Beneath the Shadow of Man: Women in America 1600’s - 1800’s
By Myranda Grecinger
American women of the 1600’s were an exceptionally oppressed group. For the most part, puritan faith, a form of Christianity practiced many settlements of the new world, dictated that their lives be ruled by faith and men. According to the Independence Hall Association “Women did not participate in town meetings and were excluded from decision making in the church” (Independence Hall Association, 2008). To be clear, it was not simply that it was men who ran both the church and community and therefor there were not any women to participate in these meetings by tradition, in fact, they were prohibited, not only from participating in meetings and decision making, but even speaking their minds. Anne Hutchinson became a prime example of the early colonist’s attitudes towards women when she was cast out of her village in 1637 for simply questioning church practice and teaching (Independence Hall Association, 2008). In, the 1600’s women were seen as requiring the care and oversight of men but also supporting men, not as independent beings capable of intellectual thought and caring for themselves, in fact, that kind of thing could result in punishments far worse than that which was suffered by Anne.
In the puritan communities of the 1600’s women could easily be viewed in both the best and worse lights simultaneously. Women were perceived as both angelic and demonic, it was these holy/unholy conflictual comparisons that most certainly contributed to the horrific happenings of the famous New England witch trails. Many New England communities were run on puritan beliefs, their lives were completely dictated by their faith and therefor their faith entered into every aspect of their very being, their daily lives and the world around them. Women were created by God in the Bible to be a helpmate to men and therefore, that is what the life of a puritan woman amounted to. They were not only created by God but were also blessed with the power to give life, thus making them, by nature, godly, even their attractive appearances seemed to be a gift from the heavens, yet, in accordance with Biblical tradition, the first woman created by God was guilty of having tempted man to disobey God after having consorted with the devil in serpent form, thereby making her prone to evil acts and capable of conjuring Satan himself, possibly even using her beauty to her advantage in the process of evil deeds. Unfortunately, it was the women who denied their perceived potential for evil and stood up to authority in defiance of this idea of vulnerability who were perceived as having been afflicted with the very like and were thus tortured and killed for the supposed crimes against man and God and those who told tales which lead to this horrible treatment of some were rewarded for their obvious crimes (Taylor, 1999).
The cases of Anne Hutchinson and the so called witches go much further than simply showing the oppression of women of the time, it also serves as proof that there existed strong willed, courageous and independent women even then, in a time when it was not acceptable or desirable to be so. Anne Hutchinson is said to have “argued intelligently” (Independence Hall Association, 2008) in her trail, despite the fact that she had no chance of winning, in fact, her intelligent arguments may well have been her undoing. Many if the women tortured as witches were given an opportunity to confess and told that this would put an end to their suffering and yet they chose not to admit to something for which they held no guilt. Life was far from simple for a puritan woman, it consisted of hard work, devotion to others, devotion to God and the act of being godly, but while it was not exactly ideal, the reality is that the actions of women and their contributions to society whether good or bad were clearly not going unnoticed, rather they were scrutinized and studied ferociously. This clear focus on women makes them quite possibly the most important members of puritan society, else why would their behavior and mannerisms be so carefully investigated and their purity and goodness so carefully protected. The fact is, no matter what society would expect of women, history shows that they have gone to great lengths to fill the needs that their cultural roles demand whilst never completely assuming the identity society provides for them or completely concealing their own, rather, women simply played the hand they had been dealt until it undermined their inner selves. Women were valued, both to themselves and the community as a whole and were clearly viewed as important contributing members of society no matter how misguided that society may have been in their notions of who and what a woman should and could be.
In the 1700’s women began to be more comfortable showing their true colors, as the budding nation’s confidence and strength grew, so too did that of its’ women. Women carried important roles during the birth of the country that would come to be called the United States. They were responsible for everything from raising children and keeping house to running family businesses and supporting their men at war, both from home and even on the battlefield. In his article entitled “Debating the Issues in Colonial Newspapers: Primary Documents on Events of the Period” David Copeland explains how women supported their families in a variety of capacities and also often attended important social events which enabled them to do more for their communities and country than ever before, such as the October 1774 meeting in which women in North Carolina vowed to boycott British tea (Copeland, 2000). Women were gaining new notoriety as the mothers of the new country and taking their roles very seriously even George Washington took notice of their importance, stating “You ladies are in the number of the best patriots America can boast” (Roberts, 2004). Unfortunately, some things had not changed and would not for quite some time yet.
In the 1700’s there were still stringent societal proprieties that women were expected to abide by. There was still a very real and present expectation that a woman would and should lean on a man and when that expectation was not met, women were often viewed with concern, contempt and even condemnation. “Widows' Might: Widowhood and Gender in Early British America”, written by Vivian Conger, describes the difficult, yet empowered position of widowed women of the time. Women who had done their expected duty to their families, had fulfilled their obligations to society, having already raised children, already been a good wife often found themselves in interesting positions for women of the time. They had reared children and while society tended to expect them to be cared for by their grown sons, this was not always possible, nor was it mandated by any means. They had already served one husband and while maturely aged men may still court them and ask for their hand, they were under no obligation to accept a proposal and could even be viewed as being endlessly devoted to their deceased spouse by choosing not to marry again. The community may question a widowed woman’s motives behind denying a proposal of marriage or choosing not to be overseen by her adult children, but for the most part, her choice, though seen as peculiar, was accepted. By living separately from their adult children or insisting on running the households in which they resided and choosing not to marry again, women not only asserted their independence by choosing who to live and under what circumstances, but they also now had more freedoms than ever before, no longer were they expected to be escorted by a single man nor were their decisions made for them, now they could choose how to live their own life and where to go and whom to be escorted by and could even make up their own wills with little interference as to their wishes upon their deaths. The death of a spouse while obviously in most cases devastating, to women, was also, in a sense, liberating, almost as though she were being rewarded for her life of service.
