Women of the Colonial Period

Amy Meschke Porter. Women’s Rights: People and Perspectives. Editor: Crista DeLuzio. Perspectives in American Social History Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2010.

From the late 16th century to the late 18th century, women came to the present-day United States from England, Spain, France, the Netherlands, other European countries, and Africa. Women’s experiences in colonial America differed, depending on their social and cultural backgrounds, their place of settlement, the historical moment in which they lived, and the laws of the colonial powers that governed them. Across the colonies, women faced legal, economic, and political subordination, as well as religious beliefs and social organization that placed them as inferiors to men. Despite these constraints, women took care of their families, sometimes sought to protect their own interests, and in some cases, challenged authority and the established order.

Women in the Spanish Colonies

Women first settled in the Spanish colonies in the present-day United States in 1565, in Saint Augustine, Florida. Women would continue to settle in the Spanish colonies of Florida, New Mexico, Texas, Arizona, and California. In the Spanish colonies, women enjoyed property rights that women in other colonies did not have. Under Spanish law, all children inherited fairly equally, so that sons did not inherit most of their parents’ estates. Women maintained property when they married. Women did have dowries, but husbands could not sell a dowry without the consent of the wife. Finally, the Spanish colonies had community property laws, meaning that men and women shared all property that they earned while married. All of these laws meant that women had opportunities to own land and businesses, and to pass these on to their children. For example, when a San Antonio woman had a notary write her will, she noted, “When I married the said Mariano Lopez, my second husband … I only contributed my household goods, jewelry and slaves” (Luisa Gertrudis de La Rua, 1820). This notation is important because under Spanish law this woman would continue to own what she brought into the marriage, while her new husband would own what he brought into the marriage.

The Spanish colonial frontier could be a rough place to live. There were high mortality rates as men and women died in Indian attacks and several smallpox epidemics. Thus, life expectancy was not high. In the southwestern areas of the present-day United States, especially New Mexico, Indians took captive other Indian women and children, and ransomed them to the Spanish settlers. The Spanish colonists would take these women and children, known as criados, into their homes as servants. The criados were educated in the Spanish language and the Catholic religion. These women criadas bridged the gap between two worlds, Indian and Spanish. They often faced discrimination in both worlds because they did not fit clearly into one or the other. Nonetheless, these women made lives for themselves and contributed greatly to Spanish culture. An important contribution occurred in the kitchen, where the criadas introduced Indian foods and food preparation techniques to Spanish families. They passed on medical and herbal knowledge as well. Spanish households incorporated these servants to different degrees, meaning that some criados were treated like family and some were mistreated.

For Spanish colonial elites, marriage was essential in retaining their elite status. Parents often arranged or maneuvered good matches for their children. Fathers carefully guarded the chastity of their daughters as an important step in arranging a good marriage. Despite these efforts, there were high rates of premarital pregnancies in the Spanish colonies. While men considered it honorable to protect their wives and daughters, they also sought sexual conquests of other women, contributing to the high rates of premarital and extramarital pregnancies. Adultery was illegal, but this law was widely violated. The lack of priests in the colonies to perform marriage ceremonies also contributed to the high rates of premarital pregnancies. Thus, some couples lived as though married, until a priest could validate their marriage in the Church. Not all of these relationships resulted in marriage. Numerous court cases involved women suing men who had promised to marry them. The courts often decided on monetary payment from the man to the woman to restore her honor. When women spoke out, the courts often moved to protect them.

The lack of church supervision showed itself in other areas as well. In some church records, people were able to change their racial status. Race was a vital part of status in the Spanish colonies, as the castas defined and ranked every possible racial combination. On the northern frontier of the Spanish colonies, especially in Texas, children might be baptized as mestizos, persons of Spanish and Indian parentage, but later in life be recorded as Spaniards. Thus, race might have been slightly less important in the colonies on the northern frontier of the Spanish empire than in the central areas such as Mexico City. Women in the Spanish colonies had some similarities, especially related to the legal system, to women in another European settlement, New Netherland.

