Colonial Women

Colonial Women

The first European Colonial Women

This article on Colonial Women describes the life and status of the women of Colonial America

  • Status and classes of Colonial Women
  • The Rights of Colonial Women
  • The daily life of Colonial Women
  • The daily life of wealthy European women, indentured servants and slaves
  • The roles of Colonial Women
  • Puritan women
  • Attitudes towards Colonial Women
  • Chores and Tasks of Colonial women
  • Colonial Women in society
American Colonies Index
Life in Colonial Times

History of the first 13 Colonies and life in the Colonial Period

The roles, rights and status of women: The daily lives of the colonists during the Colonial Period

Colonial Women
The roles of Colonial Women were determined by their wealth, religion and status. Their lives and their roles are therefore described as follows:

  • Puritan Women
  • Wealthy European Colonial Women
  • Unmarried women and widows
  • Colonial Indentured Servants
  • Native Indian Women
  • Colonial Slave Women

Colonial Women
Life in early Colonial America was extremely hard. The early women colonists and settlers were expected to help the men in a variety of hard labor tasks in order to survive. As time passed the lives of Colonial women took on the traditional roles of women which related to running the house or farm and raising the children. The work undertaken within these roles were dependent on wealth and status. The men dominated the lives of Colonial women. Colonial women would be married by the time they were twenty and bore large numbers of children - 8 children was normal but as the child mortality rate was extremely high up to 5 of the children would have died before they reached their teens.


Picture of a Puritan Girl

Picture of a Puritan Girl


Colonial Women
The men held traditional views and attitudes about the status and roles of women women. However, women were in short supply in the colonies so they tended to be more highly valued than the women in Europe were still viewed as the weaker sex, lacking the physical and mental strength of men and were emotionally less stable. Colonial Women were expected to give total respect to the men and to obey them without question.

Home Life of Colonial Women
The life of women was focussed on the home. The homes of Colonial women were invariably drafty, badly heated, had no running water, no bathrooms or indoor toilets. Lighting was dim and provided by candles and whale-oil lamps. Travel was difficult as there initially were no roads. Towns were generally dirty without garbage collection and proper sewers. This led to various diseases with few doctors and limited medical knowledge to heal the sick.

The Tasks of Colonial Women
The tasks, chores and roles of Colonial women included:

  • Cooking: Usually over over a fire or in brick ovens -  Refer to Colonial Food
  • Heating: Preparing the fires
  • Lighting: Making candles
  • Housework: Making soap. Cleaning was never ending with dust everywhere form the open fires
  • Emptying chamber pots
  • Clothes: Spinning, weaving, knitting and making clothes
  • Laundry: Washing and ironing clothes
  • Tending the sick: Including collecting herbs and making remedies
  • Childcare
  • Caring for Livestock: Farm or plantation life required Colonial women to feed the animals, milk the cows, gather eggs etc

The work and tasks undertaken would vary according to the status of the woman.

The Legal Rights of Colonial Women
The legal rights of Colonial women were few. Men dominated society and women were subservient to the men in her family such as her father and bothers. Divorce was practically unknown as Colonial America was essentially a divorce-free society:

  • Colonial Women did not have the right to vote
  • Colonial Women did not have the right to hold and form of public office
  • Colonial Women did not have the right to serve on juries
  • The rights of unmarried women and widows. Widows and unmarried women could:
    • Make a will
    • Buy or sell property
    • Act as a guardian
    • Had the right to sue or be sued
    • A widow received a one-third interest in the personal property of her deceased husband (one-half if there were no children)
  • The rights of married women.  When a Colonial woman married her legal identity virtually disappeared. The legal existence of the woman was suspended during the marriage. Any property or goods including livestock and money left to a married woman in a will also was owned by the husband. A husband owned whatever belonged to his wife, except for personal items such as clothes and jewelry. Children legally belonged to their fathers. Married women had fewer rights than unmarried women or widows. Married women:
    • Could not make a will without the explicit consent of her husband.
    • Could not buy property
    • Could not make a contract
    • Could not sue or be sued in court


Colonial Women - the Puritans
The Puritan Colonial women were some of the first Europeans to settle in North America. The Puritans practised strictness and austerity in their religion, lifestyle and conduct and women were expected to abide by these rules. They were absolutely subservient to the men in their family. Puritan Colonial Women were expected to be strong advocates of propriety, modesty and and decorum. These principles were reflected in both their behaviour and their dress. The Puritan colonial women wore their hair long but it would have been deemed unseemly for hair to be shown. The Puritans belived that "the soul consists of two portions, inferior and superior; the superior is masculine and eternal; the feminine inferior and mortal."


