Posted: March 23rd, 2022

Roles In New England During Colonial America

Women’s Roles In New England During Colonial America


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Today, women still have not seen an acceptable level of equality compared to their male counterparts. Yet, the struggle for women’s rights have improved conditions for modern women tremendously when compared to the roles that the sex was limited to play during the colonial period. In Colonial America, women were often limited to purely caretakers, dealing only with domestic and child raising matters. Still, even in such belittling times, many women during the American Revolution found ways to truly embody the spirit of independence, thus influencing the future fate of an emerging nation.


Every society is in many ways characterized by its notions of gender roles. A gender system within any given society “is the way in which this differentiation creates expectations for behavior and apportions power between men and women” (Middleton & Lombard 2011 p 158). These social structures determine what roles the two sexes are allowed to play within the larger society and can greatly impact individual ambitions and successes. There was a much stricter connotation of gender during this period in the Colonial era. Gender stratification was actually enforced my colonial law in many colonies along North America. Legal and social mores within New England society at the time heavily restricted the behaviors and actions of women, and “these legal rules made most women legally subordinate to fathers, masters,” and even husbands (Middleton & Lombard 2011 p 158). Gender roles within a very strict Colonial society


Image of the woman as a delicate being defined the lives of women who were forced into submission of their male counterparts, as they were believed to be incapable of more masculine work and activities. One news article from 1782 describes the women who had met a tragic end in Jamestown as “ladies fair,” representing the typical image of the helpless young woman, who was considered too delicate for participation within a more masculine world (Library of Congress 1782). Essentially, women were almost completely disenfranchised during the colonial period because of such restricting gender roles. Still, there were different roles for the various races of women within Colonial society during the 18th century. Creole and other mixed race women often dealt with greater prejudice and injustices during their lives in the period (Berkin 1997). Moreover, slave women were forced to live in deplorable conditions, with many being sexually objectified and victimized by their male white masters.


Still, this was an era of change. During this period, the notion of what it was to be an American woman began to take shape. The 18th century brought with it new opportunities to all New Englanders, including women. The transition into 1700 marked the year that witchcraft trials ended (Middleton & Lombard 2011). This ended some of the most dangerous prejudices seen to impact women in the nation’s history and allowed for a general improvement of the female’s position within colonial life. Yet, there were still much more men in the colonies that there were women, causing the gender ration to be completely skewed towards having a much greater population of male residents (Berkin 1997). Thus, women were often very easily wed off, because there were so many bachelors in the region.


The role of the wife was essentially one of the predominate roles embedded within feminine culture during the colonial period. This role assumed a submissive role to the husband. As one 18th century poem describes, women were “always true to their mate” (Jennings 2003). The wife was almost like property to the husband, and could not work, or even go out in public without his consent. Here, the contemporary research states that “wives, children, servants, and slaves lacked the legal freedom to leave the households in which they resided without the permission of the male household head” (Middleton & Lombard 2011 p 137). Due to the importance of familial reputation within colonial life, much of the wife’s job was to ensure the family’s reputation was in good standing with the community (Berkin 1997). In this sense, the wife played a role of ambassador to the rest of colonial families in particular regions. Defending the husband, no matter what the situation would have been a major element to a woman’s wifely duties (Jennings 2003). During this period in Colonial history, the average age of marriage for women in the new world was actually higher compared to other regions, and even what the average age would be on the American Eastern seaboard a century later. The research suggests that women typically married in their mid to late twenties, especially newly arrived immigrants who were often unable to marry until their period of indenture was over (Berkin 1997). Yet, there were still many cases of women marrying at very young ages, and typically marrying men who were much older than they were. In fact, second and third generation residents began to once again take on traditions of marrying off young daughters. Moreover, in a period where mortality rates were dramatically higher than ones witnessed in contemporary times, women often found themselves marrying multiple partners after being widowed by the death of a husband (Berkin 1997).


Ounce the woman was in the role of the wife, she then assumed the other role of caretaker of the home. Once a woman was married, life dramatically changed from what it was like during their earlier years. After marriage “their lives were consumed by childbirth and field and household labor, and certainly followed by an early death,” (Berkin 1997 p 7). Home maker was the primary position of women during the Colonial era. In the middle and upper tiers of colonial society, for a wife to work showed that the man of the house was unable to financially support the house. Thus, the research posits that “the new spatial arrangements in elite households were designed not only to display the wealth and sophistication of the owners, but also at least in part to demonstrate that their wives did not work,” (Middleton & Lombard 2011 p 37). Still, women did play a role of economic significance in their positions as caretakers for the home. Women were often actively involved in production of artisan or other home goods, and “transformed raw materials into usable domestic products through spinning, butchering animals, food preparation and preservation, and manufacturing domestic supplies,” (Berkin 1997 p 13). Yet, any monetary profit derived from such work conducted by married women was taken under the control of her husband.


