First Generations: Women in Colonial America

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Overview

Carol Berkin's multicultural history reconstructs the lives of American women in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries-women from European, African, and Native backgrounds-and examines their varied roles as wives, mothers, household managers, laborers, rebels, and, ultimately, critical forces in shaping the new nation's culture and history.

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First Generations: Women in Colonial America

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Overview

Carol Berkin's multicultural history reconstructs the lives of American women in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries-women from European, African, and Native backgrounds-and examines their varied roles as wives, mothers, household managers, laborers, rebels, and, ultimately, critical forces in shaping the new nation's culture and history.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"A revision, amplification, and synthesis of a rich succession of studies about every aspect of colonial society and culture. [Berkin] brings her subject down to earth . . . and shows sensitivity to the experiences of individual women . . . [First Generations] offers what Mary Beth Norton [author of Founding Mothers and Fathers] rightly calls 'the best available introduction to the lives of women in colonial and revolutionary America.'"—Edmund S. Morgan, The New York Review of Books
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
This academic study by Berkin (Women of America: A History), a history professor at Baruch College in New York City, examines the lives of 17th- and 18th-century women from a feminist perspective that focuses on gender and class. Employing excellent research skills, the author documents the lives of white as well as Native American and African American women in their diverse roles as wives, mothers, widows, employed workers and slaves. Although the complexity of the subject often yields more questions than answers about how women negotiated their lives, Berkin has made a notable contribution by utilizing recent scholarship to address family life in the mid-Atlantic and Southern colonies as well as in the much studied New England settlements. Her analysis of Native American and African American women, as well as of how the American Revolution affected female roles, is enlightening. (Sept.)
Library Journal
Berkin (history, Baruch Coll.) intends with this scholarly work to broaden our knowledge of women in Colonial America. Focusing not on famous women like Anne Hutchison but ordinary women from all walks of life, she examines some of the earliest settlers, including European and African American women. She discusses different geographic regions and offers excellent insight into everyday life and the role of women in the American Revolution. Along the way, Berkin explores immigration to the Colonies and the multiple roles played by women as "housewives" during the era. The final chapter is a bibliographical essay. In sum, this is a specialized, well-researched work that will appeal to collections in Colonial America and American studies.Dorothy Lilly, Grosse Pointe North H.S. Lib., Mich.
Edmund S. Morgan
A revision, amplification, and synthesis of a rich succession of studies about every aspect of colonial society and culture. [Carol Berkin] brings her subject down to earth…and shows sensitivity to the experiences of individual women.
The New York Review of Books
Joni Clarke
Vivid portraits of seventeenth— and eighteenth—century women as active participants in the creation of their societies…Takes readers beyond the academic journal and rewards them with a number of delights.
The Women's Review of Books
Kirkus Reviews
A marvelously readable yet scholarly history of women's social, economic, religious, and political roles in America from the founding of the Chesapeake Bay colonies through the Revolution.

Berkin (History/Baruch Coll.) admits in her chatty preface that this book took her years longer to write than she originally intended, and the result was more than worth the wait. First Generations is a careful, detailed study of colonial life with something more—a personal touch, an easy narrative style, and a comprehensive approach. Not that this slim volume offers the last word on the subject. What it does provide is a vivid, sympathetic, fascinating introduction to a rich field demanding further study. Berkin reveals some of the realities of life for women in colonial America by focusing on a number of remarkable individuals both famous and unknown, among them Wetamo, a Wampanoag leader who fought mightily against the English colonists who invaded her home; Margaret Hardenbroeck, a successful Dutch businesswoman in New Amsterdam who lost her economic rights when the English conquered the colony in 1664; Mary Johnson, a captive African who eventually became a free and fairly prosperous farmer; and Eliza Lucas Pinckney, a member of South Carolina's aristocracy, who successfully ran her father's plantation in his absence when she was only 15 years old. These and other women form the foundation of Berkin's narrative, which goes on to illuminate how these individuals fit into the general patterns of colonial life. And while Berkin admits that the historical records favor some groups over others, she herself focuses her attention equally on all, while never appearing to sacrifice the integrity of the work for political correctness.

