Written by: Anthony Ruggiero
History highlights the various roles women have undertaken in various societies. Finding an Identity: Cultural Misconceptions and Advancements of Women discusses both the struggle and triumph of women in finding an identity in colonial America. The article analyzes the identity and shift for women in the seventeenth century into the eighteenth century. This portion allows the reader to see the roles of various groups of women overtime. These groups of women include Native Americans, African American slaves, as well as white. Overall, the article also delves into the American Revolution and how that event marked a turning point in the development of that identity.
The seventeenth and eighteenth centuries saw a series of transitions in lives of many, particular women, strived to find their identities in patriarchal societies. The seventeenth century showed that women were identified primarily by their abilities to provide household service, as well as their fertility. Settlers’ encounters with the Native Americans not only resulted in cultural misconceptions, but also showed the different gender roles in society. As time shifted into the eighteenth century, the economic abilities women provided began to show and women began to question their roles in their own societies. The American Revolution inspired many women to voice their opinions and use their roles in the households to promote their ideals. Although obstacles remained prevalent throughout these centuries, a new identity emerged through the efforts of these women.
Throughout the seventeenth century, large amounts of European settlers flocked to the New World for numerous reasons. For example, many viewed the New World as an opportunity at religious freedom or to establish colonies that would enhance their economic status. During this period, European settlers would encounter various Native American tribes. These interactions depicted how differently gender was viewed between the Native Americans and the European settlers. Gender roles were a largely misunderstood cultural concept between Native Americans and Europeans. Although both societies followed a patriarchal system, the responsibilities in Native American societies largely impacted their society. According to Ann Little’s essay, Indian Captivity and Family Life in Colonial New England, women, “did the farming, gathered foodstuffs, medicinal plants…” and other chores such as “preserving and prepared the food.” This largely contrasted with women in European societies, who were largely viewed as subservient to men. Europeans viewed Native American women’s large impact on their societies as “savagery” and “unnatural.” An example, of Native American women strength in society being misunderstood and oppressed, would be Mary Musgrove. Mary Musgrove, a mixed Creek and English settler in colonial Georgia, voiced her outrage regarding her rights as leader of the Creek nation. According to a witness account, Musgrove exclaimed that:
…she was Empress of the Upper and Lower Creeks, yea, went as so far in her imaginary sovereignty to call herself King, and that she would command every Man in these nations to follow her…
Although her stance demonstrated large amounts of determination, her efforts were ultimately unsuccessful. Her husband, Thomas Bosomworth ultimately silenced his wife’s efforts by declaring patriarchal superiority over his wife and others dismiss her claims.
Another largely misunderstood concept was Native American marriage traditions. These traditions demonstrated that women within these societies maintained a relatively equal role, despite patriarchal rule. For example, according to Samuel Champlain’s account of the Huron tribe, men and women could be married but did not have to remain faithful to each other. Additionally, according to another account by Father Gernonimo Boscana, he was also astonished that men and women could divorce frequently. Divorce was a practice that was largely frowned upon in European communities, due Catholicism, a widely followed religion in Europe, distaste for divorce.
Native American brutality described by European captives was also inaccurate. For example, it was widely believed that Native Americans were bloodthirsty. Despite some accurateness, according to Elizabeth Hanson’s account she was surprised of her capture’s kindness towards her and her child. According Terry L. Snyder’s article, Women, Race, and the Law in Early America, Native Americans often viewed women captives as important. Within Native communities, women were often spared by captors because during the seventeenth century, the mortality rate was low and women were used for their reproductive abilities in order to rebuild community populations. According to Snyder, enslaved Native Americans were treated, much like their African counterparts, and were used for domestic and filed labor. Within the French Louisiana territory, Native Americans relied on exchanging women captives in order to create trade and diplomatic alliances. According to the article, The Caddos tribes also traded captive Apache women to the French settlements where these women were used as household servants. In addition, women also served as hostages in diplomatic negotiations both between Native groups and Native and European settlers. Among the widespread Native trade networks, exchanges of captives, predominantly women, were part of diplomatic strategies rather than sources of labor.
Although women throughout the seventeenth century were primarily viewed for their domestic and reproductive abilities, and were subject to enslavement, their hard work largely contributed to the economy in early America. For example, African American female slaves in South Carolina largely contributed to the economy by infusing their culture with their work. Female slaves in South Caroline, “…received a higher purchase price than in other plantation economies…” due to their rice cultivating skills in contrast to their male counterparts. For example, female would use a seed sowing technique in which before they planted the seeds, they would wrap them in mud to protect them from being eaten by birds or insects. In South Carolina, the women would wrap the seeds in marsh clay for the same purpose. Cooking was another area impacted by African tradition. For example, women would use both the medium to long-grained rice when preparing dishes in order for them not to cluster. They would then boil the rice for 10-15 minutes, drain off the excess water, remove the grains from heat, and then cover them before serving them. Another cultural technique would be to steam the rice in its hull and reduce the amount of milling, as well as the chance of mold.
