Women in Puritan Society: Roles & Rights

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  • 0:02 Puritan Society
  • 0:37 Roles of Women
  • 2:12 Rights of Women
  • 4:31 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Mary Deering

Mary has a Master's Degree in History with 18 advanced hours in Government. She has taught college History and Government courses.

Discover the roles and rights of women in Puritan society. Learn about the benefits and limitations of the Massachusetts Bay Colony founded by the Puritans and meet famous Puritan women like Anne Hutchinson and Anne Bradstreet.

Puritan Society

The Puritans were a religious minority group who believed that the Church of England needed to be purified of the influence of Catholicism. In 1630, a group of Puritans, disheartened by the inability to purify the Church, decided to migrate to the New World and found a new colony. The goal of the Puritan migrants was to create a city on a hill to stand as an example for the immoral English church. The Puritans established the Massachusetts Bay Colony in what is now modern Massachusetts.

Roles of Women

Women in Puritan society fulfilled a number of different roles. Women acted as farm hands, tending their vegetable gardens; as wives, responsible for caring for their husbands; and as mothers, producing and guiding the next generation of Puritan children. In addition, although their legal rights were limited, some Puritan women were able to become the breadwinners of their families through the sale of goods they produced or animals they raised.

Reproduction of a Puritan home
Photograph of a reproduction Puritan home

The most important role for a Puritan woman was that of the mother. Although the Puritans of the Massachusetts Bay Colony were overall very healthy, infant mortality rates in the time period were still high by modern standards, and childbirth was a dangerous affair for women. In Puritan New England, any woman having over five children faced a one in eight chance of dying in childbirth. Nevertheless, the high rates of infant mortality, the lack of available birth control, and the drive of the Puritans to create a perfect model society kept Puritan women having children regularly despite the dangers.

In addition to their roles as mothers, wives, and workers, Puritan women could also be educated artists. Any Puritan town of a significant size had to establish a school. Although the rates of girls attending school were lower than the rates for Puritan boys, many Puritan girls and women did gain a basic education. Some Puritan women, like poet Anne Bradstreet, produced beautiful poems and other works relating their experiences in the colony.

Title page of Anne Bradstreet

Rights of Women

There were some limitations on the rights of women in Puritan society. Women were not allowed to vote in the General Court, the legislative body that governed the early colony, and they tended to have limited options for interacting with the government in their local communities. Women were also restricted from buying and selling land or suing in a court of law.

The Puritans, like many societies in this time period, believed that women were culturally inferior to men. Married women were expected to follow the edicts of their husbands and were unable to interact with local government on their own. In addition, married women were unable to sue for divorce.

Widows were the exception to the legal limits on women in Puritan society. While unmarried girls were supposed to follow their fathers and married women follow their husbands, widows had no male figure to guide them. Puritan widows could sue or be sued in a court of law, could own land, and could discipline any children or servants in their households.

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