Colonial Americans can be seen as a very fortunate people since they had a tremendous opportunity to start anew and form a society based on the sacred principles of freedom and equality. While in many ways their colonies did succeed in their goals, it has to be admitted that they also ensured that women were subjugated through the burden of domestic duties and were deprived of all intellectual and social growth. In spite of this, it can be argued that colonial women played a crucial role in the shaping of American society and many of them, in fact, established themselves in important niches of society. It could also be said that these women led freer and more productive lives than is obvious.
Firstly, we must understand what this suppression of women refers to here. Suppression of any individual entails that he or she is denied basic rights in every sphere of life, whether it be political, religious or social. It means that they are held inherently inferior and that social institutions are used to justify their secondary status. In the case of colonial women, this was particularly acute in many respects. They were held as the weaker sex and were not allowed to participate actively in the governing and managing of colonial society. Of course, this is just one aspect of the argument, the other being that they did in a sense lead a secure and wholesome domestic life.
THE HISTORICAL BASIS
There is no doubt that women were oppressed. In fact, the story of their oppression is a long and arduous tale. To fully understand this in the short length of this essay, we must look at the historical basis of male domination. Settlers first arrived in America in the 17th century. Originally, most of them were men. Women were later on brought into the new lands to provide mates for these men. It is thus seen that their very introduction into America was as objects and not as capable human beings. Chawla says, “In effect, the arrival of the first women in America was constituted by the need for wives for the settlers of the new land.” (Chawla) These women had to pay for their transport to the new world and almost prostitute themselves to their mates in that they had to be completely subservient to them and uncomplainingly execute any tasks meted out to them. Their ‘marriage’ lasted from between five to seven years, an indication that there was nothing that was considered a holy or sacred bond in the relationship between husband and wife. Indeed, “From the start, women were presented as objects to be purchased. The women, who were not sold as wives, were sold as indentured servants.” (Chawla) It is obvious that if women did not enjoy civil freedoms in the beginning, there wouldn’t be much of a precedent for the later colonies to follow. Indeed, the mother country, England, was no shining example in women’s rights itself.
Even American schoolchildren know about the Pilgrims and their first forays into America. Most settlers of the Colonial times arrived in groups bonded by common religious faith, much like the Pilgrims. Religious faith brought with it several religious prejudices which arose from gross misinterpretations of the scriptures. Religion was used to justify the secondary role assigned to women:
“Women were completely repressed and disregarded for intellectual value by the Puritan church in Massachusetts. The accepted belief was that intelligence and understanding was given to men, not women, so her chief duty as a wife was to her husband and children. Women were considered morally weak because Eve was the first to sin in the Garden of Eden. According to the dicta of the day, a woman was supposed to derive her "ideas of God from the contemplation of her husband's excellencies." Women were not allowed to speak in church, judged openly as inferior creatures.” (Buckingham)
Like most other religious societies of the day, these colonialists too assigned to women the various domestic tasks that eventually ended up tying them down. As deeply religious people, it can be assumed that the early Americans of both sexes would have easily fallen in line with these supposed teachings of the church.
THE OPRESSION OF WOMEN
As time passed, and America gradually acquired an identity as a land and people different from Europe, and as it eventually became divorced from its Motherlands, women settled into a lower stratum of society. Their seemingly subservient role was thus firmly established. The further subjugation of women is now detailed here.
Economically, women weren’t very well off. Since the beginning, women shared many responsibilities with men. Gradually, as American society began to settle, the lot of women began to worsen. Women were now relegated to menial and domestic work. In the beginning, there were no legislative guidelines to govern women’s pay. Later, legislation was passed but only to set women’s pay to a lower scale than men’s. Main states, “Maximum weekly rates for ‘maid’s work’ equaled the maximum daily rate received by male laborers in the summer period.” (Main 5) Indeed, this is a harsh injustice. This merely reflects the way women were exploited although their worth in labor and industry equaled that of men.
It is clearly seen that the laws of the times did not do the women any justice. Their rights were stifled, and they did not enjoy any civil or financial freedom even after marriage- “Marriage was termed as a "civil death" for women, because they had absolutely no rights in the relationship. They could own nothing, not even clothes, for they wore their husband's clothes.” (Chawla) While it is true that not all men of the time were cruel and would have used these laws to inflict injustices upon their mates, these laws would always have served as a beacon of oppression and the supposed inferiority of women. Berkin describes the relationship of marriage as, “The ideal of a unity of person, of husband and wife as one in him" (Berkin, 14), that is the institution of marriage was totally focused around the husband.