Despite being economically beneficial, these African American women were subjected to harsh-working environments. For example, women worked long hours under the blazing sun. The summer season was worse, as women had to wake up before sunrise in order to avoid some of the heat. The women were also forced to work in water, which resulted in a high mortality rate due to the various diseases that inhabited the water. Women who worked in salt marshes were also subjected to these conditions. Mary Prince, who worked as an enslaved salt racker, described that other slaves developed a boil on their skin, which the salt had eaten down to the bone.
Despite these hardships, as the eighteenth century progressed many women continued to advocate for rights in society. In 1735, a letter was anonymously published in the New York Weekly Journal that argued education was more suited for women than men. The writer queried, “A second Reason why Women should apply themselves to useful Knowledge rather than Men is because they have that natural Gift of Speech in greater Perfection.” The letter also argued that women should not be referred to as the “opposite sex,” but rather their own “species,” since women possess their own knowledge and are beneficial to society. For example, in 1740, an anonymous woman wrote to the Boston Gazette that women were just as useful in business as men, and should be offered an equal education. She argued, “There are few Trades in which Women cannot weigh and measure as well as Men, and are as capable of selling as they…”
Women also contributed to the economy by operating businesses. For example, following the death of her husband, Rachel Draper opened a small tavern in approximately 1767, as a means to economically support her family. In addition to supporting her family, Draper was able to economically contribute to her neighborhood in Philadelphia, as an unmarried woman Drapper, “…[was] a central actor in the creation and maintenance of the economic, religious, familial, and political networks of association that defined urban life.” Although a majority of women during this time period were primarily dependent on their deceased husband’s inheritance, many women also were able to invest their inheritance that lead to an increase in their income and wealth status.
Women’s roles began to alter as the American Revolution emerged in the later part of the eighteenth century. Throughout the events of the revolution and thereafter, many women actively participated in promoting the agenda of revolutionists, and unsuccessfully advocated for political recognition. A successful group that operated during the American Revolution were the Daughters of Liberty. The Daughters of Liberty were a political group that surfaced in response to unfair British taxation in the colonies during the American Revolution. In particular the Townshend Acts of 1767 that were a series of measures that imposed customs duties on imported British goods such as glass, paints, lead, paper and tea. According to Carol Berkin’s video, Women as Major Participants in the Revolutionary War, women took a political stance by burning tea, and instead of buying English cloth, they would create their own, which became known to the as “Liberty Cloth.” Although a good majority of women were unable to leave their homes during the Revolution because they were expected to take care of their children, this time period resulted in what would be known as republican motherhood. This term applied to women who were primarily educated in order to help educate their children in order to live a moral life. Women also played a pivotal role in influencing their children’s political views. President Thomas Jefferson remarked,
I thought it essential to give [my daughters] a solid education, which might enable them, when become mothers, to educate their own daughters, and even to direct the course for sons, should their fathers be lost, or incapable, or inattentive.
Thus, showing his faith in his daughters’ abilities to help educate their children. During the Revolution, women also began questioning their inferiority to their husbands. Many woman published poems citing their frustrations and their desires to be free. For example one line from a poem read, “That woman, dear woman, shall ever be free. Nor more shall the wife, all as meek as a lamb.” This time period spawned rhetoric of freedom from both Great Britain, as well as in society for women.
However, despite these call for freedom, women still faced obstacles in their attempt to form an identity. For example, in 1775 Providence, when tea was being burned out of opposition to the Britain’s tea tax, women were actively participated in the protest. The Virginia Gazette article, Providence Women Burn Tea, recognized women’s participation within the protest, however perpetuated a stereotype that women have an “evil tendency of continuing the habit of drinking tea.” Additionally, the article depicted a negative image of women female, utilizing the burning of the tea as the “funeral of Madam Souchong.” The articles description perpetuated an outlook of women as low, prostitutes. Additionally, women’s attempted involvement in politics was also scrutinized. For example, Jane Adams advocated for the rights of women to be recognized in the new nation to her husband, congressman, John Adams, stating that women would cause a “rebellion” if their voices were not heard. In response John Adams described her boldness as laughable, thus showing his disregard for her claims.
It can be argued that some women who were part of the elite in society were able to promote their political views by using their status. For example, Anne Holden’s land sell to the four men can be viewed as way to insert herself into the political framework, since women were unable to vote despite the amount of landholding they had. Through giving her land to these four men, it can argued that she sought to influence the men’s voting choice.
The seventeenth and eighteenth centuries displayed both a struggle and awareness for women as they fought to find their identity in their societies. For example, in the sixteenth century, the gender roles and misconceptions of Native Americans highlighted that European women were primarily identified for their domestic and reproductive abilities. As the century turned and the eighteenth century progressed women began questioning their roles in society. During this time period women sought for their rights in education and helped participate in political activities, such as the Daughters of Liberty in the American Revolution. Albeit a difficult transition and continued obstacles were thrown in their way, women emerged from the eighteenth century with a stronger identity.