A wonderful introduction to this fascinating subject.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780809016068
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
  • Publication date: 7/28/1997
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 256
  • Sales rank: 160,831
  • Product dimensions: 5.40 (w) x 8.20 (h) x 0.80 (d)

Meet the Author

Carol Berkin is Professor of History at the City University of New York Graduate Center. She is the author of A Brilliant Solution: Inventing the American Constitution, Women's Voices/Women's Lives: Documents in Early American History, and coeditor, with Mary Beth Norton, of Women of America: A History.

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Read an Excerpt

First Generations

1

IMMIGRANTS TO PARADISE: WHITE WOMEN IN THE SEVENTEENTH-CENTURY CHESAPEAKE

MARY COLE, the daughter of Robert and Rebecca Cole, was born in Maryland in January 1653. Her parents had come to the colony in 1652, probably from Middlesex, England, bringing with them Rebecca's two children from her first marriage and two servants as well. Rebecca may have been pregnant during the long ocean voyage, for Robert Cole, Jr., was born in Maryland before the end of the year. Thus, Mary was part of a large household, and one that would continue to grow. Within the next seven years, William, Edward, and Mary's baby sister, Elizabeth, were born at Cole's Farm.

Mary's father must have come from a prosperous family, for he was able to rent a 300-acre tobacco farm on St. Clements Bay, agreeably located near the Potomac River. His business accounts show that he was a prudent man and managed his plantation well. While Mary was still quite young, more servants and new acreage were added to the Cole family holdings, and the young Mary could take pride that her father was addressed as "Sir."

Like many of his neighbors, Robert Cole was concerned that his children learn to read the Bible. Each one received instruction at home, and Mary's brothers had a tutor who visited the farm.The youngest child, Elizabeth, may even have attended a Jesuit school in nearby Newtown. Mary's father took care to see that his sons learned to read and also to write and do sums; for his daughter Mary it was enough that she could read and sew.

When Mary was nine years old, the Coles' comfortable and comforting family setting began to shatter. Rebecca Cole died in 1662; in the fall of 1663, Robert Cole died while visiting England. Like many Marylanders of their era, they had met their death before the age of forty. And like many Maryland children of the seventeenth century, Mary Cole was an orphan before her eleventh birthday.

Mary Cole was luckier than most orphans. Her father, always a careful man, had set his affairs in the strictest order before departing for England. He had inventoried his possessions, made out his will, and named two of his Maryland neighbors to serve as guardians of his motherless brood. Not content to see these guardians protect the children's material interest and see to their physical well-being, Robert Cole also charged them to provide spiritual training in the event of his death. If they failed, he warned both men, God would punish them on Judgment Day. Mary would know other orphans, neighbors and perhaps friends, who unlike herself suffered neglect or abuse at the hands of strangers or thoughtless acquaintances.

When they reached their majority, the Cole children would share many acres of tobacco land, four servants, and personal property assessed at over £200. But Mary and her brothers would not divide these assets equally. Like most of the men of the region, Robert Cole reserved his land for his sons; to his daughters, he gave movable property. At eighteen, Mary Cole received her legacy of eleven cattle, a bed, and kitchenware—all items that could be carried into a new household when she married.

Mary Cole did soon marry. Before she was twenty she had chosen a husband from the colonies' many eligible planters. Ignatius Warren was a native Marylander who owned property across St. Clements Bay in Newtown Hundred. Warren's family history was more typical of the region than Mary's, for his father,like many Chesapeake colonists, had come to the region as an indentured servant. John Warren had contracted to work for another man for several years in exchange for passage to America or the promise of land when his contract expired. At the end of his term, Warren had indeed become a property owner, and even a county justice of the peace. Thus, Ignatius and Mary Cole Warren began life with the complementary assets most Chesapeake newlyweds desired: Ignatius brought land, which secured an income, and Mary brought cattle and domestic supplies, which helped establish a household.

Whether the Warrens had a satisfying marriage or a troubled one we do not know. But their marriage was unusual among Chesapeake colonists in one respect: it was the only one Mary Cole or Ignatius Warren ever had. Unlike her brothers Edward and Robert, who were twice married, Mary Cole never found herself at the center of the complex family of stepparents and half brothers and sisters typical of the Chesapeake. Actually, we have no record that Mary Cole Warren had any children at all.

