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Joseph Kaminski

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November 18, 2019

Women’s Roles in New England vs Women’s Roles in The South

How could you compare and contrast women’s roles in New England with women’s roles in The South?

Colonial America had a rather deep division between the north and south. As we know from generalized American history, the northern and southern traditions in America would eventually clash together to cause a great Civil War. But, as for this contemporary time period, the foundations for American “differences” are being laid out.

The southern colonies of America can be defined as experiments – whether they be economic experiments like the eventual colonies at Chesapeake and deeper inland towards Virginia or political experiments like Oglethorpe’s control over Georgia – and thus the social foundations of said colonies would differ greatly than those created back home in England. The northern colonies of America were also experiments, to an extent, but towards religious ideologies and structures that strengthened the social foundations that identified gender and gender roles. Think back to the Quaker concept behind William Penn’s settlement of Pennsylvania, alongside the witch-fearing Protestants of Maryland and Massachusetts.

Black and white image of women, children and a man working at various activities in a colonial-era kitchen. c 1876. The women are cooking, sewing, kneading dough, and cleaning while the children play with toys on the floor and the man peels potatoes as he sits in a chair.To compare and contrast women’s roles in New England with the women living in the south, one must be able to identify where said “women’s roles” came from. At this period of time, it wasn’t socially acceptable for a woman to be anything other than what her mother was. Mothers handed down the “gender role” of womanhood down to their daughters, and by the age of thirteen girls were expected to share in all the tasks adult women ‘indulged’ themselves in. Being a woman, especially in certain parts of the earlier colonies, revolved around keeping the house and the family unit within intact.

A woman’s “job” was to maintain the order in the house, encourage moral development within their children, and, of course, to be subordinate to men. The house was a “woman’s domain” – one that established a stereotype that withstood the test of times upwards until the second wave of feminism nearly four hundred years later. As the population in these early colonies grew, the economy altered based on the geographical differences of the colonies. This rapidly changing economy merged with a social stratification of sorts, causing change to erupt through the southern colonies more than through the northern ones. In a sense, political behavior developed, adopting a new form of customary culture…one that didn’t necessarily translate between the north and south.

In the late 16th and early 17th century, England’s concept of a family was patriarchal and nuclear. That family unit – the very same conservative and traditionally-minded one that has remained in politics through most of European History – was incredibly dominant at the time. Lawrence Stone, an English historian of early modern Britain with a background in the history of marriage, explains through his thesis that a wife was expected to defer to her husband; and in return the husband would direct the lives of all dependents – including the wife – residing within his house.

As puritanism stressed the religious role of paterfamilias within society and the rejection of the Roman Catholic church removed the convent option from womanhood, the gender role expectations of certain colonies began to switch from bad to worse. Although gender role expectations pretty much remained the same wherever a migrant was to go, the geographical aspects of the colonies varied the differences. The colonies’ views on gender roles became vastly different based on geography, settlement patterns, and mortality rates resulting from both.

Think of it – had the geographies of the south been the same as the north, would the economic experiments of Chesapeake and Virginia needed to use women as an interchangeable labor force? Would women have had as much economic “freedom”, in a sense, had the geography permitted a more patriarchal society? Going a step further, had the economic experiments of the south managed to attract more women to put an end to the gender imbalance at the time…would the society’s look on gender changed?

In the Chesapeake Bay, the first region in America to be colonized by the English, environmental and economic factors combined to prevent – or in the very least slow – the patriarchal takeover. For at least the first three quarters of that century, devastatingly high mortality rates and an imbalanced sex ratio merged to allow women to have more “freedom”, in a sense.

Thomasine Hall

Thomasine Hall

Despite the colonies coming from the same English mindset, the contemporary issues at hand led to a difference in how gender roles were enacted. Members of the migrant generation – those individuals who moved from England to the Chesapeake – found themselves as able to govern without an actual paternal interference, for the most part. Look towards Thomasine Hall, an intersex individual who was “both male and female”. Had this case happened back in England, there were sure to be higher levels of consequences at stake during a court case. But, since it was Virginia and Thomasine was a servant, the punishment was less physical and more immoral – having him/her dress in both male or female clothing.

One major difference between the south and the north in terms of gender roles would be the aspect of marriage. Native-born Chesapeake women were more likely to marry. With an imbalanced sex ratio and horrible conditions that led to a high mortality rate, women were more likely to marry at an early age. Not only that, women were more likely to witness the deaths of their husbands and immediately remarry.

Therefore, the women of the south experienced marriage, widowhood, and remarriage rather early. On the other hand, New Englanders witnessed the opposite. Marriage from the north created more children than marriages in the south did. New England woman found themselves marrying at later ages, witnessing widowhood much later in their lives, and were very unlikely to frequently remarry – all the opposite to their counterparts.

If the south is to be labeled as an extreme demographic change to gender roles, then the north could be labeled the opposite, in a sense. Women in the north spent a longer portion of their lives within a single patriarchal household than women in the south – or anywhere else in the English-speaking world, for that matter. While contemporaries in England and the northern colonies married later, contemporaries in the Chesapeake and southern areas widowed sooner.

The American economy offered few opportunities for women to work for wages. However, in a society that needs all the labor it can get, we can witness a woman’s role changing towards bargaining and trading goods towards the south. If the criteria to select marital partners and succeed in having relative economic independence (and until a certain point be able to inherit land of their own), then one could assume that life for women would be “better” in the south.

If the criteria to live longer in a religious community dedicated to a more patriarchal-aligned system, then the north would be where to be. Simply put, it is easier to describe the religious and economic similarities and differences between the two groups of colonies to compare and contrast woman residing within them than to focus simply on the “jobs” that they could get.

The role of the woman had similarities and differences between the northern colonies of New England and the southern economically-based colonies. A colonial wife in the south didn’t have any legal rights, but a single woman or a widow could run a business of their own or hold claim to their land. In the north, women didn’t have that ability unless their husband deserted them; and even then, the women were encouraged to remarry. However, a colonial wife in either colony had three jobs other than the domestic labor and (in the South’s case) on the field: women were to maintain household order, encourage moral development, and be subordinate to men.

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5 Responses “Women’s Roles in New England vs Women’s Roles in The South”

  1. Amber Karslioglu
    October 26, 2017 at 5:52 pm

    where did you get the image of the women working? do you know if it was made between 1602-1812?

    • October 26, 2017 at 10:10 pm

      Black and white stock photo of women, children and a man working at various activities in a colonial-era kitchen, c 1876. The women are cooking, sewing, kneading dough, and cleaning while the children play with toys on the floor and the man peels potatoes as he sits in a chair. It is titled “a Family Gathered in a New England Kitchen”, and it is a royalty free JPEG image.

  2. Seashells
    October 28, 2018 at 1:44 pm

    disappointing commentaries of differences between American women in the north and south.

    • October 30, 2018 at 4:08 pm

      Sorry to hear that this article didn’t help you! Is there anything in particular that made this article disappointing? This article is a couple of years old at this point; I’d love to come back with an updated version if people would want that!

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