The first women in colonial Virginia were Virginia Indians. Because of their regular interactions with the English colonists, scholars know the most about the Algonquian-speaking Indians of Tsenacomoco. In early Virginia Indian society, gender roles were clearly defined because men and women needed to work as partners to survive. Women bore and cared for children and prepared food, but they also farmed; foraged for additional food; built homes; made pottery, mats, baskets, household implements, and furnishings; and collected firewood. Indian women were not restricted to the home, as English women often were; they were required to travel on foot and by canoe outside their homes and towns. Men hunted, fished, and participated in political and military councils. Although Virginia Indian chiefs, or weroances, were almost always men, the position was inherited through the female line. (Cockacoeske and Ann were important weroansquas, or women chiefs.)
Little is known about the education that Indian girls received, but they likely learned from the example provided by their elders. A girl was expected to learn how to perform her assigned tasks before reaching a marriageable age; her skill level determined her desirability as a marriage partner. Men initiated courtship, but women could decline offers of marriage. If a spouse was captured or killed, men and women alike were encouraged to remarry. (For example, the first marriage of Pocahontas, daughter of the paramount chief Powhatan, likely ended after she was captured by the English and held at Jamestown.)
Women at Jamestown
The first two English women to arrive in Virginia came in mid-October 1608 as part of the so-called Second Supply of colonists. Mistress Forrest made the journey with her husband, Thomas Forrest, and her maid, Ann Burras. Thomas Forrest was the first colonist to have authority over both his wife and a dependent member of his household. Before the end of 1608, Ann Burras married John Laydon, a laborer and one of the original settlers. English women continued to trickle into the colony after Forrest and Burras's arrival, although a concerted effort to increase the English female population of Virginia was not made until 1619.
In early Virginia, the strictest definition of coverture was rarely applied. Disease, food shortages, and conflict with the Indians disrupted the roles that European men and women typically played. Conditions within James Fort were dismal because there were not enough women to do the necessary domestic work, and men often refused to do what they perceived as women's work, including doing laundry, cleaning house, and cultivating corn, which they had seen Indian women do. In England, women did not grow the main crop and spent most of their time in or near their home.
Gender and the Establishment of Virginia Society
Like their male counterparts, female indentured servants faced harsh conditions once they arrived in Virginia. Many who migrated to the Chesapeake were unable to acclimate to their new surroundings, became sick, and died. Those who survived labored in tobacco fields for their masters (some of whom physically and sexually abused their servants) until their time of service was complete.
Some women—especially those who combined modest wealth and entrepreneurial skills—operated almost like men. Dutch settler Anna Varlett Hack Boot carried on extensive trading activities throughout the Atlantic, while single and as a married woman, mostly with other Dutch merchants. The same was true of Anne Toft, who traded fish and tobacco with Dutch and English merchants. In the 1660s Toft, as a single woman, accumulated thousands of acres of land in Virginia, Maryland, and Jamaica. While Toft and Boot were exceptional, they were not the only women in seventeenth-century Virginia who bought and sold land, engaged in small-scale trading, and went to court to protect their investments.
Legislating Social Roles Based on Gender and Race
The progression of Virginia law in the seventeenth century makes clear that colonial leaders did not want white women to perform agricultural labor. In 1643, for example, the General Assembly decided that African women were tithable, or eligible to be taxed, as white and black men were. This distinction may reflect lawmakers' expectation that African women would be field laborers, thus contributing to the colony's wealth, and European women would remain in the domestic sphere. The legislators hoped their decision to limit white women to domestic work would further stabilize the colony's social order and give husbands more authority and control over their wives.
At the same legislative session, the General Assembly turned its attention to the status of Africans in Virginia. Although many planters who purchased Africans held these individuals as lifelong slaves, no law guaranteed a colonist's right to do so. Some men also questioned whether a black child born in Virginia was a slave. The lawmakers (men who owned the majority of Africans in Virginia) determined that "all children borne in this country shalbe held bond or free only according to the condition of the mother"—that is, a child born to an enslaved woman would also be a slave for his or her lifetime. In addition to securing colonists' right to own an individual as property, this law made African women the key to the expansion of slavery in Virginia. The General Assembly also attempted to limit the size of the colony's free black population by imposing harsh punishments on interracial couples and white women who gave birth to mulatto children. By establishing white participation in interracial relationships as the transgression, the scholar Kathleen M. Brown has argued, the General Assembly cast Africans in the role of moral corruptor, distancing African women in the colony even further from white women.