Ignatius Warren lived a long life for a Chesapeake native, dying at the age of fifty-eight. He earned his living planting tobacco, running an inn, and dabbling in commerce, while Mary was known simply as a planter's wife. Poor judgment or bad luck brought about Ignatius's financial ruin later in life, and although the date of Mary's death is unknown, we do know that she did not live to see her husband's downfall.

 

 

In the end, what we know about Mary Cole Warren does not make for a compelling biography. Our knowledge is largely a matter of genealogy, with Mary a modest branch on a family tree. Like most women of the early colonial Chesapeake, she speaks to us only briefly and with too distant a voice to make her story clear. The collective voice of Chesapeake women is, however, more powerful and more rich. From wills, court testimony, ship's logs, and plantation records, from baptismal certificates and tombstones, from household inventories and archaeological remains,from careful attention to community ceremonies and rituals, we can reproduce the female world in which Mary Cole Warren moved.

We can also reconstruct in some detail the larger society that the Mary Cole Warrens of the seventeenth century inhabited. We know that this early Chesapeake culture deviated from traditional English norms and also that, by English standards, many of the region's critical social institutions were unstable. As a result, women like Mary Cole Warren often found gender roles more ambiguous and fluid than women in other colonial regions did. Whether this proved to be an advantage or a burden for the women of Maryland and Virginia, historians have not yet been able to agree. But understanding these variations in women's work roles, family roles, and in their relationship to property and wealth is yet another way to bring Mary Cole Warren and her Chesapeake sisters to life.

Few seventeenth-century English immigrants failed to be shocked by the alien nature of the Chesapeake. With its intricate mazes of waterways, its vast, unbroken forest, its hot, humid summers, it bore no resemblance to the tilled fields and tamed woodlands of England. There were no towns and no manufacturing centers. The native population was at best exotic and at worst dangerous, and the variety of dialects and accents among the colonists themselves was disquieting to men and women used to the comforting sameness of parish or village life.

Society itself seemed out of joint. Whole tiers of the English social structure were missing. Immigrants accustomed to locating themselves within an old, established hierarchy could not fail to note the absence of gentry and aristocracy as well as artisans of most trades. But what surely must have struck any Englishwoman orienting herself to this strange Chesapeake society was the simple fact that it was a male world. Men outnumbered women by six to one in the earliest decades and three to one as late as the 1680s.

The explanation for this skewed sex ratio lay in the region's obsession with tobacco. Although many free immigrants were young married couples, Chesapeake planters recruited thousandsof workers to plant and harvest their tobacco crops. For these planters the ideal farm laborer was young—and male. Thus, between 1630 and 1680, one-half, perhaps three-quarters, of the 75,000 indentured servants transported to the region fit this description.

The consequences of such a sex ratio were as dramatic as the imbalance itself. Chesapeake men found themselves locked into more than a competition over land, tobacco, and prosperity; they struggled to wed as well. The situation prompted one Maryland planter to remark that his colony was a "paradise for women." But was it? Indeed, unmarried women were certain to find husbands, although marriage often was delayed by the terms of indenture. A planter eager to set up his household might buy his bride-to-be's contract, but most immigrant women were not legally free to become wives until their mid- or late twenties. From that point on, their lives were consumed by childbirth and field and household labor, and certainly followed by an early death.

The short and often brutish life these immigrant women faced was not a uniquely female experience. For men as much as women a life of difficult fieldwork complicated by local diseases such as malaria produced a near-century of demographic disaster. Perhaps a quarter of all indentured servants died before their terms of labor came to an end. Male survivors could expect to live only until their mid-forties; women until about thirty-nine. These few years of difference in life expectancy—small to the demographer but significant to the colonist—were related to childbearing. Women's fecundity and mortality were ironically linked, for women's resistance to viral disease was dangerously weakened during pregnancy. Age was more critical than sex, however, since infants and small children were most vulnerable to infectious diseases. Perhaps one-quarter of all children who survived birth died in their first year. Forty to fifty-five percent of all white children born in the Chesapeake died before their twentieth birthday. Taken together, late marriage, early adult death, and high infant mortality meant that this Anglo-Chesapeake population could not even reproduce itself through the 1690s. Only the steady flow ofnew immigrants each season ensured that the tobacco colonies would continue to grow.