Women in the Dutch Colony of New Netherland

The Dutch colony of New Netherland began in 1624. Women in the Dutch colonies enjoyed property rights similar to those of Spanish women. Dutch women could own property when they married, and they had community property rights as well. One common practice was for spouses to write joint wills. Marten and Maeycke Cornelissen wrote their will together, which read, in part, “They, the testators, out of mutual and particular love, which during their marriage estate they have steadily borne and do now bear toward each other, declare that they have reciprocally nominated and instituted, as by these presents they do, the survivor of the two their sole and universal heir to all the property” (Cornelissen and Cornelis 1916-1919, 359-61). In the event that one of the spouses died before the other, the living spouse would receive all of the property. Women’s strong property protections were shortlived in New Netherland, because English colonists invaded and incorporated New Netherland into the English colony of New York in 1664. While at first the English did not force the Dutch to use English legal practices and customs, by the 1720s, the Dutch had adopted these laws. As English law became more prominent, women began to lose their property protections.

Women in the French Colonies

France’s first attempts to establish colonies in the present-day United States were not successful. French Huguenots tried to establish Fort Caroline around the present-day Georgia-South Carolina border, but the Spanish led by Pedro Menéndez de Áviles destroyed the settlement and killed the settlers. The first successful French settlements were in Canada, the Great Lakes region, and Louisiana. While Protestants had tried to found the first French colonies, the early successes brought Catholics to the Americas. Women helped to settle the French colonies in the upper Mississippi area, as well as Louisiana, and to develop their economies based upon fur trading and farming. Men were generally fur traders, and often went out hunting for long periods of time. Many of these fur traders married Native American women, and their children were called metís, similar to the Spanish term mestizo.

In Louisiana, New Orleans became an important settlement, as its location at the mouth of the Mississippi River made it a prosperous port. A few women were offered an opportunity in New Orleans that was not present in the Spanish and Dutch colonies. In 1727, a group of Ursuline nuns from France came to New Orleans and opened a convent. The Ursulines were an order of Catholic nuns that began in northern Italy in 1535. The nuns in New Orleans opened their convent with the purpose of educating young girls, housing orphans, and acting as a hospital for the sick. Traditionally, convents acquired money for operations from young women’s dowries. When a woman married, her family was obligated to provide money and material goods to her husband under French law. If a woman did not marry, but entered a convent, the dowry went to the convent. The New Orleans convent deviated from this norm. The New Orleans nuns made their money from teaching students, taking in orphans (the government gave them money to do so), selling agricultural products, and conducting other small business endeavors. As a result, the nuns began to accept Creole Cuban women without dowries into the convent. Thus, they made their convent more independent of male control than were convents in France, because the New Orleans convent did not depend upon the dowries coming from fathers for its operation. The presence of this convent offered some young girls the rare opportunity of a formal education. The convent also allowed women to devote their lives to God if they chose, and gave some a chance to avoid marriage if they desired. The New Orleans convent did not house a large number of women, but it is remarkable that the convent accepted poor women when convents in France only allowed the wealthy to enter.

Women in the English Colonies

Women came to the British colonies for a variety of reasons. Whether they settled in New England, the Chesapeake, or the South, free white women enjoyed privileges over unfree women. British women had fewer property rights than did Spanish and Dutch colonial women. Under British common law, married women lost their separate legal status; this was known as coverture. Any property or money a woman brought into marriage, as well as any wages she earned during marriage, belonged to her husband. A married woman could not execute a contract, make out a will, sue, or be sued. In the rare case of divorce, she was denied custody of her children. British common law dictated that a widow receive one-third of her husband’s estate, but this property was not hers to sell or bequeath. She only retained use rights to it until she died. In this system, men were the preferred heirs. There were some loopholes that allowed wealthy women to maintain property, but these loopholes were not available to all women.

The Chesapeake

Throughout the British colonies, women’s experiences varied based upon region and social position. The Chesapeake region saw the first successful settlements of English colonists with the founding of Jamestown in 1607. The sex ratio in early Jamestown was uneven, as there were more men than women. Many of the women who came to the Chesapeake region were indentured servants; these were people who signed a contract to work for another person, who in return would pay their passage to America. The English colonists did not use African slaves as often as indentured servants, in the early years of the Chesapeake colonies. Indentured women faced both opportunities and problems as a result of the uneven sex ratio. Women had more choices in marriage because of the abundance of men. At the same time, indentured women were punished if they became pregnant while indentured, and some were raped by their masters or other men. Immigrating without their families offered women some freedom, but also meant that they had less protection and supervision. Few of these women could read, and even fewer could write, so they did not leave behind many letters. One indentured woman in Maryland wrote to her parents and described her difficult experiences in the following manner:

