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The Role of Women in the American Society of the 17th century Research Paper

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Updated: May 7th, 2019

Introduction

The role of women in society is a subject that has been in the debating chambers for a long time since women started agitating for equal rights with men. Feminists have conducted a strong campaign over this period to put women on the same plane as men due to the major inequalities that exist between the two genders.

Society has been divided for a long time along gender lines, with men coming up as the stronger gender overall while women come in second as the weaker gender. The gender divide has been defined by the physical strength of both genders, with the stronger one dominating the weaker class. Physical strength in both men and women is attributed to physiological features of either gender, with men coming out on top.

This has traditionally set the pace for roles in society as men take the difficult tasks while women assume the lesser difficult tasks. However, the situation is changing with time, with the divide of gender roles getting thinner and thinner by the day. The present-day woman has many more roles that were initially meant for men. The trend shows a departure from the past.

The America of the seventeenth century brings out the evolution of a woman’s role by showing how the world has been working hard to break from the past punitive laws that suppressed the woman. As the paper reveals, the role of women in America was then a replica of the role of other women especially in Britain where it was well documented. The American experience was the first crack in breaking from the past.

The Place of Women in the 17th Century

At Home

During the 17th century, the woman’s role was strictly defined to the sense that women were subordinate to men while at home. A girl who was not married belonged to her father while a woman who was married belonged to her husband (Ben-Yehuda 2).

Women in America had a role in keeping the home and/or being responsible for the home when men had gone out either to hunt, to fight in war, or to meet fellow men in their drinking joints. As Ben-Yehuda finds, the experiences of the seventeenth century American woman were not too far from those of the European woman in terms of societal responsibilities and treatment (2). The woman was responsible for taking care of the children during their young age by being responsible for all their day-to-day needs.

During this time, there was no place for children around men because the children were the responsibility for women. They were supposed to ensure that the whole family and children had enough meals. The woman had a great responsibility in the kitchen where she was in charge of preparing meals. On the other hand, men had a role in the bigger picture of securing food for the family in terms of going to the farm, herding animals, and hunting.

When the man came home from the fields, he would give whatever food he has come back with to the woman who would then prepare it as the day’s meal or preserve it for future use. Dressmaking was a preserve of women during the 17th century America. To this extent, all girls were taught in their early ages how to knit. Girls were trained during their young ages while at home by their mothers on how to become good women, and hence good wives.

According to Fara, most girls in families lacked the education their brothers had because they had been taught the domestic skills that their parents felt were necessary for attracting a wealthy husband (53). The seventeenth century saw the role of the American woman adjust compared to that of the European woman because the American woman acquired more roles in society together with a little bit more liberty during this period.

However, this did not lead to a complete change. In fact, the little change observed can be attributed to the fact that America was a haven for liberal minds that had moved away to express their liberal thinking. Acts such as witch-hunting against women did not stop because the largest proportion of people accused of witchcraft was women (Ben-Yehuda 15). Women were supposed to be subservient to their men while at home and anywhere else because the man of the home was referred to as the master.

The most interesting bit about gender roles is that they are universal since they have been spread around the world like a common law for all humanity. Almost all roles played by women at home were replicated all over the world without any form of communication, thus coming out as a natural phenomenon (Zaher 462). Many communities in the world have abandoned their traditional practices that used to define gender roles by opening up to giving women more freedom and more roles that were previously the preserve of men.

The traditional 17th century America depicts the role of the woman at home as a cook and a house cleaner. The most significant role of women in the American society at that time was giving birth to children because by so doing they were providing an heir to the man. The man could not act as the head of the family if his wife has not born him children since children were a source of pride for both the man and woman. Childbirth as a natural role of a woman was an event that was celebrated.

It was not done in the privacy. During childbirth, other women came to witness it as some kind of spectacle. The pressure on a woman to have children can be traced from the day the woman was married because the community would start counting days since then as they expected her to conceive immediately after she got married. Other women and the community as a whole would always spite a barren woman.

