings

Erica teaches college Humanities, Literature, and Writing classes and has a Master's degree in Humanities.

The men and women of Colonial America encountered many struggles. Read this lesson to discover more about the role women had in overcoming these struggles and shaping the American colonies.

Women in 17th Century America

Though we often focus on the role of men during the Colonial Era, the colonies would have failed without women's bravery and hard work as well. In Colonial America, women did not have the same rights as they enjoy today, but they still played an essential role in founding America.

Imagine leaving your hometown, your friends, and much of your family to voyage across an ocean for two months in order to land in the wilderness of a new continent in the hopes of making a new life. On the journey itself, you risk shipwreck and contracting a disease. When you get to your destination, there are no stores, farms, or homes. You must make everything from scratch, and you have to be ready for potential attacks from neighboring Native Americans. This is exactly the situation that women (and men) faced in early Colonial America.

The 17th century was an age of uncertainty and adventure, and the women in 17th century America who made the journey had to be resilient, hard-working, and incredibly brave in order to survive. This meant that both men and women had to work together in order to eke out a living in the colonies. As a result, gender roles were actually rather fluid early on. Some colonies, like Jamestown, were initially founded by men, which meant that Jamestown couldn't grow as a colony until women arrived. Both men and women would farm, construct buildings, tend to the house, and raise children. In addition, women would work as nurses, midwives, and even itinerant preachers. Some women even began their lives in Colonial America as indentured servants, meaning they were provided free passage to the colonies in exchange for several years of work in the fields or elsewhere. Land was easily available in Colonial America, and even women could work towards purchasing land--a privilege they would not likely enjoy in Europe.

As the 17th century continued, families grew and children were born, but things were not always easy. Young women were often pregnant, partly because so many young children were lost to sickness or lack of resources and partly because of a dire need to populate the colonies. Likewise, spouses would often die, meaning that men and women would often remarry. Marriages and families were thus often formed out of necessity rather than love. Nevertheless, the family was truly the foundation to these colonies, and the family structure became a microcosm of colonial life in general.

Women in 18th Century America

By the 18th century, the colonies in America became well-established and the population exploded. As the colonies became more established, so did typical gender roles. 18th century America became more of a patriarchal system, where men were acknowledged as the formal heads of the household and held most social and political power. In contrast, women in 18th century America were generally relegated to the private sphere where they were expected to run the household, weave, cook, and teach children morals and spirituality. In general, women were still not formally educated, and they did not enjoy the same freedoms and social power as men. They were not always looked down on, however, and in fact women were often admired and praised for being spiritually virtuous and strong caregivers.

Some women did, in fact, own businesses or work alongside their husbands as blacksmiths or tanners. The slave population also exploded in the 18th century, and Southern wives of plantation owners had the added task of managing plantation affairs. In addition, as the American Revolutionary War drew near, many women helped to propagate the patriotic spirit by managing boycotts of British goods and encouraging fellow women to create homemade American goods to replace British goods.

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