While it is clear that some things were still expected of women, especially in their youth, things had begun to progress and move forward for women. Women who stood out and stepped forward were facing less condemnation and more acceptance and even approval. Molly Pitcher, also known as Mary Ludwig and Elizabeth Timothy provide two great examples of how women were becoming more liberated and how the attitudes towards women were changing. Mary Ludwig gained a name for herself in a story that would become the stuff that legends are made of in her actions while her husband served in the war. When her husband went into battle, Mary more than fulfilled her duty as a wife when she followed him there, as was the tradition, and spent her days bringing water to the exhausted soldiers on the field, at which time the soldiers gave her the endearing name Molly Pitcher. She gained further honor when her husband collapsed and she courageously took his place in the battle lines (Hai Lin, 2006). News of Molly’s actions spread far and wide and rather than being persecuted as she may have been less than a century before, she became a celebrated hero and an inspiration for future women soldiers. While her actions were amazing and certainly far from what were expected of a woman, there were other women doing important work for the war, everything from taking up their husband’s responsibilities at home and managing the family to nursing injured soldiers and their country did not ignore their efforts. Some women, such as Elizabeth Timothy even took on the typical roles of men such as running a business or becoming employed for the benefit of their families and set a precedent for others to follow and even exceed their steps (Copeland, 2000).
In the 1800’s women’s roles and status were clearly changing for the better, the future getting brighter and it only made them realize what they had been without and begin to demand more. Their ideas are highlighted in the 1848 Declaration of Sentiments. This historical document marked a complete turn from what had once been accepted and tolerated. With this document, women publicly ignored their submissive status for the first time and demanded that they be acknowledged as equals (Gelles, 2003). In a review of the writings of John Stuart Mill and Harriet Taylor, Evelyn Pugh highlights some important issues during the women’s rights movement of the 1800’s. At one point, Mill writes that a report from a women’s convention is “Outspoken like America” (Pugh, 1978), suggesting that American women are different than others, pointing out the fact that they will be heard. Women were quoted as openly saying they wanted to hear from other women and read from women authors, though it was not so much a distain for men, but rather, a focus on promoting and supporting other women. Women met privately for various meetings and conventions, sometimes in secret for fear of men who were not pleased with their efforts, though many men supported their cause. Women, by this time had certainly proved their value, been acknowledged for their contributions, and were clearly on the rise for their right to freedom, liberty and the pursuit of happiness which was apparently not quite what the men who had already been enjoying these rights had expected them to desire and certainly many, if not most did not expect they would achieve.
Perhaps men did not expect it, but they should have, there was clearly no shortage of women who had proved themselves equal, to say the least. The first women’s rights convention was held in 1848, it was led by a woman named Elizabeth Cady Stanton, wife to a prominent oppose of slavery, member of the Quaker community and Underground Railroad proponent. In her lifetime, Elizabeth was involved in and accomplished many important things for both the women’s rights movement and the abolitionist movement. With all that she was a part of, all that she accomplished and all that she fought for and for all of those whom she supported, Elizabeth clearly showed that she was worthy of the equality she sought and that other women were capable and worthy of the same and more.
Women throughout the history of the country opened the doors for American women today and in the future. While the outspoken women of the past may be proud of women today, there is still much to be done, women still work for less wages than men preforming the same job and even when possessing greater skills and are still viewed as less employable than men, despite that fact, women certainly have gained a great deal over the centuries, but have not changed much themselves. Just as many do today, men did recognize the value and potential in having what they considered to be a good women and did recognize and appreciate the contributions of what they considered to be the country’s most important citizens from the beginning of the nation’s conception. The fact is that women have always been an extremely important part of American society and have always held important positions, the only difference is that today a women can openly step away from the protection and oversight of a husband, son or father and contend side by side with some of the most powerful men in the country for as much as the position of leader of the free world.
Smith, Stacy (1999) Elizabeth Stanton http://www.elizabethcadystanton.org/
Conger, Vivian. (2009) Widows' Might: Widowhood and Gender in Early British America.
Copeland, David A. (2000) Debating the Issues in Colonial Newspapers : Primary Documents on Events of the Period.
Gelles, Edith (2003) The Unfinished Revolution
Hai Lin, Fall (2006) Pitcher, Molly (Mary Ludwig Hays McCauley)
Pugh, E. L. (1978). John Stuart Mill, Harriet Taylor, and Women's Rights in America, 1850-1873. Canadian Journal Of History
Roberts, Cokie (2004) Founding Mothers: The Women Who Raised Our Nation
Taylor, Susan (1999) Devil in a Blue Dress: Women, Inherent Evil, and the Sin of Witchcraft
Independence Hall Association (2008) Puritan Women
© 2012 Myranda Grecinger