Colonial women in America
Historians have long accepted the notion that women of English descent who lived in the English colonies of North America during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were better off than either the contemporary women in England or the colonists’ own nineteenth-century daughters and granddaughters. The “golden age” theory originated in the 1920s with the work of Elizabeth Dexter, who argued that there were relatively few women among the colonists, and that all hands—male and female—were needed to sustain the growing settlements. Rigid sex-role distinctions could not exist under such circumstances; female colonists could accordingly engage in whatever occupations they wished, encountering few legal or social constraints if they sought employment outside the home. The surplus of male colonists also gave women crucial bargaining power in the marriage market since women’s contributions were vital to the survival of colonial households.
Dexter’s portrait of female colonists living under conditions of rough equality with their male counterparts was eventually incorporated into studies of nineteenth-century middle-class women. The contrast between the self-sufficient colonial woman and the oppressed nineteenth-century woman, confined to her home by stultifying ideologies of domesticity and by the fact that industrialization eliminated employment opportunities for middle-class women, gained an extraordinarily tenacious hold on historians. Even scholars who have questioned the “golden age” view of colonial women’s status have continued to accept the paradigm of a nineteenth-century decline from a more desirable past. For example, Joan Hoff-Wilson asserted that there was no “golden age” and yet emphasized that the nineteenth century brought “increased loss of function and authentic status for” middle-class women.
Recent publications about colonial women have exposed the concept of a decline in status as simplistic and unsophisticated, a theory that based its assessment of colonial women’s status solely on one factor (their economic function in society) and assumed all too readily that a relatively simple social system automatically brought higher standing to colonial women. The new scholarship presents a far more complicated picture, one in which definitions of gender roles, the colonial economy, demographic patterns, religion, the law, and household organization all contributed to defining the circumstances of colonial women’s lives. Indeed, the primary concern of modern scholarship is not to generalize about women’s status but to identify the specific changes and continuities in women’s lives during the colonial period. For example, whereas earlier historians suggested that there was little change for colonial women before 1800, the new scholarship suggests that a three-part chronological division more accurately reflects colonial women’s experiences. First was the initial period of English colonization (from the 1620s to about 1660); then a period during which patterns of family and community were challenged and reshaped (roughly from 1660 to 1750); and finally the era of revolution (approximately 1750 to 1815), which brought other changes to women’s lives.