She would be shunned at public places such as market places where people would go to buy their household goods. In most instances, the woman of the 17th century America had the burden of carrying the blame even when it was not her fault. When a marriage could not produce a child, the woman was always blamed to the extent of being called a witch (Ben-Yehuda 12). The woman in this era was supposed to be unblemished in her ways. Adultery was a shameful and punishable offence.

Just like the Muslim society, the man in the adulterous act was never followed up as it was done to the woman. Thus, the burden of chastity was on the woman to bear. The law governing an American woman in the seventeenth century was the same law that was being used in Britain from where most American immigrants had come in their pursuit of a different life. The American woman was more liberal compared to the British woman.

However, her life was supposed to be confined to her home under her husband. America of the seventeenth century relied heavily on the English common law because it was on this basis that lawyers were trained and ready to exercise their law by studying the Blackstone’s commentaries. Under this British imported law, a woman’s ownership of property was limited to her marital status (Zaher 461).

A widow was allowed to inherit the property left behind by her husband. She would become the administrator of the estate in case her husband passed on. A single woman and a widow were identified as entities on their own. Thus, they could sell property, enter contracts, sue, and/or be sued. Married women could not enjoy these rights because they were supposed to be under their husbands. Thus, anything owned in the home would belong to their husbands and not the wife. America’s laws varied over different periods.

Thus, women had varied roles during the different periods and in the different respective places (Zaher 461). Therefore, the role of a woman in the seventeenth century America cannot be painted in a single color because it was mosaic in nature. When comparing the role of women in America then with the role of women in Britain during the same period, American women’s roles come out more expanded than that of their British counterparts.

The Religious Role of Women

Religion had a very special role in society because it defined the moral fabric that informed societal ethics. During this period, Christianity was the main religion in Europe and in America to where people were migrating. Christianity was divided into Catholicism and protestant groups, which had very bold lines between them.

The society then was informed in its ethical values by the bible, which advocated for people who observed chastity. Women were expected to be chaste in their moral behavior because the bible advised so even in the case of Mary the mother of Jesus who was supposed to be the role model for women in society.

The woman’s role in religious matters was highly restricted, with women simply playing a peripheral role. In catholic societies, the closest women who came into religious leadership or affairs were through the catholic nuns whose work was simply to assist the priests in conducting the mass. Beyond this, they were highly restricted in their work and movement. Ben-Yehuda reveals, “Women were cast as either powerful instruments of God or Satan” (15).

Women had a role in upholding societal values that would be transferred to their children as future members of society because upbringing of children was a gender role bestowed on women by society (Coontz 289). Furthermore, during this period, the definition of a woman was based on the bible, with the woman being referred to as the weaker vessel that was supposed to submit to the man (Coontz 289).

Christian theology of that the time required women to submit to the guidance of men because women were supposedly powerless and that they could not stand by themselves. The American society of the seventeenth century was a religious community that was guided in many things by the bible due to its Christian leanings. Zaher quotes the book of Genesis chapter three verse six, which says that a woman “shall be for her husband who shall rule over her” (461).

This simply shows where the society was borrowing its leaf while dealing with women. The protestant churches were more restrictive in the roles of women in religion because they were not allowed to play any roles in the church other than singing during the service. Women were required o go to church every Sunday. Besides, they were supposed to dress according to the occasion because the dressing defined them.

Women were subjected to all kinds of punishment during this period as a way of putting them on a leash (Coontz 289). The ones who did not go to church regularly were branded witches. In the church, the woman’s role was found in cleaning up the church in preparation for the next day’s service. It was the duty of the women in society to ensure that the church was cleaned and/or put in order.

Public Role for Women

The seventeenth century American woman was subordinate to the man in all aspects of society because the society then was masculine in nature. This spelt dominance of the man over the woman. Women had a very limited role in the public arena in terms of leadership or even speech because they had to play a secondary role to men. Women enjoyed few rights.

