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The colonial period in America refers to the era in “which 13 territories were established by England in North America” (O’Dowd, 2010). The territories were generally referred to as colonies. The colonial era began in the year 1607 and ended in the year 1783 after the colonist gained independence from their mother country, England (O’Dowd, 2010).
Thus ‘colonial women’ are the women who lived in the above mentioned territories during the colonial era. The colonial period was characterized by gender inequality and racial discrimination. This means that women had limited freedom and rights over property and their own lives (O’Dowd, 2010).
The plight of women during the colonial period varied form one colony or region to another. The level of freedom among women was determined by class, race and religion. This easy analyses the degree to which colonial women were free in the society. The influence of class, race and religion on the freedom of colonial women will be illuminated.
Racial discrimination was a common phenomenon in the colonial America. The races that lived in the colonies included blacks, whites and Indians. The various races enjoyed different levels of freedom in the community (O’Dowd, 2010). The white women enjoyed greater freedom as compared to their black colleagues.
The black women had no right over property and their lives (O’Dowd, 2010). They were considered to be an inferior race and generally worker as slaves. They had no freedom to make decisions regarding their lives and interests since they were owned by their masters (O’Dowd, 2010). The white women were considered to be superior to the black women (Hewitt, 2002).
However, they also had limited freedom in making decisions regarding property and family life. Women were equated to children and were properties of their husbands. According to the law at that time, men had exclusive authority over family property (Hewitt, 2002). Thus women did not participate in making decisions regarding property. Besides, leadership was entrusted to men (Hewitt, 2002). Women lacked the freedom to express their views on leadership through political processes such as voting.
Social stratification in the colonial era divided the community into various classes. The women in different social classes enjoyed varying levels of freedom. The New England colony allowed women to work in respectable and well paying jobs (O’Dowd, 2010). The working class enjoyed greater freedom to own property through contracts and make decisions on their lives.
The unmarried women were the most privileged class since they could “own property, sue others and enter into contracts” (O’Dowd, 2010). The married women lost their freedom to make decisions to their husbands. The black women belonged to the lowest class in the community. They were basically slaves who did not have any right or freedom to decide their destiny.
The institution of religion was not well developed during the colonial era. However, it played a critical role in emancipating women from their plight (DuBois, DuBois, & Dumenil, 2008). Women were the majority in religious groups especially in the New England and Massachusetts colonies (Hewitt, 2002).
Despite being the majority in religious groups, women did not play a major role in the leadership of such groups. Leadership in religious groups was the reserve of men. Religion inspired women to form social movements that they later used to fight for their rights and freedom. The feminist movements used religious ideologies such as “all men and women are equal before God” (O’Dowd, 2010) to fight for the rights and freedom of women.
The colonial America was characterized by high levels of gender inequality. Women had limited rights and freedom over their lives. The English law that was widely used during the era denied women their rights and freedom to participate in decision making (Hewitt, 2002).
Women from different races and social classes enjoyed different levels of freedom. Religion on the other hand inspired women to fight for their rights and freedom. The plight of women was widely accepted as the way of life rather than infringement of rights since it was perpetuated by the law.
DuBois, E., DuBois, E., & Dumenil, L. (2008). Through women’s eyes: an American history with documents. Bedfordshire: Bedford St. Martin.
Hewitt, N. (2002). A companion to American women’s history. New York: Wiley Blackwel.
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O’Dowd, M. (2010). Politics, patriotism and women in Ireland, Britain and colonial America. Journal of Women History, vol. 22 (4) , 15-38.