In such a death-driven society, familiar institutions took on new forms. Marriage remained the setting for the creation of a family, yet marriages were truncated and families complex. A Chesapeake couple, wedded blissfully or despairingly, could expect that death would end their union within nine to twelve years. A new marriage soon followed, and frequently a third, resulting in a crazy quilt of family relationships, with children from different marriages living under one roof. A widow brought to her second husband the heirs of her first; if he was a widower, he, too, brought sons and daughters to the home. Together, they produced offspring, and on the death of one partner, the survivor's next marriage added new children. With resiliency and flexibility, at least in their language, Chesapeake colonists spoke of their fathers' "now-wives," and mothers and fathers distinguished children in their care but not of their own blood as "sons- or daughters-in-law."

Mortality fractured every family relationship. Husbands and wives were separated abruptly, and the survivor had to be prepared to form new commitments and intimacies. Parents found themselves caring for the living as they mourned for the dead, and burying sons and daughters in their young adulthood. Few children grew to maturity under the eyes of both father and mother; those who were not orphaned were counted among the fortunate. Throughout most of the seventeenth century, there were not enough uncles, aunts, or older siblings to provide a sufficient safety net—economic or emotional—for orphaned boys and girls. The problem was so widespread that no one felt immune. Colonists in both Maryland and Virginia supported the creation of orphans' courts to oversee the care, placement, and training of parentless minors, and to guard their material inheritances.

How would men and women born in England view the seventeenth-century Chesapeake family? Had they been familiar with the vocabulary of twentieth-century sociologists, they might have remarked on the instability or deviance of family relations inthe tobacco colonies. In England, a patriarchal, nuclear family had generally replaced an older, more open family based on broad and powerful kin relationships. In this newer nuclear family, the power and influence once diffused among lineal and collateral family members had become concentrated in the father's hands. The position of women diminished accordingly. In the patriarchal family, a wife was expected to defer to her husband, and a husband was expected to direct the lives of wife and children alike.

The Chesapeake family conformed neither to the older kinship model nor to the newer patriarchal one. In Maryland and Virginia communities, there were not enough kinship networks to make the older family configuration viable. Yet the newer patriarchal family could not take root in a setting where marriages were short and serial, and a man's authority as father and husband was too temporary. Chesapeake fathers simply did not live long enough to control the crucial decisions in the lives of their sons and daughters. Some historians argue that women, as mothers, held a privileged place in these households of "now-wives and sons-in-law," for they were often the single consistent thread in the complicated domestic weaving of stepparents and children. If nothing else, we have glimpses of the daily life of Chesapeake wives that suggest that submissive behavior was not the norm. Such was the case for Clove Mace, whose wife "threw [him] out of his own house in the course of a heated domestic argument."

Perhaps the constant element was the birth cycle itself. Immigrant women could expect to be pregnant every two years until they died or until menopause stopped the process. Among the creole, or native-born generations, the age of marriage and motherhood shifted dramatically, although sex ratio and mortality rates continued to shape women's life cycle. The creole1 daughters of former servants, like the daughters of immigrant landholders, were born free. They could marry as soon as custom and physical maturation permitted. And marry they did—at sixteen and seventeen,and often enough at fifteen or fourteen for the rituals of puberty and matrimony to converge. Like their mothers, these creole girls married men considerably older than themselves and like their mothers, they became mothers almost as soon as they became wives. Many were on their way to parenthood even before they were married, just as their mothers had been. Pre-bridal pregnancy ran as high as 20 percent among immigrant and creole women, for the absence of parental supervision left them with only their own judgment and their own desire to guide them in sexual relations. Marrying earlier, creole women gave birth more often, producing nine to eleven children rather then their mother's average of six.

