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.
The colonists at Jamestown hoped to recreate in Virginia the patriarchal social structure they had known in England, where a man had authority over his wife and all dependent members of his household. This structure was fortified by the doctrine of coverture, which affirmed that a woman, once married, was totally subsumed, or "covered," under her husband's person. A married woman, or feme covert, had no legal status; did not control any property, even if she brought it to the marriage; and ceded to her husband full rights to all incomes and wages she earned. A single adult woman, whether unmarried or widowed, was considered a feme sole. She could buy and sell property and engage in contracts and other business and legal transactions.
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.
A woman who had completed her indenture was likely to find a husband: for most of the seventeenth century, men outnumbered women in Virginia by a ratio of three or four to one. But in Virginia, marriage did not necessarily exempt a woman from performing agricultural work in addition to her domestic tasks. Even the women who had been shipped to the colony in the 1620s specifically to become wives found themselves working alongside laborers who were white and black, free and unfree. To the English, the fact that planters' wives worked in the fields was a sign of social instability—an indication that Virginia's settlers had not established "proper," gender-based work roles.
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.
Male authority in early Virginia—based on reputation, not family tradition—was fragile, and women did not always submit to it. Specifically, some women used words to improve their reputations, to acquire a small degree of power in their communities, and even to express political opinions. They questioned males' ability to govern and used gossip to control stories about themselves and their neighbors. This type of disorderly speech was a threat to colonial officials. In December 1662, the General Assembly passed a law stating that a "brabling" (quarrelsome or riotous) wife could be ducked, or plunged underwater, as punishment for slandering her husband or neighbors. The statute trivialized female communication and freed husbands from the burden of paying a fine for their wives' behavior.
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
By the end of the seventeenth century, one's role in Virginia society depended on both gender and race. Black women, whether enslaved or free, occupied a position at the bottom of the social and economic ladder. They could not fulfill the English ideal of the good wife because they were primarily agricultural laborers. In contrast, white females could be good wives even if they spent some time tending tobacco plants.
Extant documents indicate that some husbands and wives of the gentry class struggled to determine who was in control of the household. The planter elite believed they needed to impose their authority on their wives and to manage the domestic work in their homes. The need to control one's wife was crucial because failure to manage a woman was a sign that a man was not in control of his life. William Byrd II, for example, recorded his frustration on the occasions when his wife, Lucy Parke Byrd, did not submit to his authority. Byrd challenged her husband, perhaps in part because she wanted to direct the work of the slaves who labored in their home. It was uncertain exactly what work was to be done by a good wife if her husband owned slaves to labor for their benefit.
While the patriarchal ideal dominated both theory and practice by the mid-eighteenth century, a minority of adult women operated successfully outside this norm. This was especially true of widows, who as feme soles continued to buy and sell land, negotiate contracts, and manage households with servants and slaves. A majority of widows remarried, but many did not, preferring instead to remain single and independent. In some areas of Virginia, these widows and other single women were a significant economic force, representing up to 15 percent of the landowners and owning nearly 20 percent of the land.
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
Women's lives changed between the end of the French and Indian War (1754–1763) and the issuance of the Declaration of Independence in 1776. When Virginia's burgesses and merchants pledged not to import specified goods as a way to protest taxes imposed by Great Britain, some women also promised to do without these items. The decision not to import material objects not only gave women an opportunity to express their political views, it also changed the daily work done by many women because they had to learn how to produce items they previously purchased from British merchants. Elite wives also taught some enslaved women how to make soap and candles. Other female slaves learned how to spin thread and weave cloth. Seamstresses turned the Virginia cloth into clothing that colonists wore to protest "taxation without representation." It became a sign of honor to wear clothes made in Virginia from cloth spun in the colony.
Once Virginians declared their independence from Great Britain, women of all classes found their lives changed. Wives of both Patriots and Loyalists learned how to operate households during times of food shortages and high prices. Some Loyalist families decided to leave Virginia and once they arrived in England, the women in these households learned how to adapt to the gender expectations in their new country. Wives of Continental soldiers functioned as the heads of their households while their husbands were gone. For some enslaved women, Dunmore's Proclamation (1775) offered a chance to seize independence and begin life as free women. Whether Virginia women spent the Revolution in America or in England, they continued to perform domestic work, raise their children, and add stability to their societies.
Cite This Entry
- APA Citation:
Richter, J. Women in Colonial Virginia. (2013, November 21). In Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved from http://www.EncyclopediaVirginia.org/Women_in_Colonial_Virginia.
- MLA Citation:
Richter, Julie. "Women in Colonial Virginia." Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, 21 Nov. 2013. Web. READ_DATE.
First published: November 19, 2013 | Last modified: November 21, 2013
Contributed by Julie Richter, a lecturer in the Lyon G. Tyler Department of History at the College of William and Mary.