Role of women in colonial America

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Topic: Role of women in colonial America Lecturer presentation Currently, women play significant economic, political and social roles all over the world. Though their influence has been on an increasing trend since the beginning of the twentieth century, not much has been recorded about their roles in society beyond the tradition home responsibilities. Prior to the twentieth century, countries especially in the European countries and the United States experienced many social, economic, and political changes that required more active participation of all members from the society including women. These events include settlement, colonization and industrialization among others. In United States, early involvement of women can be traced before colonization of the country up to independence. While contribution of women is viewed to be minor, American women played significant role in colonizing the country, establishing the American identity and in the independence movement. 1Ann Bleeker identified three different categories of women in America. They include African American, native Indians and the Europeans. These groups of women came from very distinct backgrounds and they played different roles in colonizing and establishing the foundation of America. 2Bleeker noted that women who had settled in America from European continent had specific roles in the society. These roles included preparing food for the family, weaving, in addition to rearing and educating the children. The Jewish women were not an exception and 3Helena noted that they performed similar traditional roles just like women who had settled in America from Europe in the sixteenth century. 4Murray noted that women were not allowed to hold leadership positions or have social organization of their own. Their major occupation was home making but few owned property that they had mainly inherited from their families. Shortly before colonization, the number of European women was lower compared to their male counterparts. 5Bleeker noted that from 1620 to 1622, the number of European women who came to Virginia was just about 147 and in 1624, Virginia had 230 women in a population of about 1240 European men. However, 6Murray noted that unlike the Europeans, the Native American women played more active role in the society. Their roles included performing both manual and traditional roles such as home keeping, raising children, making pots and preparing food for their families. In addition, native women were responsible for clearing and tilling land for crop farming while their men were engaged in less physical work such as hunting wild animals for meat2. The high demand for labor in tobacco and sugar cane plantations facilitated greater immigration of people in America shortly after the beginning of colonization. 7Murray argued that women immigrated into America as ‘indentured’ servants in the early periods of American occupation because Britain, the colonizers of United States did not practice slavery. During this period, many women from African origin were brought in America to work in the farms and plantations. Later, as the demand for labor in the farms increased, slavery and forced labor that comprised one of the most degrading practices of colonization in America resulted2. Women of African origin were needed to give birth to more slaves to work in the plantations. They played a role in colonizing America because they supported the imperialist colonial masters to establish their foundation in America by providing cheap source of labor in the farms and in the plantations. 8Mary noted that the number of both African and European women was far much less than that of men, but their impact on enhancing colonization was great. In a period when birth control and family planning was virtually unknown, women gave birth to an average of nine children in the United States regardless of her racial or economic status. Children born to wealthy white families became colonial masters to those born to poor servants. According to, 9Mary the role that women played in colonial America was mainly dependent on her economic status and race. Wealthy women of European origin enjoyed more privileges provided by slaves from poor families’ mainly African servants. However, the role of women in colonizing America was indirect compared to that of men. 10Mary, noted that colonial men used women as instruments of advancing their interest in the country by defining their roles and limiting their upward mobility. Restricting the role of women to home keeping and raising children ensured that the women did not contribute effectively in efforts to liberate America from the yoke of colonialism. 3However, it contributed to their empowerment especially in the independence and later the abolitionist movements in the America. What contributes to an American identity is one of the most challenging aspects to define, but the economic social and political aspects of America are critical elements of establishing its identity. These aspects are contained in unique experiences that America has undergone, with women playing significant part. America is one of the most culturally diverse countries in the world. 11 Ann noted that role of women in perpetuating cultural diversity in America was not only limited to their traditional roles of giving birth, but to their versatility demonstrated when they begun immigrating and settling in the American continent that was largely unknown in the 15th and 16th centuries. 