Culturally, women faced an incredible challenge. Everywhere around them, every sign, every message, every subliminal understanding insinuated that there was something drastically imperfect about them. The writing of John Winthorp reflected the attitude of the Puritan church. Such was the case when he said about Ann Hutchingson that,” the young woman had lost ‘her understanding and reason’ because she had given ‘herself wholly to reading and writing, and written many books.’” (Buckingham) Clearly, the church and society as a whole did not intend for women to receive an education lest they realize their inherent virtues and ask for a better deal. The very notion of a woman immersing herself in intellectual pursuit is labeled as almost blasphemous here by Winthorp. In summation, women’s freedoms were firmly crushed and the idea of their inferiority was clearly established in the minds of all colonialists, regardless of gender.
THEIR ACHIEVEMENTS AND WOMEN OF NOTE
For all the oppression meted out to them, however, it cannot be denied that colinial American women did enjoy a healthy domestic environment and many of them even accomplished so much as to rebuke the extreme stereotype that they were reeling under severe and total oppression. Several women, like Emma Willard, who set up the first all-girl’s school, provide examples of the enormous contribution of women to Colonial society.
To substantiate the claim that many women played roles of importance in early America, we must look into some examples of women who burnished their name in glory in those days and are still known for their achievements. One example of such a woman is Anne Hutchingson. She is describes by Buckingham as a, “a female who was assertive in a time when women were considered mentally inferior to men.” (Buckingham)
Hutchingson was born in England to a radical father who, too, dissented from the church. On her way to America, she discussed religion with other women and gradually acquired the view that faith was personal in nature and that salvation could be sought by virtue of one’s faith, without the need of any church whatsoever. Soon, she began congregations of women and preached her beliefs among them. This raised the ire of the Puritan church and she was soon put on trial and banished from Boston. She was soon killed in an Indian massacre.
Her story is representative of the views of the church and the prevailing misogynist beliefs of the time. John Winthorp said, “...if she had attended to household affairs, and such things as belong to women, and not gone out of her way and calling to meddle in such things as are proper for men, whose minds are stronger, etc., she had kept her wits, and might have improved them usefully and honorably in the place God had set her” (Buckingham) It is thus clear that the society of the time wished women to confine themselves to their narrow domestic roles in lieu of their supposed inferiority. It is also clear that Hutchingson was being punished for standing up to the church and even more drastically, being a woman at that. However, what is not obvious too is important.
Hutchingson undertook her affairs without much explicit opposition from the Church. Her weekly gatherings were freely attended by several women who were not inconveniences in any severe way for doing so. Some of her followers were even men, which means that they did not found it squeamish to be tutored by a woman in the ways of religion. Furthermore, that a woman could offer her own interpretation of the scriptures and be followed by such a large congregation proved that women’s gender wasn’t a major hindrance to her credibility among common folk. In fact, according to Buckingham, “She might have been let off with a reprimand except that she blurted out that God had said he would save her from them. Even if she hadn't been banished at that trial, it is most likely she would have continued in her teachings, unsilenced by Puritan threats...” (Buckingham) Here, an alternate conclusion can be drawn. It could be said that Hutchingson wasn’t brought to trial because she was a woman claiming to be versed in the scriptures but because she was offering to the Puritan masses alternate religious beliefs that could threaten the established order and the authority of the Puritan elders.
THEIR ATTITUDES AND OPINIONS
There exists a very relevant question that may have occurred to the reader. Today, in this age of gender equality we generally assume that women belong on every sphere as the equals of men. In colonial times, in an age where life was harsher and gender duties were specialized, it may not have occurred to women that they were being oppressed in any way. The women might have felt that theirs was the natural state to be in. In fact, they might have considered home and hearth their dominion and obviously did enjoy unquestioned liberties there. Never before in history had women played a visibly pivotal role in society, so why should colonial women have thought of themselves as deserving of a more obvious and rewarding role in society?
