Modern history

Family and Household Dynamics

Concerns about marriage, property, and inheritance were not limited to Salem or to New England. As the American colonies became more populous and the numbers of women and men more balanced, husbands gained greater control over the behavior of household members, and the legal and economic rewards available to most women declined. Colonial women with wealth, education, or special skills like midwifery or beer brewing might hold some power in their household and community. But those saddled with abusive husbands or masters quickly discovered that their rights and resources were severely limited.

Women’s Changing Status

In most early American colonies, the scarcity of women and workers ensured that many white women gained economic and legal leverage. In the first decades of settlement in the Chesapeake, where women were in especially short supply and mortality was high, young women who arrived as indentured servants and completed their term might marry older men of property. If the husbands died first, widows often took control of the estate and passed on the property to their children. Even in New England, where the numbers of men and women were more balanced from the beginning, the crucial labor of wives in the early years of settlement was sometimes recognized by their control of family property after a husband’s death.

By the late seventeenth century, however, as the sex ratio in the Chesapeake evened out, women lost the opportunity to marry “above their class” (Table 4.1). And across the colonies, widows lost control of family estates. Even though women still performed vital labor, the spread of indentured servitude and slavery lessened the recognition of their contributions, while in urban areas the rise of commerce highlighted their role as consumers rather than as producers. As a result, most wives and daughters of white settlers were assigned primarily domestic roles. While domestic chores involved hard physical labor, many women welcomed the change from the more arduous tasks performed by their mothers and grandmothers. Yet they also found their legal and economic rights restricted to those accorded their female counterparts in Great Britain.

According to English common law, a wife’s status was defined as feme covert, which meant that she was legally covered over by (or hidden behind) her husband. The husband controlled his wife’s labor, the house in which she lived, the property she brought into the marriage, and any wages she earned. He was also the legal guardian of their children, and through the instrument of a will he could continue to control the household after his death. In many ways, a wife’s legal status was that of a child, with her husband acting in this context as her father.

With the growth and diversity of colonial towns and cities, the patriarchal family— a model in which fathers have absolute authority over wives, children, and servants—came to be seen as a crucial bulwark against disorder. Families with wealth were especially eager to control the behavior of their sons and daughters as they sought to build commercial and political alliances. The refusal ofAmasa Sessions to marry Sarah Grosvenor, for instance, may have resulted from his belief that his father expected a better match. Although a few women escaped the worst strictures of patriarchal households, most were expected to comply with the wishes of their fathers and then their husbands. Even as widows, many found their finances and daily life shaped by a husband’s will and its implementation by male executors.

TABLE 4.1 Sex Ratios in the White Population for Selected Colonies, 1624-1755



White Male Population

White Female Population

Females per 100 Males








c. 600

c. 190








New York





New Jersey





Rhode Island




Working Families

For most colonial women and men, daily rounds of labor shaped their lives more powerfully than legal statutes or inheritance rights. Whatever their official status, husbands and wives depended on each other to support the family. By the early eighteenth century, many colonial writers promoted the idea of marriage as a partnership, even if the wife remained the junior partner. In 1712 Benjamin Wadsworth published his advice for The Well-Ordered Family, in which he urged couples to “delight in each other’s company,” “be helpful to each other,” and “bear one another’s burdens.”

This concept of marriage as a partnership took practical form in communities across the colonies. In towns, the wives of artisans often learned aspects of their husband’s craft and assisted their husbands in a variety of ways. Given the overlap between homes and workplaces in the eighteenth century, women often cared for apprentices, journeymen, and laborers as well as their own children. Husbands meanwhile labored alongside their subordinates and represented their family’s interests to the larger community. Both spouses were expected to provide models of godliness and to encourage prayer and regular church attendance among household members.