The complex families of the seventeenth-century Chesapeake often lived in material conditions that would have shocked the poorest members of English society. On Maryland's lower western shore, it was common for parents, children, and servants to live together in two-, or at best three-, room houses. Even the most prosperous of these colonial planters built cramped six-room homes. Within these small, flimsily built, and sparsely furnished homes, families cooked, ate, made love, slept, sewed, read, played, and engaged in household manufacturing. Many colonists lay down at night on beds without bedsteads, bereft of linens, and without a chest in which to store their day's clothing.

Sparse material resources were matched by sparse human resources. As late as 1688, Virginia society could be described without exaggeration as "thinly inhabited; the Living solitary and unsociable." Indeed, the entire population of St. Marys County, Maryland, in 1675 was no more than 2,000 souls. Yet Chesapeake men and women created what community they could. Settlers on the lower western shore of Maryland, for example, clustered in neighborhoods near creeks and streams. Ties and connections were formed, cemented by mutual assistance, whether grudgingly or graciously given. In the absence of strong or adequately responsive social institutions—government, church, or courts—colonists sustained one another. Men witnessed each other's wills, appraised their neighbors' estates, raised barns, shared tools andsupplies, and protected families from Indian attack. Women linked their daily lives by visiting, attending at childbirth, nursing the sick, and exchanging household products. Lacking extended kinship networks, men and women unconnected by blood served as surrogates to family in their observation and celebration of the rituals of life—christenings, weddings, and burials.

On court days or Sunday afternoons, Chesapeake residents came together to socialize. Women as well as men smoked, drank, and played cards and games of dice. When a wedding or funeral gave these colonists an excuse to interrupt the monotony of toil, they threw themselves into celebration, feasting, dancing, and drinking cider, beer, and punch until the morning hours.

Neighborliness had its price, however. Gossip exposed any misbehavior or deviance from community norms, and cooperation and assistance shaded easily into meddling, interference, and intervention in household affairs. Every woman felt her neighbors' critical eye judging her treatment of servants, her domestic skills, her marital relations, and her sexual fidelity.

Reputation counted for much in this society. The "small politics of everyone's everyday life," carried on largely through gossip, shaped the networks of trust and respect within Chesapeake communities. The reputations of the two sexes were made in different spheres and hinged on very different behaviors. For men, a reputation of reliability and honesty was critical, for they conducted much of their business by oral agreement. It was better, as Maryland planter Joseph Wickes well understood, to be known as a "whoremaster" than as a thief For women, the litmus test of character was sexual behavior. It was primarily in the control and expression of her physical desires that a woman was assumed to be responsible for herself

Gossip was an important weapon for both men and women in the building and destruction of reputations. However, because women were locked out of the "large politics" of government, gossip was their most essential tool in establishing their social position and regulating the behavior of others. The records from slander and defamation cases in the Maryland courts between 1654and 1671 reflect the community's concern with men's reputation in the marketplace and women's in bed. It is in the charges and countercharges, fervent defenses and heated attacks, that we hear the voices of the men and women of the tobacco colonies.

If men spoke of each other as "rogues" and "knaves," women most often called each other "whores." While both men and women felt free to question a woman's marital fidelity, few women concerned themselves with a man's honesty in his business dealings. Instead, a woman protected her reputation, and impugned the honor of a male, by accusing him of improper sexual behavior.

Even in their manner of insult and gossip, men and women differed. Chesapeake men showed a marked preference for aggressive, public confrontation of their foes; women spread their damaging tales in private. Men defamed each other in general terms; women offered a wealth of specific details about the alleged transgression. Few women were simply "whores"; rather, they were guilty, as Jane Godson reported of Joan Balsey, of producing an "Eldest Son ... not the son of Anthony Rawlins her former husband but She knew one at Maryland that was the father of him." Godson added a flourish to her account by citing her source. She knew Balsey had committed this adultery because "Thomas Ward of Kent tould her Soe."

Demography and economic dependency influenced Chesapeake women's concerns about morality. A married women had more at stake in protecting her sexual reputation than a single woman, as she was dependent on her husband for economic support. His respect—or lack of it—could translate easily into material comfort or deprivation. A single woman, even if she was accused of lying with a man "2 moonshiny nights under a walnutt tree," was likely to find a husband in a society where there were three men for every available woman. And so a woman was better off "caught ... with her Coates up ... and his breeches downe" before she took her marriage vows.

