Digital History>Topics>Private Life

Themes and Variations in Men's and Women's Roles in Colonial America

Digital History TOPIC ID 84

There was a significant regional variation in men's and women's familial roles in colonial America. In Puritan New England, a patriarchal conception of family life began to break down as early as the 1670s, whereas in the Chesapeake colonies of Maryland and Virginia, a more patriarchal structure of relationships did not truly emerge until the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries (Moran, 1991).

Many Puritan men in the first and second generations aspired to become family patriarchs. Likening their 'errand in the wilderness' to the ancient Hebrews' 40 years of wandering in the desert, the first generation sought to recreate a hierarchical form of family life that was disintegrating in England itself. These men tended to conceive of the family in dynastic and corporate terms. They wanted to keep their children near by and pass on their patrimony from one generation to the next (Ditz, 1986; Greven, 1970; Shammas, Salmon, & Dahlin, 1987).

This stress on family continuity was apparent in their naming patterns, their economic strategies, and their inheritance practices. Compared to other English-speaking people, they were more likely to name their first-born sons after themselves. Viewing the family as a cooperate economic enterprise, they exercised strict control over their children, particularly their sons. They closely supervised apprenticeships, offered explicit instructions to their children (even when they reached adulthood), monitored sexual contacts, and took an active role in courtship and marriage (Ditz, 1986; Fischer, 1989; Greven, 1970; Norton, 1996; Shammas, Salmon, & Dahlin, 1987).

Demographic circumstances that were truly unique made this patriarchal role attainable. Because of its cold winters and low population density, seventeenth-century New England was perhaps the most healthful region in the world at the time. After an initial period of high mortality, life expectancy quickly rose to levels comparable to our own. Prolonged life expectancy allowed a clearly delineated age structure to emerge (Mintz & Kellogg, 1988).

Other demographic circumstances also contributed to a patriarchal conception of men's roles. Husbands tended to be significantly older than their wives--four or five years older on average--and sought to look older still by wearing white wigs and elaborate waistcoats. Since virtually all women married (between 95 and 98 percent), it was a nearly universal experience for a woman to transfer subordination to a father to subordination to a husband (without the interruption of a period of relative freedom, which antebellum Americans called girlhood, when young women worked temporarily outside a home) (Ulrich, 1982).

Few institutions competed with a father's authority. Despite laws requiring the establishment of schools, most children were educated informally, and while older children were temporarily put out as servants or apprentices between seven and twelve, most adolescents lived at home under their father's watchful eye. Available evidence suggests that fathers did indeed play an active role in decisions involving choice of an occupation and courtship and marriage. To maintain control, fathers usually refused to pass legal title to land to their sons until death, keeping their offspring dependent for years, delaying full adulthood autonomy until sons reached middle age (Ditz, 1986; Greven, 1970; Shammas, Salmon, & Dahlin, 1987).

Yet it is striking how quickly this patriarchal blueprint frayed. As early as the second or third generation, high rates of fertility and increased geographical mobility began to undermine the patriarchal order. Fathers no longer had sufficient land to keep sons at home and sons lacked sufficient incentives to stay. Increased occupational choice and new economic opportunities in seaports and commercial towns drew many young men away from the parental home, undermining patriarchal authority. A separate adolescent subculture, free from adult control, began to emerge, as young men joined militia companies, voluntary associations, and religious groups. The external controls imposed by churches, courts, and parents on children's sexual behavior all lost effectiveness, a development apparent in a sharp increase in illegitimate births and pre-nuptial pregnancies. Fathers also increasingly lost the ability to control the timing of their children's marriages (Mintz & Kellogg, 1988).

Class, regional, ethnic, and religious differences characterized women's and men's familial roles and relationships during the colonial era. The families created by Quakers in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Delaware, were far less authoritarian and patriarchal than those in New England. Not nearly as anxious as the Puritans about 'infant depravity' or 'original sin,' Quakers sought to sustain childhood 'innocence' by raising their children in a warm and nurturing environment. Unlike the New England Puritans, Quakers also emphasized early autonomy for children. They provided daughters with an early dowry and sons with sufficient land to provide a basis for early independence. Quaker families placed a far greater stress on maternal nurture than did Puritan families (Fischer, 1989; Levy, 1988).

