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Women talk about life in colonial America
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Learn more about the voting process and exercising your right to vote!

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Telling Her Story


The Printer's wife demonstrates daily chores to visiting school children
"There's a presidential election coming up in November, wouldn't you like to vote in it?" Teddy asks the Printer's wife in Old Sturbridge Village. The woman looks up at him from her baking, disbelief sharp in her eyes.

"My husband will cast our family's vote," she replies, then turns the question back to him as she scoops apple pie filling into a crust, "Why would any family need two votes?"

I jump in quickly, defensive of a modern woman's rights to her own ideas, and ask, "But what if you disagree with your husband?"

This colonial-era woman rolls her eyes at me as if this is the silliest question she's ever heard. "I may disagree with him, but I have a way to have my views heard that is more potent than voting. Who do you think raises our children? Educates them? Spends most of the day teaching them right from wrong? I am shaping the thoughts of the next generation of adults. With that power, who needs one vote in an election?"

I consider what our historical interpreter is saying, and think about a mother's enormous influence over her children. While my modern brain tells me that the right to vote is something every person of age should be granted in a democratic society, I can see how colonial women justified that having a say in politics wasn't necessary, given their power over what went on in the home.

Teddy and I have stepped a few hundred years back in time to a recreated historic village in western Massachusetts. We have come here to understand what a woman's life was like as the United States was developing into an independent nation.

Today, we find that colonial life wasn't such a pretty picture, especially for working class women and servants. Essentially, women first came to the United States to ensure the survival of the colonies. Men couldn't reproduce and create a permanent community on their own, so women were imported to be the colonists' wives. The women would be sold to the settlers at the cost it took for them to make the voyage from England across the Atlantic Ocean. If they weren't sold directly as wives, they would be sold as indentured servants, promising to work 5 to 7 years for a master in America in order to pay their passage.

Jackie talks of life as a servant in the 1630's
Once she arrived in the colonies, a woman's life was devoted to hard work. In order to finish all of her duties, a poor wife or servant might labor from sun up to sun down each day except Sunday. On the Sabbath, she might have time to "relax," which usually meant spending 6 to 8 hours at church offering proper prayer. At Pioneer Village in Salem, Massachusetts, Teddy and I asked a servant girl named Jackie to explain her typical 1630's routine. She told us that she spent her days cooking each meal for the governor, cleaning his frame house, making butter, soap and candles, sewing and patching clothes, tending the garden, drawing water from the well, and taking care of the animals. These would have been the same duties a poor wife accomplished each day. She literally did not have a minute to herself during the daylight hours!

Although she had an enormous amount of responsibility in the home, a woman had few rights if she was single, and none at all once she married. A woman's wedding was actually considered her "civil death," as she then deferred all decision-making, property, and money to her husband. A woman could not appear in court as a witness or vote in any election. Basically, she became the property of her husband in an unequal union that would last the rest of their lives. Yikes! So why get married at all, you ask? Well, it was expected. The girls of the American colonies were educated simply to become perfect wives. If a woman was not married by the time she was 25, she was outcast from society, for she had not adapted to the social norm. And, since it took a woman an entire week to earn the same wages that a man earned in a day, it would have been difficult for a woman to support herself without the "paycheck" a husband brought home. Of course, no matter how much money a wife made, she was helpless to protect herself from her husband's bad habits. Were he to waste their money on drink or gambling, or run up excessive debt, she had no way to stop him. If he died early, widowing her, she was left with his debt to pay. This forced her to find work as a servant or she would be sent to the poor house, penniless.

A widowed woman turned servant to pay her late husband's debt
To modern understanding, this treatment of women was so unjust, so utterly unfair, that we wonder how it could have been this way. Think of how ridiculous this sounds, and then consider that I've only been talking about the experience of free, white women here! We need to remember that there were groups even worse off than them. The experience of SLAVE women in the colonies, given their position on the lowest possible rung of the colonial social ladder, was disgusting.

As we walked back to our car from these historic villages, Teddy and I re-entered the twenty-first century. The few days we spent talking with early American women made me think about the role of women in our society today. I am so thankful to the women before me who have rallied for my right to vote, for better working conditions, for increased pay. But while we have gained so many rights since Jackie's day, we are still working on achieving an equal shot at all of the opportunities available to men. The work that still needs to be done is evident in the roles women play today. What are some jobs that you typically think of women doing? What about men? How much money do women make in traditional jobs like nursing and teaching? How much money do men make as CEO's and politicians? Do women receive equal health care and job security? The answers to these questions are improving, but I believe that it is important for us to realize there are still barriers to break down between traditional gender roles.

When Teddy asks ME if I'll be voting for our president in November, I answer him, "of course," without hesitation. Many strong women have overcome amazing obstacles and prejudices to give me this right. I cannot agree with the colonial Printer's wife, because I believe that more than a mother's influence over her household and children, women's voices need to be heard in politics, in social issues, and yes, at home too. As Sarah Grimke asserted in the 1830's, a woman should be "no more bound by [her husband's] judgment, than he is by hers." I intend to vote, to remain socially active, and to remain aware of the issues surrounding our lives to help improve basic human rights.


Please email me at: rebecca@ustrek.org


Links to Other Dispatches

Daphne - Nathaniel Bacon: a rebel with a cause
Kevin - Another slab of Bacon: a rebel without a clue
Stephanie - You go, colonial girl wonder!
Teddy - Witchy woman's gonna put a spell on you!
Irene - Burning down the house: land riots in early America
Neda - The Regulators take on the big, bad tax men
MAD - The indentured servant trade: still rearing its ugly head