Colonial Women and Why They’re Awesome

If you’re like me, the first thing you think of when you hear the word “Puritan” is something like this:

Found image here

I think of black bucket hats with gold buckles and and tastefully semi-nude Native Americans trucing over turkey and corn.  It’s a wonderfully fabricated tale that gets passed down to each generation through public school.  And if you’ll notice, there’s only one woman in this comic (and guess what — she’s cooking).

Because in colonial America, English women didn’t really have the freedom to do much else.  Seventeenth century England had a complete set of cultural norms and social mores, including one key concept: female subordination.  Although enough of the shades and nuances of English society simply didn’t translate into colonial life, the subordinate role of women stuck to the colonists like glue.  Women ought to get married, and once married, ought to do the work of the “weaker” sex which included thinks like farming and housekeeping and childbirth (weaker, indeed) while their male counterparts got to have social and political lives.

So the assumption is that women just weren’t important in colonial America.  In fact, I don’t remember ever learning anything about women in the seventeenth century.  Ever.  But you know what I’m finding out?  Women, even as restricted as they were in the 1600s, were awesome, appreciated, and in very high demand.

Remember the map of gender ratios in the United States that I put up in my previous post?  For the most part, in 2000, male/female ratios hovered around 52% on either side (more males or more females, usually females).  But in colonial Virginia and Maryland, three-quarters of English people were indentured servants, and four out of five indentured servants were male.  There were no women!  Well, not no women at all, but they were in such high demand that programs existed in England for the sole purpose of recruiting boat loads of single women to come to the colonies.*  What?

I haven’t even talked about those turkey-loving Puritans yet!

You know what happened in the seventeenth century?  King Philip’s War.  You know who was awesome during the war?  Mary Rowlandson!  Mary Rowlandson was shot in the side, captured by Indian forces, forced into servitude, and still managed to arrange her safe release after twelve weeks of captivity.  Mary was a Puritan, preacher’s wife, and literate!  She wrote a memoir of her experience as a hostage, which was regularly in print in both the colonies and England for the next like, hundred years.  Part propaganda, part awesomeness, The Narrative of the Captivity and Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson shows just how much Puritans hated the native residents of New England and how women fit into Puritan and Narrangansett life.  Thanks to CUNY, you can read her narrative here.  The woman that Mary served, Weetamoo, is totally drawn as a villain, even beating Mary on the head (I want to know more about Weetamoo!).

Mary’s literacy, however, was definitely an exception to the rule.  Widespread literacy among women would take another century or so to come about.  But we’ll get there on the broad and rational shoulders of Eliza Pinckney next week.

*I’m getting my info from this book: Woloch, Nancy. Women and the American Experience. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2006.  (This is a Turabian-style citation!)


One thought on “Colonial Women and Why They’re Awesome

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