What we unfortunate English People suffer here is beyond the probability of you in England to Conceive, let it suffice that I one of the unhappy Number, am toiling almost Day and Night, and very often in the Horses druggery, with only this comfort that you Bitch you do not halfe enough, and then tied up and whipped to the Degree that you’d not serve an Annimal, scarce any thing but Indian Corn and Salt to eat and that even begrudged nay many Negroes are better used, almost naked no shoes nor stockings to wear, and the comfort after slaveing during Masters pleasure, what rest we can get is to rap ourselves up in a Blanket and ly upon the Ground, this is the deplorable Condition your poor Betty endures, and now I beg if you have any Bowels of Compassion left show it by sending me some Relief, C[l]othing is the principal thing wanting. (Sprigs 1935, 151-52)

This woman illustrates the difficult life of indentured servants, who suffered from inadequate food and clothing, isolation from family, loneliness, and long hours of hard work. As a result of these conditions and of high rates of disease, many indentured servants died young. The average life expectancy for men in the early years of the Chesapeake colonies was 43, and it was even younger for women. If indentured women lived long enough to finish their terms of service, they usually married. This meant that they had children late in life. Also, if they survived childbirth, many women outlived their husbands, so there were many widows in the Chesapeake. As a result of the high rates of widowhood and the scarcity of women in the Chesapeake, men in these colonies tended to leave widows more property than the typical one-third of the estate given to widows elsewhere, especially in New England. In fact, many Chesapeake men left their full estates in the power of their wives.

The Chesapeake colonies moved away from using indentured servants and turned towards using slaves from Africa, partly as a result of Bacon’s Rebellion in 1676. Nathaniel Bacon led a group of former indentured servants and slaves, first in attacking Indians, and later in attacking Jamestown and burning down the town. The rebellion ended quickly when Bacon died of dysentery. Many women participated on both sides of the rebellion. On Bacon’s side, women helped to spread information about Bacon and his efforts; on the side of the government of colonial Virginia, the Governor’s wife, Lady Berkeley, often spoke out against the rebellion. As Bacon tried to legitimize his authority, he began to use formal institutions of power, such as political conventions, that excluded women. So, while Bacon’s rebellion brought women some opportunities for political participation, these opportunities were limited. The increase in the use of slavery in the Chesapeake would affect women for many years to come.

New England

In contrast to settlers who came to the Chesapeake, women who came to New England generally came with their families. The largest colony, Massachusetts Bay, was a Puritan colony. This Puritan colony organized itself based upon the principles of hierarchy, patriarchy, and order. God was at the top of this hierarchy, and men were above women. The Massachusetts poet, Anne Bradstreet, describes her relationship with her husband, writing:

If ever two were one, then surely we;
If ever man were loved by wife, then thee;
If ever wife was happy in a man,
Compare with me ye women if you can.
(Bradstreet 1897, 270)

Bradstreet reveals the ideal Puritan relationship between husband and wife. While the relationship was hierarchical, husbands and wives were expected to love one another. In a poem entitled “An Epitaph,” Bradstreet describes the ideal Puritan goodwife:

Here lies
A worthy matron of unspotted life,
A loving mother, and obedient wife,
A friendly neighbor, pitiful to poor,
Whom oft she fed and clothed with her store;
To servants, wisely aweful, but yet kind,
And as they did so they reward did find;
A true instructor of her family,
The which she ordered with dexterity;
The public meetings ever did frequent,
And in her closet constant hours she spent;
Religious in all her words and ways …
(Bradstreet 1897, 248)

Bradstreet describes the characteristics and roles of an ideal Puritan woman. She is pure, a good mother, an obedient wife, helpful to others, a kind but stern mistress to servants, and religious. This remarkable poet depicted the ideal woman as one who followed society’s expectations and did not challenge authority. Ironically, Bradstreet was challenging conventional standards for Puritan womanhood by writing.