On farms, where the vast majority of colonists lived, women and men played crucial if distinct roles. In general, wives and daughters labored inside the home as well as in the surrounding yard with its kitchen garden, milk house, chicken coop, dairy, or washhouse. Husbands and sons worked the fields, kept the livestock, and managed the orchards. However, we should not imagine such farm families as self-sufficient units. Many families supplemented their own labor with that of servants, slaves, or hired field hands. And surplus crops—from corn to apples to eggs—and manufactured goods, such as cloth, sausage, or nails, were exchanged with neighbors or sold at market, creating a linked economic community of small producers.

Indeed, in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, many farm families in long-settled areas participated in a household mode of production. Men lent each other tools and draft animals and shared grazing land, while women gathered together to spin, sew, and quilt. Individuals with special skills like midwifery or blacksmithing assisted neighbors, adding farm produce or credit to the family ledger. Surplus corn, wheat, beef, or wool might be exchanged for sugar and tea from traveling salesmen or for an extra hand from neighbors during the harvest. One woman’s cheese might be bartered for another woman’s jam. A family that owned the necessary equipment might brew barley and malt into beer, while a neighbor with a loom would turn yarn into cloth. The system of exchange, managed largely through barter, allowed individual households to function even as they became more specialized in what they produced.

Reproduction and Women’s Roles

Maintaining a farm required the work of both women and men, which made marriage an economic as well as a social and religious institution. In the early eighteenth century, more than 90 percent of white women married. And as mortality declined in the South and remained low in the North, most wives spent the first twenty years of marriage bearing and rearing children. By 1700 a New England wife who married at age twenty and survived to forty-five bore an average of eight children, most of whom lived to adulthood. In the Chesapeake, where mortality rates remained higher and the sex ratio still favored men, marriage and birth rates were slightly lower and infant mortality higher. Still, by the 1720s, southern white women nearly matched the reproductive rates of their northern counterparts.

Fertility rates among enslaved Africans and African Americans were much lower than those among whites in the early eighteenth century, and fewer infants survived to adulthood. It was not until the 1740s that the majority of slaves were born in the colonies rather than imported. But slowly some slave owners began to realize that encouraging reproduction made good economic sense. Still, enslaved women, most of whom worked in the fields, gained only minimal relief from their labors during pregnancy. Female slaves who lived in seaport cities were more likely to work in homes or shops, a healthier environment than the fields. But owners in already-crowded urban households often discouraged marriage and childbearing.

Immigrants from Scotland, Ireland, and Europe, many of whom lived in the Middle Atlantic colonies, often bore large numbers of children. Quakers, German Mennonites, Scots-Irish Presbyterians, and other groups flowed into New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Delaware. Some settled in New York City and Philadelphia, but even more spread into rural areas, filling the interior of New Jersey and populating the Pennsylvania frontier. As they pushed westward, growing families replicated the experiences of early colonists, depending on their own resources and those of their immediate neighbors to carve farms and communities out of the wilderness.

Wherever they settled, mothers combined childbearing and child rearing with a great deal of other work. While some affluent families could afford wet nurses and nannies, most colonial women fended for themselves or hired temporary help for particular tasks. Mothers with babies on hip and children under foot hauled water, fed chickens, collected eggs, picked vegetables, prepared meals, spun thread, and manufactured soap and candles. Children were at constant risk of disease and injury, but physicians were rare in many rural areas. Still, farm families were spared from the overcrowding, raw sewage, and foul water that marked most urban neighborhoods.

Colonists feared the deaths of mothers as well as of infants. In 1700 roughly one out of thirty births ended in the mother’s death. Women who bore six to eight children thus faced death on a regular basis. Many prayed intensely before and during labor, hoping to survive the ordeal. One minister urged pregnant women to prepare their souls, claiming, “For ought you to know your Death has entered into you.”