Woman's work, like her familial relationships, was reshaped by the circumstances of life in the tobacco colony. By the seventeenthcentury, English custom drew a sharp distinction between women's agricultural activity and men's. Fieldwork was considered masculine, and only in the most extreme circumstances of poverty or crop-threatening weather was a wife or daughter called upon to cross this gendered line. Women's domain was the garden, the dairy, and the household, the locales of significant economic productivity. This household production, or "housewifery," transformed raw materials into usable domestic products, through spinning, butchering animals, food preparation and preservation, and manufacturing domestic supplies. The tools of wom-en's trades included the spinning wheel and the churn, equipment which was as valued as the plow or the hoe. In England's urban centers, many women also engaged in housewifery production for the marketplace and in sale and barter, as well as in the management of taverns, inns, and shops.

Inventories of Chesapeake households show that housewifery was underdeveloped here. Although women did household chores such as cooking, sewing, and tending the garden, few households boasted spinning wheels or churns, and even rudimentary tools of production were missing from most kitchens and hearths. Many Chesapeake housewives must have spent more hours each week grinding corn for family meals than in such skilled tasks as cloth making or butter production. In the early decades of Chesapeake settlement, most immigrant women also spent a part of their productive hours toiling beside men in the tedious care of tobacco plants. Few bound servant women were taken from the fields to assist in household work, and few planter wives were able to escape fieldwork altogether either. Manpower was too scarce, competition too great, and tobacco cultivation too labor-intensive for the English division of male and female work spheres to be maintained.

Court records also show that this departure from English labor norms was common. When the widow Mary Carleton recounted that "what was produced out of ye ground" was the result of "ye hard labor of her the said Mary," her testimony was distinguished by her anger at her husband's apparent idleness, not by her lottending crops. Colonial legislation corroborates this break with tradition, for a distinct category for taxable labor included women servants engaged in fieldwork.

The tasks of childbearing and household and fieldwork were the primary physical and economic constraints in the life of a white Chesapeake woman. But there were other constraints as well. Laws regulated her action and limited her identity in society. This was true for Englishmen, too, of course, but it was peculiar to Englishwomen that the rites of passage to adulthood diminished rather than increased their legal rights. For under English common law, women were legal persons only if they reached their majority and did not marry. As feme sole, or woman alone, a free Englishwoman could sue and be sued, make contracts, earn and pay wages, own and sell property in her lifetime, and will it to her chosen heirs upon her death. Marriage—which was the primary ritual of adulthood for a woman—converted her to feme covert, or woman covered, enforcing the exchange of her legal persona for the protection and support of her husband. In its most pristine and extreme interpretation, the law denied married women the right to make judgments regarding their own economic circumstances. It muted their voice in the courts, restricted their accumulation and dispersement of material wealth, and made them less than responsible for their misdeeds or achievements in the public sphere. A woman was a legal incompetent, as children, idiots, and criminals were under English law. As feme covert she was stripped of all property; once married, the clothes on her back, her personal possessions—whether valuable, mutable, or merely sentimental—and even her body became her husband's, to direct, to manage, and to use. Once a child was born to the couple, her land, too, came under his control.

The body of law that established a husband's control over his wife's resources reflected and sustained an ideology of women's subordination to men within a marital and family system. That system was hierarchical, but it was not autocratic. Marriage was webbed by obligations and duties owed by both husband and wife. Husbands were enjoined by law and precept to protect and providefor wives; wives were required to submit to male authority and to assist their husbands by productive labor and frugality. The ideal of a unity of person, of husband and wife as one in him, influenced behavior—defining the choices men and women made, and setting the boundaries of what each considered acceptable action. Yet daily life rarely sustained the ideal, and the law was made malleable by a thousand informal adjustments every day as women argued with their husbands, criticized their judgments, redefined standards of household maintenance, and indulged in frivolous expenditures or, conversely, as men ignored their wives' material needs or quibbled over what was necessary. In this way, the obligations men and women owed each other became subject to daily negotiation.