Colonial Women - Puritan Adulterers
In the Puritan society the crime of adultery was abhorred, two known adulterers were executed in Massachusetts Bay Colony and others were publically whipped.  Adulterers might have been forced to wear a scarlet "A" if they were lucky. At least two known adulterers were executed in Massachusetts Bay Colony and punishment by public whippings were commonplace and generally took place on the 'Punishing Scaffold'. The Puritans believed that the scaffold was inhabited by the devil "where evil doers were set up for public shame".

The Scarlet Letter is a famous fictional book written by Nathaniel Hawthorne in 1850. The book tells the story of the adulteress Hester Prynne who is forced to wear a scarlet A to mark her shame.

Scarlet Letter - Adulteress

Colonial Women - Wealthy European Colonial Women

The wealthy Colonial Women from Europe of the later colonial years enjoyed a life that was similar to that they would have experienced in Europe. Wealth enabled them to live in great town houses and colonial mansions. Their clothes were highly elaborate and made of velvets, satins and silks. Their lifestyle was centered around the house, ensuring the servants and slaves performed the tasks necessary to run such a stylish home. The social life of Colonial women who lived in towns was focussed on visiting other women and arranging special social events where their husbands could meet with their contemporaries. Additional information is available in Colonial Society.

The Izard Family 1775 - Colonial Society

Colonial Women - Indentured Servants

A massive 80% of of the total British and continental emigration to America prior to the American Revolutionary War were Indentured Servants. Indentured servants were men and women who were contracted to work for a fixed period of from 5 to 7 years in exchange for basic necessities such as food, clothing and lodging during their term of Indenture.  Indentured Servants were not paid any wages. A woman who became pregnant as an Indentured servant often had years added on to the end of her service time. Colonial women who were Indentured servants had few rights. They could not vote, they were not allowed to marry or even leave their houses or travel without permission. Indentured servants were not allowed to buy or sell anything. Additional information is available via Indentured Servants.

Colonial Women - Unmarried Women and Widows
Unmarried women were expected to marry by the time they were 20. Widows tended to re-marry very quickly. Unmarried women and widows who had no money worked in the houses and farms of other people. Women who did not marry were deemed unnatural and called “spinsters” or “thornbacks. Despite the traditional restrictions on colonial women widows who had money owned their own businesses such as taverns, printers, shops and apothecaries  and managed lands they inherited.

Colonial Women - Slaves
The slaves in Colonial America had no rights at all. The first actual definition by the colonies of slavery defined slaves as those of "lifelong, inheritable, racial status."20% of the population of North America were slaves and 90% lived in the Southern Colonies. They were bought and sold at the whim of their owners.
Cheap labor was essential for the Slave Plantations to become profitable. Slaves, both men and women, worked all year round undertaking back breaking work for up to eighteen hours every day. The women were compelled to do as much work as the men, even if they were pregnant.  The colonial women who were plantation slaves lived in basic, crude wooden cabins consisting of one or two rooms, often with a dirt floor, in the slave quarters. Their children became the property of their owners.

Slave Trade starting in Africa

Slave Trade starting in Africa
Colonial Women - Native American Indians

Picture of a Mandan Girl

European men were horrified by the hard, physical work that was undertaken by Native American women. Native Indian women were viewed as "Nothing more than slaves" by many of the new European settlers.

However, the role of the woman in Native American society was deemed equally important to that of the men and Native American women had powers such as deciding when a war should start and when a war should end..

The work of Native American women varied according to the environment in which they lived but included processing and preparing food, moving camp, making clothes, bedding, utensils and tools. Many Native American women were also responsible for collecting herbs, fruit and nuts and, educating the children, preparing medicines and nursing the sick.

Colonial Women

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