The Perils of Maternal Health

Women often died in childbirth in the late seventeenth century. In this instance, neither mother nor newborn survived. Lois Sprague, twenty-four years old, and her unnamed infant died on April 6, 1696. The skull with wings at the top of the gravestone was a typical symbol of death and heavenly ascension. Courtesy American Antiquarian Society

When a mother died when her children were still young, her husband was likely to remarry soon afterward in order to maintain the family and his farm or business. Even though fathers held legal guardianship over their children, there was little doubt that child rearing, especially for young children and for daughters, was women’s work. Many husbands acknowledged this role, prayed for their wife while in labor, and sought to ease her domestic burdens near the end of a pregnancy. But some women received only hostility and abuse from their husbands. In these cases, wives and mothers had few means to protect their children or themselves.

The Limits of Patriarchal Order

Sermons against fornication; ads for runaway spouses, servants, and slaves; reports of domestic violence; poems about domineering wives; petitions for divorce; and legal suits charging rape, seduction, or breach of contract—all of these make clear that ideals of patriarchal authority did not always match the reality. It is impossible to quantify precisely the frequency with which women experienced or resisted abuse at the hands of men. Still, a variety of evidence points to increasing tensions in the early eighteenth century around issues of control—by husbands over wives, fathers over children, and men over women.

Women’s claims about men’s misbehavior were often demeaned as gossip, but gossip could be an important weapon for those who had little chance of legal redress. In colonial communities, credit and thus trust were central to networks of exchange, so damaging a man’s reputation could be a serious matter. Still, gossip was not as powerful as legal sanctions. Thus in cases in which a woman bore an illegitimate child, suffered physical and sexual abuse, or was left penniless by a husband who drank and gambled, she or her family might seek assistance from the courts.

Divorce was as rare in the colonies as it was in England. In New England, colonial law allowed for divorce, but few were granted and almost none to women before 1750. In other colonies, divorce could be obtained only by an act of the colonial assembly and was therefore confined to the wealthy and powerful. If a divorce was granted, the wife usually received “maintenance,” an allowance that provided her with funds to feed and clothe herself. Yet without independent financial resources, she nearly always had to live with relatives. Custody of any children was awarded to the father because he had the economic means to support them, although infants or young girls might be assigned to live with the mother. Some couples were granted a separation of bed and board, which meant they lived apart but could not remarry. Here, too, the wife remained dependent on her estranged husband or on family members for economic support. A quicker and cheaper means of ending an unsatisfactory marriage was to abandon one’s spouse. Again wives were at a disadvantage since they had few means to support themselves or their children. Colonial divorce petitions citing desertion and newspaper ads for runaway spouses suggest that husbands fled in at least two-thirds of such cases.

In the rare instances when women did obtain a divorce, they had to bring multiple charges against their husband. Domestic violence, adultery, or abandonment alone was insufficient to gain redress. Indeed, ministers and relatives were likely to counsel abused wives to change their behavior or suffer in silence since by Scripture and law a wife was subject to her husband’s will. Even evidence of brutal assaults on a wife rarely led to legal redress. Because husbands had the legal right to “correct” their wives and children and because physical punishment was widely accepted, it was difficult to distinguish between “correction” and abuse.

Single women also faced barriers in seeking legal redress. By the late seventeenth century, church and civil courts in New England gave up on coercing sexually active couples to marry. Judges, however, continued to hear complaints of seduction or breach of contract brought by the fathers of single women who were pregnant but unmarried. Had Sarah Grosvenor survived the abortion, her family could have sued Amasa Sessions on the grounds that he gained “carnal knowledge” of her through “promises of marriage.” If the plaintiffs won, the result was no longer marriage, however, but financial support for the child. In 1730 the Court of Common Pleas in Concord, Massachusetts, heard testimony from Susanna Holding that a local farmer, Joseph Bright, who was accused of fathering her illegitimate child, had “ruined her Reputation and Fortunes.” When Bright protested his innocence, Holding found townsmen to testify that the farmer, “in his courting of her . . . had designed to make her his Wife.” In this case, the abandoned mother mobilized members of the community, including men, to uphold popular understandings of patriarchal responsibilities. Without such support, women were less likely to win their case. Still, towns were eager to make errant men support their offspring so that the children did not become a public burden. And at least in Connecticut, a growing number of women initiated civil suits from 1740 on, demanding that men face their financial and moral obligations.

