Women in the British Colonies

Jessica Moore's picture

The first couple of classes for the early American history course always seem to have men at the center, with the focus on men as explorers, settlers, and residents of the New World.  For that reason when I make it to the early colonial days I like to bring women into the picture. Dividing the experience of women in the colonies into society's views versus real life provides a nice organization for the topic.

When discussing gender roles and expectations, I cover societal expectations of gender-defined work, women as inherently moral, limited legal rights for women, nonexistent political rights for women, and the view of women as weaker both mentally and physically.  While discussing these societal views, I introduce the class to the practice of bundling and its purpose of preventing premarital sex.  I then show them a clip from the movie The Patriot.  They find the clip humorous and it adds a visual aid to the discussion.  The experience of Anne Hutchinson also fits in nicely here.  Since we have covered the Puritans and their reasons for coming to the New World during the previous class, the students are already familiar with the Puritan belief system.  I introduce Anne Hutchinson by explaining her prayer meetings and her differing beliefs that caused the Puritans to put her on trial.  I pose the following question to the class: What would the problem would be with her leading a prayer meeting which men and women attended?  Usually at least one student responds that a woman was not supposed to be a leader.  I then hand out The Examination of Anne Hutchinson and have the students read it.  A class discussion follows on why the students think the Puritans were so worried about Hutchinson, if they think she was really a threat to the colony, and if they think she was treated differently than a man would have been in the same situation. 

You could of course also include the Salem Witch Trials, explaining that women were more likely to be accused of being a witch than men were and how the trials reflected society’s attitudes toward women.  The link below has some great info on the trials and the importance of gender.

After we discuss what society believed women should be like, we move on to what life was really like for women.  While obviously women’s legal and property rights were still limited in the South, there was informal power for women and I think this is important to mention.  Many women ended up running farms or plantations either in their husband’s absence or after his death.  These women exercised a great deal of power in this role.  Many women worked in other occupations as well simply because their families needed the income.  Martha Ballard from Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s A Midwife’s Tale serves as a perfect example and shows students that women worked during this time period.  If you have time in the class, the movie is really well done and offers details to add to the students’ understanding.   

Focusing on women in the colonies adds them to the picture at a time in the course when women are usually relegated to the background and helps students understand women are always there and contributing to history.


A Midwife’s Tale - http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/midwife/index.html

The Examination of Anne Hutchinson - http://teacherweb.com/NM/BosqueSchool/KelenaMaxwellsPage/km_hutchinson.pdf

Salem Witch Trials - http://www.uncp.edu/home/berrys/courses/hist101/hist101_docs_witches.html

The Patriot Movie Clip - http://www.wingclips.com/movie-clips/the-patriot/bundling-bags