Not all women, however, embodied Bradstreet’s ideal of the Puritan goodwife. New Englanders viewed some women as deviant and problematic. Anne Hutchinson offers one example. Hutchinson challenged the authority of the clergy when she held Bible discussions in her Boston home. Her challenges led to a trial and excommunication. Other women who fell into this category sometimes faced witchcraft accusations. Accused witches in New England were usually women, although some men were accused of practicing witchcraft, as well. The most famous of the colonial witchcraft incidents took place in Salem, Massachusetts, in 1692. Scholars have debated the causes of the Salem witch accusations, but gender was a factor. During the last decades of the 17th century, many demographic changes took place that affected women’s lives. There were more women than men in the population, as women were living longer than men. King Phillip’s War (1675-1676) killed large numbers of men, and many young men continued moving west to acquire land. As a result, more women faced diminished marriage prospects and widowhood. The age of marriage also rose for women and, consequently, they gave birth to fewer children in general and to sons in particular. Economic changes occurred as well. Salem was an old community, with much of the land occupied by the older generation. As children found themselves less well-off than their parents, anxieties and tensions arose over inheritance within families and the larger community.

Within this context, a group of young women, many between the ages of 16 and 25, accused various men and women of witchcraft. Most of the women who were accused of witchcraft were 40 years of age or older, and past their childbearing and child-rearing years. Puritans viewed these roles as the most important for women, implying that these women no longer played vital roles in the community. The majority of the accused were women who lived alone without men. When a married woman was accused of practicing witchcraft, her husband defended her, which indicates that unmarried women were more vulnerable to witchcraft accusations. Others among the accused included women without male heirs, and the daughters of these women. This pattern indicates that Puritans considered these women a threat because they had found ways around the legal system that kept most property out of the control of women. One scholar, Carol Karlsen, argues that the accusers were worried about their inheritance, or lack of inheritance, and this was the major reason for the witchcraft accusations. These young women were not married, and many of them had lost one or both parents in Indian attacks. As a result, most of these young women were servants and did not have dowries, which would have offered them a good chance of marriage, and the subsequent improvement of their social status. These young women expressed their discontent through demonic possession, and by accusing other women of witchcraft. Throughout the course of the trials, 185 people were accused of witchcraft, 59 were tried, 31 were convicted, and 19 were executed. The colonial Governor stopped the trials in 1693. Once the trials had ended, several of the accused who had eventually confessed to practicing witchcraft took back their confessions. The Reverend Increase Mather met with Mary Osgood, who told him that “the confession that she made upon her examination for witchcraft, was wholly false, and that she was brought to the said confession by the violent urging and unreasonable pressings that were used toward her” (Recantation of Confessors of Witchcraft 1815, 221-25). Other women also explained that they had confessed because they had been pressured to do so.

The witch trials reveal women’s vulnerability in a social order premised on their subordination. Other women played major roles in religion in ways that gave them more moral authority within their families and communities. The Great Awakening was a Protestant revival movement that began in the middle colonies and New England in the 1730s. Prior to this period, women tended to belong to churches, in which they participated more than did men, so this religious revival at first brought men into churches who had female relatives already attending. Later, many new women began to attend the revivals as well. In the South especially, many slave women participated in the revivals and became Christians. The emphasis by revivalist ministers on the emotional nature of religious experience was especially appealing to women. Although few churches allowed women to preach publicly, women claimed an equal right to testify before others about their religious faith. The Great Awakening also offered women some new opportunities to take part in church governance, through participation in business meetings, and sometimes through voting. Finally, because of their religious participation and devotion, women assumed expanded roles as spiritual leaders within their families.

The Middle Colonies

The middle colonies of New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania were characterized by national and religious diversity. Immigrants came from Holland, Sweden, Germany, Scotland, Ireland, France, Switzerland, and Africa, as well as England. In New Jersey and Pennsylvania, many of the original European settlers were Quakers seeking to escape religious persecution. In contrast to the Puritans, Quakers allowed women an important place in their religion. Women could lead church services, and women decided whether the church would approve a marriage between a man and woman. Although Quaker women were bound by the laws of coverture, their religious values promoted egalitarianism between husbands and wives, and afforded women a measure of authority in the public life of their community. Besides Quakers, French Protestants, known as Huguenots, and Mennonite women traveled to the middle colonies. In the early days of these colonies, settlers lived mostly in farming communities, where men, women, and children labored inside and outside of the home.