Women who were raped faced even greater legal obstacles than those who were seduced and abandoned. In most colonies, rape was a capital crime, punishable by death, and all-male juries were reluctant to find men guilty. In addition, men were assumed to be the aggressor in sexual encounters. Although bawdy women were certainly a part of colonial lore, it was assumed that most women needed persuading to engage in sex. Precisely when persuasion turned to coercion was less clear. Unlikely to win and fearing humiliation in court, few women charged men with rape. Yet more did so than the records might show since judges and justices of the peace sometimes downgraded rape charges to simple assault or fornication, that is, sex outside of marriage (Table 4.2).

White women from respectable families had the best chance of gaining support from local authorities, courts, and neighbors when faced with seduction, breach of contract, or rape. Yet such support depended on young people confiding in their elders. By the mid-eighteenth century, however, children were seeking more control over their sexual behavior and marriage prospects, and certain behaviors—for example, sons settling in towns distant from the parental home, younger daughters marrying before their older sisters, and single women finding themselves pregnant—increased noticeably. In part, these trends were natural consequences of colonial growth and mobility. The bonds that once held families and communities together began to loosen. But in the process, young women’s chances of protecting themselves against errant men diminished. Just as important, even when they faced desperate situations, young women like Sarah Grosvenor increasingly turned to sisters and friends rather than fathers or ministers.

If women in respectable families found it difficult to redress abuse from suitors or husbands, the poor and those who labored as servants or slaves had even fewer options. Slaves in particular had little hope of prevailing against brutal owners. Even servants

TABLE 4.2 Sexual Coercion Cases Downgraded in Chester County, Pennsylvania, 1731-1739



Charge on Indictment in Testimony

Charge in Docket


Lawrence MacGinnis/Alice Yarnal

Assault with attempt to rape



Thomas Culling/Martha Claypool

Assault with attempt to rape



Abraham Richardson/Mary Smith

Attempted rape



Thomas Beckett/Mindwell Fulfourd

Theft (testimony of attempted rape)



Unknown/Christeen Pauper

(Fornication charge against Christeen)



Daniel Patterson/Hannah Tanner

Violent assault to ravish



James White/Hannah McCradle

Attempted rape/adultery



Robert Mills/Catherine Parry




John West/Isabella Gibson

Attempt to ravish/ assault



Thomas Halladay/Mary Mouks

Assault with intent to ravish


Source: Rape and Sexual Power in Early America by Sharon Block. Data from Chester County Quarter sessions Docket Books and File Papers, 1730-1739. Copyright © 2006 by the University of North Carolina Press. Published for the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture. Used by permission of the publisher.

faced tremendous obstacles in obtaining legal independence from masters or mistresses who beat or sexually assaulted them. Colonial judges and juries generally refused to declare a man who was wealthy enough to support servants guilty of criminal acts against them. Moreover, female servants and slaves were regularly depicted in popular culture as lusty and immoral, making it even less likely that they would gain the sympathy of white male judges or juries. Thus for most servants and slaves, running away was their sole hope for escape from abuse; however, if they were caught, their situation would likely worsen. Even poor whites who lived independently had little chance of addressing issues of domestic violence, seduction, or rape through the courts. For unhappy couples beyond the help or reach of the law, abandonment was no doubt the most likely option. And as the colonies grew and diversified, leaving a wife and children or an abusive husband or master behind may have become a bit easier than it was in the small and isolated communities of earlier periods.


• Why and how did the legal and economic status of colonial women decline between 1650 and 1750?

• How did patriarchal ideals of family and community shape life and work in colonial America? What happened when men failed to live up to those ideals?

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