The categories in this essay are women's role in the economy, child rearing, women's position in the society, politics, and religion, gender roles and expectations and gender assumptions. Across the groups of women discussed in the book First Generations; Women in Colonial America, there seems to be a set role of a woman's contribution to an economy. From a glance, it seems like women are active and equal participants in building and growing the economy in conjunction with the men. However, scrutiny reveals otherwise; women work was only to help the men without receiving any acknowledgment or recognition. Simply put, despite actively helping driving the economy in some of the groups, they were like slaves.
In the region of Chesapeake for instance, it would be, to a great extent, safe to say that women did the majority of the work. This was in no way limited to household chores only but involved even incoming generating activities. Carol Berkin accurately captures this information when she says that for the Chesapeake woman childbearing, household chores and fieldwork were her daily dose (13). Chapter 2 covering the New England women projects a slightly different picture. The women in this community were somehow more active in matters to do with the economy. However, this power is still way far below what women have achieved in the modern day. The New England women often were involved by their husbands in money generating activities and decisions. Carol Berkin reveals that husbands often involved their wives when debt and business plans were being drawn. Through this association, meaningful knowledge was gained by the women who in turn influenced the decisions their husbands made (30).
The Middle Colonies' women are the ones. However, that almost broke all societal norms about women during that period. These women were actively involved in running the economy. Though their work was in no way stable since they could be dismissed or scolded, women still made a considerable number of the workforce (98). Although the women who worked as servants were less than one-fifth of the entire servant population, this was still a large number compared to women in other colonies (100).
Child rearing was another duty of women from the different regions. It is quite difficult to over-emphasize the importance placed upon a woman's ability to conceive and bear children. In fact, this was one of the key duties of most women. For the Chesapeake women, childbearing was so common that it is hardly an exaggeration that they were like a machine; child producing machines. Childbirth for most of the Chesapeake women was every two years up to the day of their death or when they reached menopause (9). Men were not involved in any way to the rearing of the children. The women performed all the chores concerning child care. For women in New England, the situation was the same; childbearing was just as crucial. However, the mortality rates were quite high in this region. Many of the women died after giving birth. Of great concern and that which proved fatal was not even the first birth but the numerous births that followed the first (26). These women were also responsible for raising and taking care of the children.
Women's position in the society, politics, and religion is quite a broad category. The Chesapeake women were excluded from any major decision making. According to Carol Berkin, the women were isolated from any major politics of the government (11). There is no suggestion that women were in anyway involved in religious activities. A Chesapeake woman's position in the society was generally below the men since they did most of the work combining both fieldwork and household chores (13). Carol Berkin shows that in no way was a woman in New England considered independent in any way. The woman's position in the society in New England was below her husband. Actually, the only people a woman was considered more important than were children and slaves (27). It was commonplace for men in New England to 'discipline' their wives as they saw fit to assert authority. One man who was caught red-handed assaulting his wife declared that she was his slave and him her master and his argument were surprisingly accepted and no action taken on him (31). On matters to do with religion, women were entirely excluded. The puritan way of life that was practiced did not allow women to preach openly in the church. That privilege was the only exclusivity of the men. The Middle Colonies' women are by far the most liberalized group of women in the Carol Berkin's book. From their position in the society to politics to religion, they were almost at par with the men in the society. Their position in the society was raised by their contribution and participation in the economy. Also, the Middle Colonies saw the growth of the Quaker Church. In the Quaker community, women were allowed to become elders and even church ministers (94).
Gender roles in the 17th century seem to be aimed at discriminating against women. From the women in Chesapeake to those in New England to those in the Middle Colonies, they all seem to go through a system that targets to belittle women in all ways possible. The women in Chesapeake, for instance, were heaped with tons and tons of work; from household chores to child-rearing chores to field works alongside their husbands (67). To an extent, women in New England lived better than those in Chesapeake. Their housewifery duties usually consisted of few money-making enterprises. However, still, the role of taking care of the children and other household duties was a preserve of the women. The women living in the Middle Colonies might have had roles closer to what is in the current modern day. Through the Quaker Church, they were exposed to publicity. The church also enabled them to hold leadership positions and for the first time in the history of the church they were able to hold ministerial positions (94).
On gender assumptions, men were assumed to be the stronger gender and the rulers of women. Women were supposed to be weaker and expected to be submissive. They were considered to be less worthy humans than the men in the society and occupied the lower .part of the totem pole in the society (27). As if that was not enough injustice to them, physical violence was also meted out to them. Not only was the violence physical but also emotional violence. In fact, one man went so far an extent that he degraded his wife to the level of an animal by chaining her at home to make sure she did not leave home (31). This example just goes as much to show how women were expected to behave.
Berkin, Carol. First Generations: Women in Colonial America. Macmillan, 1996.
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