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New England and the Chesapeake Compared

The England that the seventeenth-century migrants left behind was undergoing dramatic changes, many of which stemmed from a rapid rise in population that began early in the sixteenth century. As the population grew, the economy altered, social stratification increased, and customary modes of political behavior developed into new forms. England’s ruling elites saw chaos everywhere, and they became obsessed with the problem of maintaining order in the evidently anarchic society around them. The large-scale migration of English people to America can itself be taken as an indication of the extent of these changes, for never before in the century-old history of European expansion had more than a small number of male adventurers chosen to emigrate to the New World. Within the overall context of change new forms of familial and religious organization were especially important for women. In late sixteenth- and early seventeenth-century England, Lawrence Stone has argued, patriarchal, nuclear family structures had recently become dominant, replacing an older, open-lineage system characterized by powerful lineal and collateral kin relationships. English families of the day increasingly turned inward on themselves, cutting the ties that had previously bound them to extended kin. In such nuclear households, power gravitated to the husband and father: he dominated his wife, children, and other dependents without fear of interference from kin or community. A wife was expected to defer to her husband, and he in turn expected to direct the lives of all his dependents—spouse, children, and servants alike. Reformation (and especially Puritan) theology, which was aggressively masculine in its orientation, reinforced this secular development. The rejection of Roman Catholicism included the abolition of the cult of the Virgin Mary and the removal of the convent option from women’s lives. In addition. Puritanism stressed the religious role of the paterfamilias; he was responsible for the spiritual well-being of all members of his household, and they were consequently expected to defer to him in religious as well as secular matters.

The family pattern most familiar to the migrants, then, was nuclear, with authority ideally—if not always in reality—concentrated in the hands of the father. The conditions of migration further reinforced such tendencies by physically severing individuals and families from their wider English kin connections. In America, migrants were thrown on their own resources: the colonies lacked the web of traditional communal institutions that still governed many aspects of life in England, even though those institutions were beginning to lose much of their force. By migrating to America the colonists accelerated and intensified the effects on their own lives of the changes already evident in their homeland. Moreover, given their origins, they were especially concerned about the maintenance of social order. In the absence of other institutions, the family took on greater relative importance and had to bear heavier social responsibilities. Therefore, even more than in England, the family became the central focus of society.

The adult woman occupied a clearly defined place in the seventeenth century family—so much so that she was seen more as part of that system and less as an autonomous person. Indeed, her authority derived from her role as mistress of the household. She directed the household’s daily affairs (under her husband’s supervision, of course), and in his absence she could act on his behalf. Thus, although his role and hers were defined in mutually exclusive terms, they involved some overlap of function. She was positioned below her husband in the hierarchy of sex, but above her children in the hierarchy of age, and considerably above her indentured servants, who lacked the essential attribute of freedom. The delineation of the female role was remarkably consistent throughout seventeenth-century Anglo-America. Robert V. Wells has perceptively suggested that such role stability may well have been a reaction to the uncertainties of life in the early colonies; when particular persons might not survive long enough to develop mutually understood relationships, clarity of role definition could help guide individual behavior.

Although gender-role expectations remained the same whatever the female migrants’ American destination, the circumstances of their lives in the colonies varied considerably according to geography. Vastly different patterns of settlement developed in New England and the Chesapeake, defining the outer limits of demographic possibility. The early seventeenth-century colonies identified the range of variation along the spectrum; the experiences of later migrants to Britain’s North American possessions fell somewhere between the two extremes. Thus, it is important to define those extremes with precision and to understand the way each affected the colonists’ attempts to re-create English family forms in America.

In the Chesapeake—the first region to be colonized—environmental and economic factors conspired to prevent patriarchal family practices (as opposed to ideals) from taking root, at least during the first three-quarters of the century. Devastatingly high mortality rates and a heavily imbalanced sex ratio—the results, respectively, of a high-risk disease environment and the almost exclusive importation of young male laborers to cultivate tobacco— together produced a society with anomalous characteristics. High mortality rates for adults and children alike made specific families short-lived and ensured that membership in them changed repeatedly. Under such conditions, it was difficult for fathers to exercise much sustained control over their families. Members of the migrant generation—those who came from England primarily as isolated individuals—obviously governed their lives without paternal interference, and the members of the first American-born generations, often orphaned at an early age, may also have been largely free to determine their own futures. The relative lack of women meant that few men could marry at any one time but that widows remarried quickly, often to previously unmarried men, thus allowing more men to find spouses than would otherwise have been possible. In addition, native-born Chesapeake women were more likely to marry, and to do so at younger ages, than were English women. (Indeed, they married so young that a large age differential between themselves and their husbands was common.) More of them also experienced widowhood, and again at younger ages. Since such young widows accordingly were normally left with minor children to raise, their husbands bequeathed them greater proportions of their estates than was the case elsewhere in Anglo-America. These demographic circumstances led Maryland to grant widows more legal independence than any other colony yet investigated. And both Chesapeake colonies allowed widows to challenge their husbands’ wills if the property they inherited was less than a stated minimum.

If the Chesapeake constitutes one demographic extreme, New England constitutes the other. There, the full impact of English patriarchal ideas and practices can be seen, for the early settlements in the Northeast, where the sex ratio was more nearly balanced, experienced low mortality and high nuptiality rates. Like their Chesapeake contemporaries, New England women were more likely to marry, and to marry at younger ages, than were English women of the day. But, since New England proved to be a healthy environment, marriages in the Northern colonies lasted longer and produced more children than those in the South. New England women were likely to be widowed only late in life and were unlikely to remarry frequently. In other words, they spent a longer part of their lives within a single patriarchal household than did their counterparts elsewhere in the English-speaking world. Indeed, the stability of their marital lives is remarkable, especially in contrast to their contemporaries in England—who married later—or the Chesapeake—who were widowed sooner. New England fathers arranged their daughters’ marriages, and New England husbands expected to dominate their wives. Marylynn Salmon’s investigation shows that civil law in the Northern colonies gave women less independence, in marriage and in widowhood, than did law in the Chesapeake colonies—or even in England. The civil code of the New England colonies embodied a concept of marital unity striking in its expression of the patriarchal ideal that women’s private interests had to be subordinated to the greater familial whole.