Monita Chawla seems very certain that women were in general very dissatisfied with their role in society:
“The colonial women within the family were quite aware of the disadvantages proposed to them based on gender. Religion, like law, endorsed female subjection. All religions barred women from the ministry, with the exception of the Quakers. Still, many women found religion to be a way out of their daily, routine life. The church provided an enticing lure of the thought of spiritual equality. In every realm of their lives their inequality to men surfaced, so they sought happiness elsewhere. They viewed their souls to be of equal importance to men. This gave them a sense of personal connection to God. “(Chawla)
Chawla’s portrait makes it clear that women, while oppressed in many ways, found recourse in religion and held their souls to be the equal of men, that is they were the spiritual equal of men. Obviously, here we see that women always regarded themselves as the equals of men. It must be pointed out that it is ironic that religion, the very tool used for the justification of the supposition that women were inferior, also played an active role in bolstering women’s collective confidence.
Chawla’s views also suggest that there was also an overwhelming factor of frustration involved in women’s feelings. Told by everyone from the clergy to their own parents that they were inferior to men and that their duties lay in the house, these women had little choice but to accept their fate with resignation, all while in wait for a day when they could work on par with men and have a little more breathing space they did than then. But there is always a factor of ambivalence in such an area of discussion. We do not know for sure if the view that women were intellectually inferior translated into day to day life. They certainly enjoyed a very high level of security and were exposed to few of the sexual rigors that women are exposed to today. They also played a crucial role in the development of children, one that easily surpassed that of men and as such might have been well-respected as the pillars of domestic life. The best statement that can be made about this matter is that women were indeed stifled intellectually but they did enjoy several domestic powers that ensured that they played the role of the foundation of day-today life.
Mary Rowlandson is an example of a well-respected woman who personifies this. That the clergy allowed her to write a book with a religious theme and even sanctioned it negates the view that women were completely censored from religious life. She also went on to become an elder it Puritan society, which suggests that Puritan men of the times may not have been averse to a female religious leader. At the same time however, we must not forget that Rowlandson could have been used for purely propagandist use and that she an exception and that her story may not necessarily reflect those of the common woman.
In concluding this writeup, I hope I have conveyed to the reader how critically important the role the women was in early America. While it is true that they were under a state of utter and complete oppression, it can also be seen that they made tremendous contributions. Their many accomplishments seem doubly impressive when viewed in context of their oppressing circumstances. Indeed, it is clear that they far exceed the historical importance that has been so far attributed to them.
There can be no all-encompassing statement made about the status of women in American society. These women present to us an enduring enigma- were they were an oppressed, dissatisfied lot as is commonly inferred or were they content with their domestic security and some conviction about the satisfactions of a sheltered life that were lost somewhere in the recent past? Certainly, we can be sure that the paramount achievement of colonial women is that they carried out their tasks in colonial society uncomplainingly and in spite of the oppressive conditions meted out to them.
Buckingham, Rachel. “Anne Hutchingson: American Jezebel or Woman Of Courage?” 24th May, 2001. cpcug.org.
Argues that the real reason behind Ann Hutchingson’s banishment was that she dared to speak up against the established as a woman. Provides insight into Puritan society and its attitude towards women.
Chawla, Monita. “Women in Colonial America.” 24th May, 2001. University Of Arizona.
Chawla argues that women played a role as important as that of men in shaping Colonial American society. She explains how women had to overcome incredible obstacles to accomplish what they did. She illustrates how women were first and foremost mere commodities since they were brought into the New World for the sole purpose of providing settlers with partners. Other points, like presenting marriage as a ‘civil death’ add much information about the oppression of women. The only weak point of this essay is it is very biased in nature.
Main, Gloria L. “Gender, Work, and Wages in Colonial New England.” William and Mary Quarterly, 3rd. Ser., Vol. 51, No. 1. (Jan., 1994), pp. 39-66.
This article discusses the various jobs that women performed and their scale of pay relative to that of men. It shows that women’s role in colonial society was subdued due to their well-defined domestic functions. It explains how women were excluded from fair pay and such to keep the status quo intact.
Rowlandson, Mary. “The Sovereigneignty and Goodness Of God.”Bedford/St. Martin’s, 1997.
The work presents no obvious thesis relevant to the issue. It is, however, instrumental in that it shows the attitudes and ideas of a real individual from the colonial days. Another matter of interest is that we can gain an insight into the dynamics of the relationship of the establishment and such an important female figure.
Ulrich, Laurel Thatcher. “Of Pens and Needles: Sources in Early American Women's History.” The Journal of American History, Vol. 77, No. 1. (Jun., 1990), pp. 200-207.
Ulrich argues that there are several fascinating aspects of colonial women’s lives that can be studied and researched into. She describes how she set out on a journey in New England to learn about the state of women in colonial America.