That a married woman lacked a legal identity did not mean, of course, that she lacked all legal rights. The most significant of her rights pertained to property and wealth, and thus to inheritance. Although the state curtailed her rights in marriage, it became her advocate in widowhood. The state or community wished to keep the burden of a woman's support private, and thus expected a husband to extend his sustaining hand even after death. If the state could not ensure a husband's character or his marital affection, it could defend its own interests by mandating that a portion of the estate go to the wife regardless of the husband's wishes. A widow's share in that estate reinforced gender ideology by offering a woman acknowledgment of her contribution to the material well-being of the family.

The widow's inheritance share, or dower right, was thus well established in England by the seventeenth century, although its provisions varied from county to county and over the decades. The standard dower settlement gave a widow a life interest in one-third of her husband's real property; that is, she was entitled to the profits from the land but could not sell it or select its ultimate owner. On her death, the property passed into the hands of her husband's designated heirs. Dower was honored, in some form, in every English community and in each colony. The absence of a will signified a husband's tacit acquiescence to his widow's"thirds." Testators who designated less than those "thirds" usually had their wishes thwarted—and their wills contested. Englishwomen proved aggressive in protecting and demanding their due, and English judges proved sympathetic to their demands.

Of course, if a husband could not disinherit his wife at death, he might mismanage or squander the property she brought to the marriage while he lived. Although there were laws to prevent reckless, foolish, or irresponsible husbands from alienating property without a wife's consent, their effectiveness is questionable. In many English colonies a judge was required to interrogate a woman privately to determine if she freely consented to a proposed sale of her property. Yet as authorities frequently discovered when settling a man's estate, husbands neglected to tell their wives of impending sales. Confronted later with a fait accompli, she could do little but add an amen to his actions until she was widowed. And as judges and legislators evaluating private interrogation procedures often conceded, a husband could cajole or coerce his wife into a dower release that left him free to dispose of her property as he saw fit, thus subverting dower protection.

Counterstrategies to protect dower soon evolved. Concerned fathers in both the mother country and the colonies could insist upon prenuptial contracts that placed their daughters' inheritance in the care of third-party trustees; widows, wiser from sad experience, could insist upon similar prenuptial contracts with their prospective husbands. Not surprisingly, the rich were more inclined to such defensive maneuvers than ordinary folk. In the colonies, few seventeenth-century women knew of, or considered, this sophisticated option.

On the whole, colonists in seventeenth-century Maryland and Virginia respected the tradition of dower. Over 75 percent of the Chesapeake's free white men went to their graves without drafting a will, a tacit acceptance of a widow's dower rights. By 1670 inheritance was guided by a Statute of Distribution, which made the terms of property division relatively uniform in the Chesapeake. A widow's thirds in real property were honored, and her thirds of a husband's personal estate were also ensured. In this,Chesapeake women fared better than their English sisters, for the right to dower in personalty was eroding in England just as it was expanding in the tobacco colonies. By the end of the century, as slaves became the most valuable personal property in any estate, a share in this labor force was also assured to white Maryland widows.

Demographic disaster influenced inheritance patterns as profoundly as they influenced other aspects of Chesapeake life. Deceased husbands left young wives and children, often with few relatives to rely on, and thus chose to entrust the management of their entire estate to their widows. Even older men found themselves with few options as they sat down to write their wills, for in certain areas of the region two-thirds to three-quarters of all men making wills died before any children had come of age. The great majority of such men, anxious about their families, entrusted the future to their widows. In St. Marys and Charles Counties, Maryland, for example, almost 75 percent of the men who wrote wills left their wives more than dower thirds, and most named their wives executors of their estate. If, as one historian astutely remarked, wills "document the transfer of authority from one individual to another," Chesapeake women of the seventeenth century were empowered in their widowhood.

Is it enough to say that, lacking other options, a man was forced to place his estate in his widow's hands? Or was there more at work here than expediency? Reading the wills left by colonial men, historians have found an urgent desire to preserve the household after the husband's death. By leaving the entire house and lands rather than a portion of them to his widow, by giving her control over the family resources during her lifetime, a man guaranteed the security of his wife, kept the household under the authority of a parent, and ensured that his home would remain the focal point in the lives of his sons and daughters.