They were restricted to gender roles as prescribed by society, which restricted them to domestic circles or to remain in private spheres (Zaher 462). Leadership roles were a preserve for men who had been exposed to leadership roles since they were children.

Men had the advantage of having education provided by tutors. This education was not for everyone but for children from the well-to-do families. The children of less privileged families had to train early as apprentices as a way of learning how to take care of their families. Whereas boys had tutors hired for them to provide education to the boy, girls had their mothers to train them at home in cooking, needlework, and washing.

Some women had their public roles extended in ownership of businesses that they would run at the market place or help their husbands in running the family business. As Zaher informs, “Women frequently entered the trade arena in colonial America and became craftspeople and merchants” (461). Some women practiced midwifery and medicine, but were not qualified as doctors.

They would administer medicine to the sick due to their knowledge of medicine. Women’s appearance in public was also designed because it depended on an individual’s class in society for them to appear in certain forums. The wives of the aristocrats were supposed to accompany their husbands to public functions and were supposed to be dressed accordingly.

Women’s opinion in the public sphere had to be restricted because they would be in dire danger if they ever expressed their contrary views publicly especially if the views were political and/or contrary to their husbands’ views. Expression of views was therefore restricted to behind-the-scenes especially if the views questioned the societal stereotyping and beliefs. The seventeenth century America saw women lose their voting rights in all states of America. Thus, they could not participate in political processes (Coontz 293).

The most opportunities women had in expressing themselves and more so secretly were through writing of poems. As Fara finds, Tollet used poems and other literary works to express women’s state as a way of hiding her identity (55). This was just among the few literate women who were lucky to get an education. The public role of a woman in the seventeenth century highly depended on her marital status.

Married women were never supposed to take public roles because they were automatically under their husbands. The husband was everything for the family while the wife was only supposed to take care of the home and hence the private face of the family. Widowed and/or single women were free from these shackles. Thus, they could express their opinions in public because they were an entity on their own (Zaher 462).

The problem with this kind of freedom of expression that these women had acquired was that it would simply expose them to malicious accusations from chauvinistic men who would brand them anything, thus leading to their imprisonment or execution. Therefore, taking up public roles by American women of the 17th century was dangerous to their welfare because of the hostile nature of the society.

Conclusion

The seventeenth Century can be described as one of the periods in history that women faced some of the hardest times concerning their rights. The role of women in the American society has not changed a lot because people have opted to stick to the gender roles as prescribed by society.

The paper has given a clear picture of the kind of life that women of the 17th century encountered together with their roles and position in the then American families. The present-day Europe and America still reel in gender roles and stereotyping, which depicts the true picture of the situation on the ground. Affirmative action has been employed selectively as a way of empowering women, thus changing some of the roles that society has given them and/or giving them new roles.

In fact, law resolutions of women’s rights in 1632 can be described as the biggest undoing factor for women because it entrenched into the written laws what were previously unwritten, thus disenfranchising them. Men made all laws that control women while they both enforced them. Therefore, women can be described as a self-persecuting group because they would always be on the forefront in watching over the fellow women.

Works Cited

Ben-Yehuda, Nachman. “The European Witch Craze Of The 14th To 17th Centuries: A Sociologist’s Perspective.” American Journal of Sociology 86.1(1980): 1-31. Print.

Coontz, Stephanie. “Historical Perspectives on Family Studies.” Journal of Marriage and the Family 6.2 (2000): 283-297. Print.

Fara, Patricia. “Elizabeth Tollet and her Scientific Sisters.” History Today 9.4(2009): 52-59. Print.

Zaher, Claudia. When a Woman’s Marital Status Determined Her Legal Status: A Research Guide on Common Law Doctrine of Coverture. Law Library Journal 94.3(2002): 459-486. Print.

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