The Deep South

In the southern colonies of the Carolinas and Georgia, mortality rates were high for men and women in the early years. For women, making food and clothing were important tasks. Many women lived in agricultural areas, and some were the mistresses of large plantations. Some of these women and their husbands owned slaves. Women in the southern colonies had stronger property rights than women in the other British colonies, as the life of Eliza Lucas Pinckney of South Carolina demonstrates. Pinckney left behind a collection of letters that provides insight into the life of a privileged colonial woman. Pinckney’s father left his daughter in charge of the family plantation in South Carolina while he was out of the country. Pinckney notes, “I have the business of 3 plantations to transact, which requires more business and fatigue of other sorts than you can imagine” (Pinckney 1972, 7). Pinckney is most famous for her experimentation with the indigo plant. She wrote to her father, “I make no doubt Indigo will prove a very valuable Commodity in time if we could have the seed from the West Indias [in] time enough to plant the latter end of March, that the seed might be dry enough to gather before our frost” (16). Here, Pinckney shows her knowledge of the seed and the growing season, as well as of the South Carolina climate. She experimented with other plants as well. “I have planted a large figg orchard with design to dry and export them,” says Pinckney, once again revealing her plant knowledge and business sense (35). Elizabeth Lucas Pinckney might not have been a typical South Carolina woman, but she shows that some women were able to exercise power within their families and businesses.

As the economy developed in the South and wealthy colonists turned almost exclusively to the labor of slaves, southern elites began to push for the education of their daughters to teach them to be good hostesses. While these women would not receive the same education as men, they did receive some schooling. In the 1700s, women in the southern colonies had more opportunities for work outside of the home. Some women owned shops or helped out with their husbands’ shops. Others ran taverns, inns, took in boarders, educated children, or were milliners. Wealthy women did not engage in these types of work.

Women in Slavery

African women were brought to all of the English colonies as slaves, but colonists depended upon slave labor the most in the Chesapeake and the South. Slaves were kidnapped in Africa and bought by Europeans, who transferred them to the Americas across the Atlantic Ocean. The slaves made the transatlantic voyage on overcrowded ships with inadequate food. Diseases spread rapidly in the crowded conditions. As many as one in five slaves died on the journey. Life expectancy in the Americas was not much better. Slaves came from different parts of Africa, which meant that they spoke different languages and had trouble communicating with other slaves.

The British colonists first imported slaves to Virginia in the early 1600s, but since there were few slaves in the colony, their status was in flux. Slaves in early colonial Virginia had some opportunities to gain their freedom, but colonists slowly began to define white and black womanhood differently, to guarantee privilege for whites in the colony. The Virginia colonists passed a law in 1643 requiring heads of households to pay a tax on “negro women,” because these women were agricultural workers. This created an artificial distinction, since many white women also worked in the fields; but this distinction provided white women with higher status (Brown 1996, 118). In 1662, Virginia passed a law that further entrenched slavery. The first part of the law said that children born to slave women would be slaves. The second part of the law doubled the fines that whites who committed the crime of fornication had to pay when their sexual partner was a person of African descent. These laws defined slaves as being lower in status than all white colonists, even if the colonists were unfree laborers, such as indentured servants.

While colonists did not at first import slaves in large numbers to the Chesapeake region, the Carolinas and, later, Georgia did import large numbers of slaves early in the development of the colonies. At first, more male than female slaves were brought to the colonies. Most slave owners in the colonies wanted male slaves to perform difficult agricultural labor, despite the fact that women in West Africa were the agricultural laborers. In fact, so many slaves died at first that owners did not try to buy women to reproduce the slave population naturally until the 18th century. Slave women faced many hardships and short life expectancies. Some slave women did marry slave men, but these relationships were difficult because of the circumstances of slavery, especially the possibility of being separated through sale. Slave men had a difficult time finding spouses, as there were many more slave men than women. On large plantations, the ratio was even more imbalanced in favor of men. Also, children could be sold and separated from their mothers, and sons were at the highest risk of separation. Despite the difficulties, women did create and maintain families. Family and communal relationships were a fundamental source of meaning, purpose, and endurance for enslaved women.

