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Women of Early America AP US


Women during the colonial period experienced far less equality then they do today. Women were expected to completely submit to their husbands and tend to the household. However, the independence a woman enjoyed often depended heavily upon several factors. The society in which a woman lived, her social class, and her ideological upbringing controlled the amount of independence she experienced.

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The amount of independence women had varied based on the society in which they lived. Some societies were harsher towards women than were others. Margaret Hardenbroek lived in the Dutch outpost of New Amsterdam where she acted as an agent to a cousin who was an Amsterdam trader. She established a successful trade business and eventually ventured into furs and was highly the successful. All the while she was readily accepted by her peers. Soon, however, the English took control of New Amsterdam. English law had a far different view from that of the Dutch as to how women should behave. Margaret’s participation in a male dominated marketplace was not accepted by members of English society. English law required that all of her lands must be held under her husbands’ name and it became increasingly harder to do business without the aid of her husband. Margaret was eventually forced into the role as a submissive wife, as opposed to almost being his lawful equal, which she had been under Dutch rule. Sociological differences during colonial America had a large effect on a woman’s independence.

Social classes completely controlled the options people had during the colonial time period. This was especially true with women. Women of the lower classes could only hope to marry a man of moderate success and have lots of children. For women of the lower classes to display entrepreneurial initiative would have been socially unacceptable. The women of the lower classes were expected to concentrate on the home. However, women of upper classes experienced less social restrictions. Wealthy women occasionally ran the family business, as was the case of Eliza Lucas. With his wife in bad health and he having to go overseas with the military, George Lucas left control of his large plantation in the hands of his teen daughter, Eliza. Eliza was highly successful in the running of the plantation. Not only did she spend significant time doing the work required to run a large plantation but she also was well trained in the social aspects expected of Virginia planter’s daughter. Had Eliza been of a lower social class, such as the daughter of a small farmer, the society would not have accepted her leading a business life. Women of the wealthy experienced much greater equality than did women of more humble socioeconomic upbringing. The family in which a woman was born determined whether or not she could even give a good attempt at independence.

The family in which a person grows up in has a huge effect on the values that said person has when they grow up. A person who is raised in a conservative family is likely to be conservative themselves when they grow up. Similarly a person raised in a liberal family will likely grow up to be liberal. Such is the case with how women viewed their independence. Most women were taught at an early age that their primary function was that of mother and housewife. Because most women were taught that they should depend on their husband few took the initiative to act independently. The women who did act independently as adults were raised the ones raised with the belief that they had the right to be independent. Eliza Lucas was taught by her father the agricultural and financial aspects of how to run a plantation, something few planters taught their daughters. When the opportunity came for Eliza to run the plantation she was completely capable. Had she not been taught that she could assert herself outside the house she would never have been able to undertake something as complicated as running a successful plantation. The ideological beliefs with which women were raised had a great effect on how much independence they experienced later in life.

Most women of colonial America were confined to the business of raising children and running the house. However, women of high economic standing who lived in an accepting society and were raised with beliefs which supported women’s right to live independently were the women that experienced independence. For the women who did not fall into that category it would be several hundred years before they saw the same opportunities.

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