In the Chesapeake colonies of Maryland and Virginia, in stark contrast to New England, the trend was toward increased paternal authority, not its diminishment. A key reason for this shift was demographic. The further south one looks, the more unbalanced the sex ratio and the higher the death rate. In New England, the sex ratio was relatively even, with men outnumbering women three to two in the first generation. But in New Netherlands, there were two men for every one female and the ratio was six to one in the Chesapeake. Whereas the New England population became self-sustaining as early as the 1630s, New Jersey and Pennsylvania did not achieve this until the 1660s to the 1680s and Virginia until after 1700 (Kulikoff, 1986; Rutman & Rutman, 1984).

During the seventeenth century, a high death rate and an unbalanced sex ratio made it impossible to establish the kind of the stable, patriarchal family that took root in New England. In the Chesapeake region, half of all marriages were broken by death within seven or eight years and half of all children lost their fathers before marrying. Death rates were so high that a parent's remarriage was often dissolved by death before a child reached adulthood. Under these circumstances, most families in the Chesapeake were highly complex units consisting of a complicated assortments of step-parents, step-children, wards, and half-brothers and sisters. The high death rate contributed to a society which attached relatively more importance to the extended kinship network and less to the nuclear family. As late as the American Revolution, few men in the southern colonies could be confident of directly passing property to their sons. And even in the twentieth century, southern families have been much more likely than their northern counterparts to use surnames as first names, underscoring the continuing importance of extended family identity (Kulikoff, 1986; Rutman & Rutman, 1984; Wyatt-Brown, 1982).

Between 1690 and 1760, as the death rate declined, the sex ratio grew more balanced, and marriages survived longer, a more stable set of patriarchal family relationships began to emerge in the Chesapeake colonies. Yet the nature of patriarchy was quite different in the Chesapeake than in New England. Outwardly, relations between fathers and children were even more hierarchical than in New England, with many southern sons addressing their father in letters as 'Sir' or 'Dear Sir.' And certainly many planters tried to mold their sons into gentlemen and influence their offspring's education and marriage decisions. But it is also clear that parental indulgence, lax discipline, and early independence characterized many planters' relationships with their offspring. It seems likely that the more indulgent patriarchy of the Chesapeake region was an ironic by-product of slavery, because social control energies were diverted away from their own children to racial control (Greven, 1977; Moran, 1991).

Marital relations, too, appear to have blended together an odd mixture of patriarchy and wifely independence. The age difference between husbands and wives was far greater in the southern colonies than elsewhere. Prior to 1700, a man would usually marry in his mid-20s while most women married by 17. The female age of first marriage rose during the eighteenth century, but remained far lower than in the northern colonies. Yet if the age gap discouraged close companionship between spouses, the law extended greater legal and property rights to women than was true in New England. Puritan lawmakers considered marital unity under the husband a prerequisite of social stability, and eliminated English common law protections that assumed that husbands and wives had separate interests such as separate estates for women, dower interest, prenuptial contracts, and suits in equity. In contrast, in Maryland, South Carolina, and Virginia, where the death rate was higher and widows were more likely to be left with young children, women received greater protections for personal and real property. It is not a surprise, given these circumstances, that southern marital relations seem to have been more strife-ridden. In a famous incident in Virginia in 1687, Sarah Harrison disrupted her wedding to Dr. James Blair, the future founder of William and Mary College by refusing to promise to obey her husband (Fischer, 1989).

Yet for all the regional differences in familial roles, it seems clear that ideologically and economically, colonial Americans generally attached greater significance to the father-son relationship than to spousal or mother-child relations. In all regions, colonial fathers were preoccupied with preserving, transmitting, and increasing the familial patrimony. They not only spent a great deal of time and energy to arranging apprenticeships and monitoring sexual behavior, but also attached far more attention than subsequent parents onto courtship and inheritance (Wood, 1992).

Copyright Digital History 2014