12Women immigrants brought in unique cultures from their diverse backgrounds and through intermarriage. they established new and distinctive cultures in America. It is from these cultures that an enterprising, capitalistic and industrious identity was founded, that has established the country as one of the most progressive countries in the planet. From the beginning of colonial period in 1630 to 1800, America underwent many economic, political and social transformations. On the political front, America was finally granted its independence by the British, and economically, the economy transformed dramatically from subsistence agriculture, to commercial farming in addition to mining and manufacturing. Women were involved actively in transformations of American society and though their contributions are rarely acknowledged, they played a great role in changing the country. The history of America without the participation of women in colonial period is incomplete, although their contribution is less. Women played variety of roles to put the country on the wheels of progress. It could be seen from the poem, ‘On Being Brought from Africa to America’ of 13Phillis Wheatley, Remember Christians. black as Cain, May be refin’d, and join th’ angelic train. This poem speaks of injustice towards Black, towards women. Among different classes of the society women belonging to lower classes and black were not treated well by others. The colonial period in America gave women the primary task to produce more and more children for work. Another picture of the role of women in colonial America could be seen from 14Mercy Otis Warren’s poems. As she belonged to upper class society, she had more supporters and admires. She had contributed much to the revolution of America. The poem of her, ‘The Death of Parson Caldwell’s Wife’ speaks, and the melancholy that pervaded all on the tragically death of his lady, who was distinguished for the excellence and respectability of her character, wrought up the resentment of that part of the country to so high a pitch that the most timid were aroused to deeds of desperate heroism. The poetry of that period clearly depicted the role of women and at many instances she was put to shame and stress. To finalize this matter it can be said that the women of that period had two sided position. one, a prosperous and socially committed upper class notion and second, the poor slave’s suppressed life. From 1600 to 1800 America was undergoing some social changes too. At first women were considered to be mere housekeeper and child rearing ones. and most often they were considered to be an instrument for men folk. The discrimination against women was so strong. Although the role of women of the colonial period was very menial, they cannot be completely denied and kept aside. The number of women during and before the eighteenth century was higher than males. The economic growth of the colonial period undoubtedly gives its credentials to the women folk. Many rich women had engaged in commerce mining, and business. They had investments to different companies and firms. They manufactured goods to public and were praised by others. Surprisingly, it had been noted that the women owned liquor shops at that period. The middle class women were insisted to be a t home and covering from public gaze. But the educated women from them found their means of income by teaching and sewing, even though they were not allowed to have better education. The society had not focused much on the developments s of women. With regard to education, the women of middle were given only basic awareness in reading and writing. Education was abandoned for the black. Later they had to struggle a lot to achieve basic education. Sure the class division was visible during the colonial period. In analyzing the political participation of women in colonial America it can be seen that that their participation was very less. It was only in 1756 women were allowed to vote, and it was Lydia Chapin Taft who cast her vote in the history of America. The participation of women in army was also very less but an exception to this is Deborah Samson Gannett. In the colonial history of America only a few women folk as stated above could be seen as having a place in the society. They did not have any decision making role in the society. 15Gerda Lerner observes, Women did not play a determining role in the ranking pattern. they took their position in society through the men of their own family or the men they married. The position of women stood with their parents or husbands only. The society was mainly patriarchal. The women of that period could not come out of the kitchen walls and the many of the women who came to the mainstream of the society were only after their husbands’ death. Later it made inspiration to other ladies too. And many spinsters too came to the mainstream of the society and thus slowly the participation of women increased in American soil. The colonial period witnessed growth of some women to entrepreneur levels. Many women have imprinted their own indelible marks on this field. It is the people who make America what America is today. Many brave mothers and wives did their part for the growth of the nation to a powerful one as shown today. In analyzing the period well a person can find that the women folk were marginalized from the main stream of society, but the strenuous acts of women had paved a position to the women of colonial period in American history. Bibliography Bleeker, Ann. E. The history of Maria Kittle. Published in 1790. Retrieved from Digital early American imprints, series 1. Evans (1639-1800) from (Accessed on March 3, 2011). Judith Sargent Murray. On the equality of sexes. The Massachusetts Magazine No 4(2) on April 4, 1790.Retrieved from on March1, 2011) Katherine, Mary, G. Petition to congress on January, 29, 1790, published in the Maryland Journal 1790. Retrieved from Lerner, Gerda, the lady and the mill girl: changes in the status of women in the age of Jackson, (accessed March 7, 2011). Warren, Mercy. The Death of Parson Caldwell’s Wife,, (accessed March 7, 2011). Wells, Helena. The stepmother: A domestic tale from real life. Published in 1799, Retrieved from on March 2, 2011 Wheatley, Phillis, On being brought from Africa to America, Archiving Early America, (accessed March 7, 2011).