November 26, 2014
For European colonialists, and more specifically for poor people, the New World was a hope to make money. They were to increase the population, the trade, and the wealth for themselves and for the rest of the Empire. Women were promised to become mistresses of large wealthy families, living in the household. Their lives were centered on procreation and childrearing. Still, the American population decreased after the Revolutionary War. Understanding these reasons allows for an understanding the changes that a whole society faced in expansion. It raises crucial questions, as to how advanced the medical technologies were for women to managed to control pregnancies, how it affected the understanding of family, and whether it improved in any way the role of women within society. The Revolution brought forth change in women’s roles, they had fewer children, were focusing more on raising “little Republicans” and their relationships with their husbands improved. Still, there were exceptions to the Revolutionary changes that included enslaved women, Dutch-women and Quakers. The following discussion will use the condition of women before and after the American Revolution in order to demonstrate that whilst women in the New World made some advancement regarding their sexual freedom and place in a social hierarchy, there were several glaring limitations to their agency. At the beginning of the European colonization of America, very few women crossed the Atlantic. They became valuable to the new colonies. Each household was therefore full of children and whenever one met a woman, either she was pregnant, or she carried a child in her arms (p58). The population and nation were prosperous. Colonial American crude birthrates, which are the total number of births per thousand of a population in a year, were substantially higher than those in Europe. To men, children were the equivalency of wealth, and women “produced” them (58). Benjamin Franklin was keen in taking as much profits as he could from the available lands and encouraged both marriage and procreation.
For the British Empire, a woman was a “feme covert” (60). In other words, women had no legal existence if separated from their husband or single; everything she owned belonged to her husband, who was her Lord and Master. A woman’s job was to take care of the family, through cooking, domestic medicine, or midwifery. The constraints of pregnancy and nursing expanded the scope of women’s lives. Children were an important source of labor and a potential income and boys were particularly what fathers were hoping for (61). The ability to produce a male offspring was considered particularly indicative of the strength of both a country and its men. Even though their roles were relatively similar, disparities among women were a reality. In the Dutch community, married women owned more property than the English; a few even earned the title of Doctor. Upper-class women tended to be more financially independent; ladies from the low-class were the opposite. Quaker women were often called to preach in the parish, a privilege that other women did not have (59). The Great Awakening offered more moral respectability to Quakers. Some women had their spiritual aspirations frustrated by the demands of farm work and unsympathetic husbands who did not care about their daughters (80). Quaker Ann Whitall came to identify a growing hypocrisy among Quakers, that elites dominated the denomination (80). She wanted men to conform equally with women to religious proscription, and she also advocated abstinence (81). She was bitter due to the fact she had no control over her pregnancies. A few women raised the problem of gender inequality but those who did failed to improve anything. Men reminded them, within the Bible; Eve’s disobedience had brought her