Family was a major element to the behavior and mentality of the New England woman during the colonial era in the United States. Motherhood was a major element to life in the Colonial period for women. Many women “could expect to be pregnant every two years until they died or until menopause stopped the process” (Berkin 1997 p 9). As mothers, women were in charge of securing the future of a new, emerging nation. As daughters, women were also limited to a subservient position. Daughters were expected to be submissive to the wishes of her father. Father’s would often play a critical role in choosing who their daughter was to marry (Smith 2008). The loss of a daughter was seen as incredibly tragic, because it meant the loss of a potential lifeline to the rest of the community through the potential for marriage (Library of Congress 1782).


It was within this familial context where the roles of women in religion can be examined. Essentially, women could not be religious leaders of communities, but did play an important role in the spread of religious practice in the colonies. Thus, they helped support religious leaders and were often active members of church communities, reinforcing social and legal mores through social behaviors. Moreover, women educated the society’s culture of the religious doctrines and practices of Puritanism and Catholicism, which were the dominate religions in Colonial America at that time. Here, the research suggests that “women undertook the religious education of their children, especially since priests and ministers were in limited supply in the colony,” (Smith 2008 p 112). The deaths or parting of the mother from the household was a significant blow to the religious capacities. The eulogy from 1782 once again highlights this importance; “Who can express the sorrows of the heart, to think their children dear and they must part, by sudden death, in such a manner too, to bid the world, and all therein adieu” (Library of Congress 1782). Women essentially served as religious enforcers within colonial society.


Yet, still many women went against the moral standard of the acceptable woman within Colonial society. In 1718, the state of Pennsylvania granted “sole trader status to abandoned wives or those with absent husbands,” (Middleton & Lombard 2011 p 156). Not very many women got to actually take advantage of this, but there were cases where women became prominent business owners after the death of their husbands. In 1744, North Carolina “allowed all businesswomen the status of sole traders, regardless of whether their husbands could be found,” (Middleton & Lombard 2011 p 173). There were many women in Colonial society who took on lives of entrepreneurship, although most of these women were widowed, or had never been married. Essentially, most women who did enter the workplace were absent of the role of the wife and thus the home care taker. This then allowed them to work in an acceptable manner within a society that did require strict roles for women who were married and with families to look after.


Despite strict gender roles, women still found a way to take part in the monumental movement for independence. There were some instances of women throwing gender stereotypes out of the window, some even dressed as men to take part in the fight for independence. Yet, such cases were rare. Most women took on less controversial roles within the war effort. Because of their submissive roles within the home, many women were banned for the most part from participating within politics (Berkin 1997). Thus, “women were locked out of ‘large politics’ of government,” and so were not the decision makers or influencers necessarily within the tumultuous period before the Revolutionary War (Berkin 1997 p 11). Still, this did not stop many women from participating in the fight for independence entirely. Many women supported the war effort from their more acceptable domestic capacities (Smith 2008). There is the example of the Homespun Movement, which shows how many women did what they could to help the war effort without overstepping their gender boundaries. Women refused to allow members of the society to wear British made clothing, or use other domestic goods being imported by England, who was charging steep importing taxes. Women spun and wove homemade clothing for their families, and even for the troops (Smith 2008).


Overall, women played a fundamental role in the evolving nature of colonial society in an emerging nation. They served as the foundation for social, religious, and even political endeavors. Most women were the silent supporters of their male counterparts, and although their actions were restricted, their passions were not.




Berkin, Carol. (1997). First Generations: Women in Colonial America. Macmillan.


Jennings, John. (2003). The ladies’ defence. Revolution & Romanticism. Web.


Library of Congress. (1782). Verses, made on the sudden death of six young women and one boy, who were drowned at Jamestown. An American Time Capsule: Three Centuries of Broadsides and Other Printed Ephemera. Web.


Middleton, Richard & Lombard, Anne. (2011). Colonial America: A History to 1763. John Wiley & Sons.


Smith, Merril D. (2008). Women’s Roles in Seventeenth-Century America. Greenwood Press.

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