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Fatherhood and Motherhood in Colonial America

Digital History TOPIC ID 83

Recent scholarship presents us with two contradictory images of the colonial family. On the one hand, the colonial era has been depicted as a period of remarkable gender equality. Because there was no sharp split between home and work or between productive and reproductive activities, it has been argued that mothers enjoyed greater status and a far wider range of roles than they would subsequently have. Meanwhile, fathers, according to this view, interacted with family members much more frequently and actively they have done later in American history (Demos, 1986). Yet this image of flexibility and fluidity co-exists with an opposing image of colonial patriarchy, of husbands and fathers who dominated their wives and children (Amussen, 1988; Morgan, 1965; Norton, 1996; Schochet, 1975; L. Wilson, 1999).

There is some truth in both of these viewpoints. The American colonies inherited a conception of the family as a patriarchal unit in which all household members were expected to labor under the direction of the husband and father. Paternal and husbandly authority was part of the "Great Chain of Being" that bound every being in a line of authority and subordination extending from God. The Protestant Reformation augmented paternal authority within the household. The tenets of early Protestantism held that hierarchy and paternal authority were essential for successful family functioning (Norton, 1996; Ozment, 1983).

Far from being simply an abstract set of ideas, patriarchy was symbolized in a variety of ways within colonial households. A prime symbol of paternal dominance lay in the fact that he sat in an armchair whereas other family members sat on benches or stools. Symbolically, the armchair was his throne. In letters, husbands seldom asked their wives for advice. They generally addressed their wives in their correspondence with condescending terms such as 'Dear Child,' while their wives addressed them as 'Mister' and signed their letters 'your faithful and obedient wife.' Nevertheless, it is important to emphasize that the ideology of patriarchy co-existed with a surprising degree of flexibility in actual behavior (Greven, 1977, 1991; Koehler, 1980; Morgan, 1965; Norton, 1996).

Although religion and law prescribed a hierarchical ordering of family relations, seventeenth-century Protestants considered the companionship and intimacy of marriage as one of the elements that gave life meaning. Colonial law required husbands to live with their wives, support them financially, assume any debts that their wives contracted before marriage, and pay fines for their wives' criminal behavior. In addition, community pressures and law circumscribed men's familial authority. Puritan Connecticut and Massachusetts instituted some of the first laws in history against wife beating, adultery, and fornication. These colonies also recognized a right to divorce with remarriage in cases of abandonment, adultery, and extreme physical cruelty, and prohibited 'any unnatural severitie' toward children (Mintz, 1992; Norton, 1996; Ozment, 1983).

Compared to present-day families, the seventeenth century household served a wider range of functions and had more porous and flexible boundaries. It served a variety of productive, educational, religious, and welfare roles that have subsequently been shed to other institutions. It was, first and foremost, a unit of economic production, whose size and composition varied according to the household's labor needs (Mintz & Kellogg, 1988). Inside the household, the division of domestic roles was far less specialized or rigid than it would later become. This was especially true for women. The historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich has aptly described seventeenth-century mothering as extensive rather than intensive. Households were busy and often crowded places where childrearing responsibilities had to be balanced with other demands on a woman's time. Mothers were not only responsible for feeding, clothing, supervising, and instructing their own children, but also supervising, disciplining, and training apprentices and servants and assisting in their husband's economic affairs. An industrious housewife was supposed to be a skilled spinner, sewer, knitter, food processor, brewer, and cook; a productive gardener; a household manufacturer; and a resourceful trader (Ulrich, 1982).

Rather than focusing care and concern on a small number of children, mothers devoted generalized attention to a large number of kin and non-kin, including lodgers, servants, apprentices. In seventeenth and eighteenth century New England, a typical woman bore seven to ten children (Ulrich, 1982).

During the seventeenth century, many children experienced more than one mothering figure. In England and France, many middle-class and upper-class children were placed out to a wet nurse, who breastfed them for several months. Wetnursing was less common, but not unknown, in colonial America. Older daughters and servants often helped their mother supervise younger children. As early as the age of six or seven, many children were fostered outside their parental home, to work as servants or apprentices or to attend school. Short life expectancies meant that stepmothers and stepfathers and orphans were common. Language underscores the prevalence of multiple mothering figures. A midwife was sometimes referred to as a 'good mother,' while older sisters were sometimes called 'little mothers,' and the slave women who nursed white children were called mammies. Many men and women who bore no children participated in rearing young people. Social customs encouraged various forms of child-sharing, from indenture and apprenticeship to fosterage and informal adoption (May, 1995).

In certain respects, fathers played a more active role in domestic life than would be true two centuries later. They were chiefly responsible for teaching their children to write, leading household prayers, and instructing the young in farming and craft skills. Fathers also carried on the bulk of correspondence with family members. Domestic conduct manuals and childrearing advice books were addressed to men, not their wives. Legally, fathers were regarded as the primary parent. Fathers, not mothers, received custody after a divorce or separation. In colonial New England, a father was required to lead his family in prayer and teach children and servants the catechism. He was authorized to correct and punish abusive or insubordinate wives, disruptive children, and unruly servants. He exercised legal control over his children's services and labor and his wife's property and earnings. In addition, he was responsible for placing his children in a lawful calling or occupation; consenting to his children's marriages; and distributing the family property (Mintz & Kellogg, 1988).

Yet it would be a mistake to exaggerate or romanticize colonial men's involvement in family life. Although men could be attached to and indulgent of very young children, there is no evidence to suggest that they engaged in the daily care of infants or toddlers. Diapering, feeding, bathing, cooking, and other everyday tasks of childcare were left to wives, older daughters, or servants (Mintz & Kellogg, 1988).

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