Major variations in religion reinforced these demographic differences between the Chesapeake and New England. With the exception of a few Catholic migrants to early Maryland, all English settlers in America were Protestants. But the contrast between Southern and Northern religious practices was marked. Since transferring a vigorous Anglican parish structure to the seventeenth-century Chesapeake proved impossible, religion in Maryland and Virginia remained more a matter of personal piety than a constant institutional presence. In New England, however, Puritan church and state were closely entwined: each supported the other, and determining which was the superior authority (especially in the early years) was often difficult. Thus, New England women had to reckon with two strong institutions—the Puritan church and the stable patriarchal family—that Chesapeake women did not. The effects of these religious differences have not been explored as fully as those resulting from demography, but the case of Anne Hutchinson suggests that Puritanism in its formative stages offered women opportunities for religious leadership obviously denied Chesapeake residents with no comparable institutions. Although Puritan theology reinforced secular patriarchal tendencies, it also emphasized the spiritual equality of all souls before God and the ability of all believers (male or female) to interpret the scriptures. Hutchinson took advantage of the ambiguities in Puritan teachings and, for a time, established herself as one of the most powerful residents of Massachusetts Bay. Whether she saw herself as a spokeswoman for other females is unclear, but she certainly did not believe that her sex disqualified her from engaging in theological speculation or from influencing others in spiritual matters. The severity of both church and state reaction against her indicates the magnitude of the threat she posed to social order in the colony. Indeed, that threat was three-fold: political, for she threatened to divide Massachusetts Bay at a time when it was under attack by the Pequot: theological, for she challenged some of the basic tenets of Puritanism: and familial, for as a woman she violated patriarchal norms of behavior. Hutchinson was unique, yet early New England records yield many other lesser examples of female religious activism. And. as Laurel Ulrich has pointed out, when access to church membership is restricted and confers special status, considerable significance necessarily derives from women’s ability to attain that status on an equal basis with men.

It is easier to describe the demographic and religious contrasts between New England and the Chesapeake than to assess their meaning for women. If the criteria [are the] ability to select marital partners and relative economic independence, then Chesapeake women were clearly better off. That is indeed the position taken by Lois Green Carr and Lorena S. Walsh, the two historians who have worked most directly on the topic. But if the criteria are instead the benefits of marital stability, better health, a smaller age differential between husband and wife, and possibilities for religious expression, New England women seem to have had the preferable lifestyle, at least in the first half-century of settlement. Some suggestive evidence from architectural remains and estate inventories appears to support the latter interpretation. If we assume that women were centrally concerned with the nature of their domestic environment and. therefore, that the shape and composition of that environment can reveal the extent of women’s power in the family by measuring their impact on familial spending decisions, then seventeenth- century New England homes experienced considerably greater female influence than those in the Chesapeake. The houses themselves were better built and more spacious: the domestic work spaces were more efficiently organized: and families more quickly acquired a wider range of domestic amenities (like table linen). Since both methods of measuring seventeenth century women’s power—through men’s wills and through material culture—are essentially inferential, the contradiction between the two cannot now he resolved.

The inquiry as to who was better off—New Englanders or Chesapeake residents—is misdirected, for it overlooks the underlying unities of women’s lives in both regions. Tempting as it is to forget the similarities, which were many, and stress the differences, the important characteristic of colonial women’s lives was alike, whatever the region: an adult woman’s status was everywhere determined by her marital state. In the Chesapeake no less than in New England, a woman was seen chiefly as an adjunct of her husband. Her social standing depended on her husband’s position in the colonial hierarchy: her primary role in family and community was as mistress of his household. Granted, the same was true of her English contemporaries. But two major differences separated the women of the Old World from those of the New. First, because of later marriage and longer widowhood, seventeenth-century English women most likely earned wages and lived independently of a paternal or marital household for a period of time at least as long as the terms of their marriages. In other words, they spent as much of their adult lives outside a marital household as inside one. Few American women had similar experiences: demographic constraints precluded long-term, independent lives in the colonies. Second. English women actively engaged in a market economy, exchanging goods and services with neighbors and working in shops alongside their husbands and fathers. The economic life of seventeenth-century English households, unlike that of colonial households, was highly interdependent.

Although some of the same patterns reappeared in America, they did so on a much more limited scale. The small colonial population was scattered over a wide geographic area, and so farmers and their wives had to strive for greater self-sufficiency than did the English. The American economy offered women few opportunities to work for wages, even had they had the time and inclination. Most of women’s time was probably occupied with subsistence activities. The overall pattern is unmistakable: in the colonies, women’s productive work took place primarily within the confines of their own households; in England, the reverse may well have been true. Economic conditions thus reinforced social trends that tended to make all American women more dependent on the family for the definition of their lives and roles than were their English counterparts. Consequently, the significance of the household roles of colonial women was increased. That was true in both New England and the Chesapeake, and the similarity may well have been far more important as a crucial determinant of the shape of their lives than varying demographic or religious experiences. It remains to be seen whether households in one of the two regions can be clearly identified as more dominated by patriarchal power than those in the other.

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