Faced with the hardships of separation from family, forced labor, physical punishments, and vulnerability to sexual abuse by their masters, many slave women challenged authority through different means of resistance. Women resisted slavery in their everyday lives by pretending to be ill or pregnant, breaking or hiding tools, as well as by other means. Some women resorted to more extreme measures to escape slavery, by participating in rebellions or running away from their owners. Whatever the form of resistance, slave women tried to find ways to survive and cope with slavery, and in some cases to escape it.

Sexuality, Marriage, and Divorce

Women in all of the colonies faced rigid social expectations about sexuality and marriage. Women were expected to remain chaste until marriage, or if a woman did engage in a sexual relationship with a man, the woman was expected to marry the man. This was true in the Dutch, English, French, and Spanish colonies. These societal norms did not apply to slave women, as slave women often lived on different plantations than their spouses or partners, or could be separated by sale. Some flexibility was allowed in the Spanish colonies; as previously mentioned, a couple could live together as though they were married, and once a priest came to their town, the Catholic Church would validate their marriage. In all of these colonies, if women openly defied expectations and committed adultery or participated in premarital sex, they were likely to face charges . During the first generations of settlement in the English colonies, men and women were treated fairly equally after committing adultery or other sexual crimes. By the 18th century, though, women faced harsher penalties for these acts, and bore much of the responsibility for them. Despite this change, divorce was possible for women in the New England colonies because Puritans understood marriage to be a civil contract that could be broken; however, divorces remained rare. Women in the southern colonies had fewer opportunities for divorce. In the Spanish colonies, the Catholic Church did not allow couples to divorce and remarry. If one spouse harshly mistreated or neglected the other and the couple could not be reconciled, the couple could separate, but neither party could remarry unless their spouse died. In cases of adultery or premarital sex being openly flaunted, Spanish colonial authorities prosecuted women, and often the penalty was to send them to a household where the woman could be monitored. Women were not sent to jail in the Spanish colonies. Thus, in general, the settlers in the colonies of the present-day United States expected women to follow strict guidelines concerning their sexuality. When women challenged these strictures, they were punished.

Women’s Work

In all of the colonies, women’s work was similar, and was based upon gendered divisions of labor. Men and women had different jobs, but all of these jobs were vital in the functioning of the household. Women labored inside and outside of their homes. They cooked, cleaned, cared for animals, procured and prepared food, and made clothing. Many women, especially indentured servants and slaves, performed grueling agricultural labor. Women bore, cared for, and raised children. They acted as midwives. Sometimes they ran businesses or helped out with their husbands’ businesses. An example of women’s work is illustrated in a book published in colonial Virginia, called The Compleat Housewife. In this work, Eliza Smith explains how to prepare a pigeon pie and how to prepare eel. She also tells how to prevent miscarriages. She writes: “Take of Dragon’s blood the Weight of a silver Two-pence, and a Drachm of red Coral, the Weight of two Barley-corns of Ambergrease, the Weight of three Barley-corns of East India Bezoar; make all this into a very fine powder, and mix them well together, and keep them close in a Box; and if you are frighted or need it, take as much at a Time as will lie on a Penny, and keep very still and quiet” (Smith 1742,191). Colonial women had to know how to prepare meals, as well as know medical information that could save their lives or the lives of family members. Wealthier women often had the help of servants or slaves, and this allowed elite women free time in which they could read, write, do needlework, and entertain; in other words, servant and slave labor allowed elite women the time and opportunity to create an elite culture. Also, as colonial economies became more developed and complex, wealthier women began to buy some of the things they needed, rather than producing them at home. Because it was essential for the survival of the household, women’s domestic work was respected and valued in colonial society. In addition, the work women sometimes performed outside of the household enabled them to move into public areas and challenge accepted gender roles, or at least to increase their authority within their accepted roles.


Colonial women had different experiences, but whether of Spanish, Dutch, French, English, or African descent, women were expected to conform to their societies’ expectations for proper gender roles, which emphasized female dependence and subordination. Most women followed these guidelines. Some women challenged them, however, in ways both dramatic and quiet. Such challenges caused social disruption and were met with a punitive response. They also enabled women to carve out some new opportunities for autonomy, influence, and authority in the household, and in the world beyond it.