This insistence on the family as an economic and emotional unit runs like a leitmotif through seventeenth-century wills. Henry Clarke of Surrey County gave his wife a life estate in property that ultimately would belong to his son, Sampson. Yet Sampsonhad to "keep and maintain his mother" or lose his birthright. Laurence Simpson of Westermoreland County insisted that "Sons Michael, Rupert, and Matthew are to obey their mother, follow her orders, or they ar not to get their Land." And Daniel Reagan left "to eldest son Francis, 70 acres of Land, after decease of his mother," but, Reagan carefully added, "they must agree to live together." Such concern may be read in darker ways, of course. Were families so strife-ridden, were sons so avaricious and impatient, were the ties within these complex families of "now-wives and sons-in-law" so tenuous, the sense of obligation so weak, that a man had to stipulate respect and responsibility or expect its absence?

Other questions hang in the air. Some historians have argued that a husband's reliance on his widow to manage his estate reflected his respect for and confidence in her. These scholars have also emphasized the relative power and autonomy these widows enjoyed. Others, however, have read the evidence differently, reminding us that a "life estate" ensured, after all, that a woman's power would be temporary. She was a caretaker of property rather than an owner, and lost even that role when her children came of age.

It was true that men with heirs rarely gave their widows land in fee simple, that is, provided them outright possession of real property. No matter how loving or intimate their marriage, the bond between husband and wife was not a bond of blood. There was always a likelihood that the widow would carry his legacy with her into another family by remarriage, as was common in the multiple-marriage system of the Chesapeake. Even if she did not remarry, a woman who received land outright might choose to leave it to heirs outside a husband's bloodline. This is exactly what Joyce Cripps did in 1679, when she left land given to her by her second husband to the children of her first marriage. Indeed, men concerned about such matters of blood and property were uneasy about a traditionally unrestricted life estate. As the seventeenth century progressed, more men chose to severely restrict their wife's right to property. They stipulated that, should awoman remarry, her use of the land or house was to be rescinded. Thus, a widow's empowerment lasted only as long as widowhood. Mathias Marriott of Surrey County typified this trend when he wrote: "My Wife Alice to Have and enjoy the Land I live on for her widowhood. After her death or remarriage the Land is to return to my son Wm. Marriott."

For the present, the questions of a widow's familial authority and economic power remain moot. As daughters, however, Chesapeake women could look forward to a share of their father's material wealth that was perhaps unusual among the seventeenth-century English colonies. In the 1670s, in York, St. Marys, and Somerset Counties, Maryland, 40 percent of the daughters whose fathers left wills received both land and slaves. In a society where land was still plentiful, and relatives to care for a man's daughters were scarce, many fathers broke traditional patterns and endowed children of both sexes with the resources necessary to survive.

By placing Mary Cole Warren in this world of Chesapeake women, we can better imagine, though we cannot document, her life. We can picture her growing up in a world where native-born women married young, where families were rent by sudden death and reconstituted by speedy remarriage, and where the domain of women's work overlapped with men's out of necessity rather than preference. We can assume that her sense of loss at the death of her parents was modified by an understanding that such losses were commonplace. We also can assume she was relieved that her judicious father had left her both a dowry and decent guardians to protect her until she reached adulthood. We can chart her daily activities, placing her, like neighboring women, by her husband's side in the fields, pounding corn, weeding the garden, and cooking her husband's meals each day. We believe she expected to give birth to several children, although we do not know what children, if any, she bore. She was, we can be sure, surrounded by women for whom frequent pregnancies, miscarriages, births, and infant deaths were integral to the rhythm of their lives. And we can better understand how unique her marital history was as we place her in the context of the now-wives andsons-in-law that made up her community. Finally, and ironically, we know that, by dying before Ignatius Warren, Mary Cole never took on the most complex female role in this Chesapeake society—widowhood—which empowered women, both by giving them control over wealth and property and by assigning to them responsibilities their society preferred to reserve for men.

Copyright © 1996 by Carol Berkin

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 30, 2013

    Not what I expected

    She spends more time on the men than she does the women! I was expecting more.

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