Culturally Misunderstood: The Struggles and Advances of Early American Women

The seventeenth and eighteenth centuries saw a series of transitions in life in America, as many, particularly women, strove to find their identities in patriarchal society. Early American women were identified primarily by their abilities to provide household services and for bearing children. Settlers’ encounters with the Native Americans not only resulted in cultural misconceptions, but also demonstrated the varying gender roles in society. As time progressed into the eighteenth century, the economic abilities women provided began to show and early American women started to voice their concerns more strongly about their roles in their own societies.

Contrasting Roles of Native American Women and their European Counterparts

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 for 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 demonstrated 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 preparing the food.”

This 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’s 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 ordering that 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.

‘Water for Camp,’ painting by Charles M. Russell. (Public Domain)

‘Water for Camp ,’ painting by Charles M. Russell. ( Public Domain )

Additionally, an account by Father Gernonimo Boscana shows that he was also astonished that men and women could divorce frequently. Divorce was a practice that was largely frowned upon in European communities due to Catholicism, a widely followed religion in Europe, having a distaste for divorce.

The Native American “brutality” – as it was 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 by her captor’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, 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. 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.

Roles of Women in the Early American Economy

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.

Frontispiece and Title Page of The Compleat Housewife or Accomplish'd Gentlewoman's Companion by Eliza Smith. 14th Edition, 1750. (First published 1727). (Public Domain)

Frontispiece and Title Page of The Compleat Housewife or Accomplish’d Gentlewoman’s Companion by Eliza Smith. 14th Edition, 1750. (First published 1727). ( Public Domain )

Female slaves in South Carolina, “…received a higher purchase price than in other plantation economies…” due to their rice cultivating skills in contrast to their male counterparts. For example, women 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 raker, described that other slaves developed boils on their skin, which the salt had eaten down to the bone.

Slaves carrying sheaves of rice, South Carolina. (Public Domain)

Slaves carrying sheaves of rice, South Carolina. ( Public Domain )

In the face of these hardships, as the eighteenth century progressed many women continued to advocate for their 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 were also able to invest their inheritance – which lead to an increase in their income and wealth status.

Things Began to Change as the 18th Century Progressed…

The seventeenth and eighteenth centuries displayed both a struggle and improved awareness of 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.

Top Image: Painting titled ‘Free Women of Color with their Children and Servants in a Landscape.’ Life changed for American women as the eighteenth century progressed. Source: Public Domain

By Anthony Ruggiero

References

A Lady: “Women in Business Better Than Men.” Boston Gazette, 1740. Retrieved from http://facstaff.elon.edu/dcopeland/fourth%20hour/women%27srights18thcentury.pdf

Carney, Judith African Women’s Influence on Rice Cultivation . In Norton, Mary Beth. Major Problems in American Women’s History. Fifth Edition . Houghton Mifflin, 2014

Mary Beth. Major Problems in American Women’s History. Fifth Edition . Houghton Mifflin, 2014.

Little, Ann Indian Captivity and Family Life in Colonial New England In Norton, Mary Beth. Major Problems in American Women’s History. Fifth Edition . Houghton Mifflin, 2014.

Snyder L. Terri, Women, Race, and the Law in Early America , Oxford Research Encyclopedia of American History, 2015.

Species, Not Sex. New York-Weekly Journal, 1735. Retrieved from http://facstaff.elon.edu/dcopeland/fourth%20hour/women%27srights18thcentury.pdf

Tho’ husbands are tyrants, their wives will be free . New York Journal, 1770. Retrieved from http://facstaff.elon.edu/dcopeland/fourth%20hour/women%27srights18thcentury.pdf

Karin Wulf, Women’s Work in Colonial Philadelphia . In Norton, Mary Beth. Major Problems in American Women’s History. Fifth Edition . Houghton Mifflin, 2014.

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