Women are a critical constituent in any population and their presence cannot be undermined under any circumstance. They play very essential roles in society and without them, various things would not go on as expected. These roles range from family-related duties to economy-associated roles where they take part in various income-generating activities that uplift the economy in one way or the other through contributing to various developmental projects. They are however undermined in some cases and denied the chance to put their potentials into action and get things done. This piece of work gives an in-depth discussion on the lives of colonial American women for instance the Puritan women in New England; English servants in the Chesapeake; African slave-women in the Chesapeake, South, and British West Indies; and Native American women in New England and the Spanish Borderlands. The essay will take an argumentative form where some of the above-named categories of women will be compared and contrasted regarding their experiences in colonial America. Aspects such as opportunity versus oppression and captivity versus power will be discussed.
Women in colonial America and their experiences
Various segments of women can be identified in colonial America based on their experiences and how they were treated by the colonists and the community at large. Generally, life in most of the American colonies was hard for everyone but harder when it came to women. The fact that life was very unstable during the colonial times necessitated that all people, men, and women, carry out different tasks to cater to various day-to-day individual and family necessities/needs. The women in colonial America were charged with various responsibilities for instance making household items such as clothes, soaps, and candles, taking care of the domestic animals, sewing as well as cooking among other duties. According to the colonists, women were weaker elements regarding physical and mental strength when compared to men. They were also considered to be emotionally less stable than men and hence unlikely to handle complex issues. In legal concerns, the colonists considered the women to have no powers, for instance, they could not hold positions in public offices carry out legal proceedings by themselves, or even have voting rights. In short, the women had no say when it came to aspects outside their homes. “Legally they could neither vote, hold public office, nor participate in legal matters on their behalf, and opportunities for them outside the home were frequently limited” (Demos 58).
In New England, the nuclear family was considered a very important unit of society. Though the women/ wives were considered to be subordinate to their husbands, they were given some chances to take part in the public affairs of the colony for example voting on behalf of their husbands in case they were not in a position to do so. Since the women were scarce in the colonies, they were valued to a great extent as compared to the situation in Europe even in terms of the provision of labor. A wife for instance was considered to be a critical element of a nuclear family and was taken as a pillar to reinforce a family and keep it moving in the desired direction. The women in New England were also much involved with church matters than the men. They were charged with the responsibility of bringing up children in a Christian and ethical manner. They also taught them how to read so that they would not have a problem reading the bible. It is therefore clear that women in New England had a generally good life regarding how they were perceived and the roles that were assigned to them. They were considered as elements through which positive changes in society could be achieved. “The wife was an essential component of the nuclear family and without a strong and productive wife a family would struggle to survive” (Morgan 173).
Women were not treated in the same manner in colonial America and hence they had different experiences and stories to tell regarding their lives and what they went through. We for example find the English servants in the Chesapeake; African slave-women in the Chesapeake, South, and British West Indies having a completely different lifestyle as compared to the Puritan women in New England. They live a very desperate life where they are valued in terms of their beauty and body sizes as opposed to their contribution towards society for example in terms of the roles they play in their families as well as the economy at large. Slavery is an aspect that is very prevalent amongst the English servants and the Africans in colonial America, especially among women. They find themselves being used as slaves where they are subjected to very difficult and inhumane tasks just because of their gender. Racism is also a contributing factor where some races are treasured at the expense of others, the later ones having to carry out tasks for the former. The blacks are at the receiving end of all the negative aspects associated with slavery and racism and they are discriminated against and treated badly. African men and women in colonial America were deemed to be very appropriate to be treated as slaves in the name of racial slavery. They were at times even compared to the apes and hence treated with a lot of disrespect and dishonor. “African people became comparable to vegetation and only passively and abstractly beautiful as blocks of color. Ligon attested to their passivity with their servitude: they made “very good servants if they are not spoiled by the English” (Morgan 191). Colonists had their predispositions of the women regarding their sexuality, racial differences, civilization as well as femininity and hence they treated them the way they perceived them. The black women for example were considered as a symbol of cultural inferiority as compared to the white women hence evidence of segregation based on racial differences. “Confronted with an Africa they needed to exploit, European writers turned to black women as evidence of a cultural inferiority that ultimately became encoded as racial difference” (Morgan 192).
There is some evidence of persistent conflicts that can be seen between Spanish colonists and the Native Americans. “Whatever the large-scale antagonisms between Spanish colonists and Native Americans, problems of day-to-day survival required methods of cross-cultural negotiation” (Brooks 281). Brook asserts that these tribulations required strategic actions to be put into place to solve them for instance cross-cultural negotiations. We find that there are instances of exchange of women in both New Mexico as well as North America. This was perpetrated through various systems for instance forced marriages, adoption, and captivity. This aspect gave the native men powers over the women and they, therefore, dominated in almost every aspect and took women for granted and as exchange items that had no consent or will to decide on their own. The above discussion shows some of the similarities and differences that appeared regarding the treatment and experiences of different classes of women in colonial America and the circumstances that surrounded them.
It is evident that women are a very essential part of society and they play important tasks that are beneficial to people as individuals as well as the economy as a whole. In most cases, women are however faced with a lot of difficulties in their course of carrying out their activities and processes for instance discrimination where they are treated to be less equal as compared to their male counterparts and hence they are not given equal opportunities and treatment. This makes their lives difficult and there has therefore been a lot of struggles to bring out their views to prosper. However, in colonial times, some women were given powers and different opportunities for instance in New England. We can for example see many instances where women were entitled to certain powers and opportunities for instance legal as well as economic rights. They were also allowed to conduct various business activities for the individual as well as corporate benefits. This made them more than just mere housewives and their roles were highly valued in society. In some circumstances, the women could appear in courts of law, pursue various business ventures and participate in a variety of public affairs. We can therefore conclude by saying that even though women in colonial America were not considered to be equal to men, some of them lived a good or even better life just like other women in other parts of the world.
Brooks F. James. “This Evil Extends especially…to the Feminine Sex’’: Negotiating Captivity in the New Mexico Borderlands. Feminist Studies, Vol. 22, No. 2 (1996), pp. 279-309.
Demos, John. The Unredeemed Captive: A Family Story From Early America. New York: Vintage Books, 1995.
Morgan L. Jennifer ‘‘Some Could Suckle over Their Shoulder’’: Male Travelers, Female Bodies, and the Gendering of Racial Ideology, 1500-1770,” The William and Mary Quarterly, Third Series, Vol. 54, No.1 (1997), pp. 167-192