Extant county court records indicate that mothers of free black and mulatto children took it upon themselves to learn about the colony's laws and protect the fragile freedom of their children. Elizabeth Banks, of York County, a white indentured servant, arranged to have her mulatto daughters, Ann and Mary, bound out to planters who lived a short distance from her. As an adult, Mary Banks appeared before York County's justices of the peace to make similar arrangements for her children, Hannah and Elizabeth. These women and other mothers of free black and mulatto boys and girls negotiated apprenticeships, secured food and shelter, and labored so there would be money to buy necessities for their families.
Order and Disorder in the Late Seventeenth Century
The events of Bacon's Rebellion (1676–1677), and the role that female voices played in them, highlight the instability of Virginia society in the late seventeenth century. By this time, the men at the top of Virginia's social and economic order controlled much of the colony's wealth. They owned thousands of acres of land, had indentured servants and slaves who labored for their benefit, and had wives and children over whom they had authority. In contrast, many of the men at the bottom of the social order had neither land nor a wife. As tobacco prices dropped due to overproduction, it became harder for these individuals to support themselves.
In part because of the efforts of news wives, hundreds joined Bacon's army. Among them were indentured servants and slaves to whom Bacon had promised freedom in exchange for their participation. This coming together of free men, indentured servants, slaves, and women threatened the security of Virginia's nascent patriarchy. After the rebellion collapsed in 1677, the colony's leaders passed legislation to suppress any future alliances. A series of laws passed in the last quarter of the seventeenth century increased restrictions on slaves, while the "Act of Reliefe" penalized those who "shall presume to speake, write, disperse or publish by words, writeing or otherwise, any matter or thing tending to rebellion." First offenders had to pay a fine of 1,000 pounds of tobacco and stand in the stocks for two hours—unless they were married women, or femes covert, who had to pay the fine or endure twenty lashes to the bare back.
"Good Wives" in the Eighteenth Century
A good wife in early eighteenth-century Virginia had different responsibilities from her counterpart in England. In Virginia, as in England, a good wife cared for her children, cooked, cleaned, tended the garden, and managed the work done by a staff of domestics. But unlike that of her English counterpart, a Virginia wife's staff included enslaved men, women, and children. Learning how to manage slaves who had recently been imported into the colony from Africa was an additional challenge for white Virginians of either sex. To them, these slaves were different from the enslaved men, women, and children who had been born in Virginia. Most of the new slaves did not speak English, and many had ritual scarification and body piercings.
By the second quarter of the eighteenth century, however, the role and duties of a good wife in Virginia were clearer. An elite woman's main responsibility was to prepare her children to be members of Virginia's gentry. In addition to providing instruction in reading, writing, arithmetic, and religion, gentry wives made sure that their sons and daughters knew proper etiquette, how to converse with guests, and how to dance. The wife of a prosperous planter also taught her children how to manage enslaved laborers, including the personal slave who would tend to their daily needs. Establishing these behaviors helped gentry families maintain their power, which was consolidated largely through marriage.
Women also participated in the political life of the colony even though they had no official role. While it is possible that a few wealthy widows may have voted in the seventeenth century, a 1699 law made clear that this was a male-only activity. Women did, however, help enfranchise men through land they brought to a marriage and this in turn gave some of them indirect power to influence the voting behavior of their husbands. Candidates, too, understood that treating wives with cordiality and respect might impact the outcome of an election.
Middling, Poor, and Enslaved Women in the Eighteenth Century
The Move toward Revolution
Cite This Entry
- APA Citation:
Richter, J. Women in Colonial Virginia. (2020, April 10). In Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved from http://www.EncyclopediaVirginia.org/Women_in_Colonial_Virginia.
- MLA Citation:
Richter, Julie. "Women in Colonial Virginia." Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, 10 Apr. 2020. Web. READ_DATE.
First published: November 19, 2013 | Last modified: April 10, 2020
Contributed by Julie Richter, a lecturer in the Lyon G. Tyler Department of History at the College of William and Mary.