If you were an English colonial woman in North America, would you rather have been single, married, or widowed? Your essay should discuss the status (legal rights, social standing, etc.) of women in all three categories and make a case for why you would prefer to be one to the others.
During the colonial era, being a woman, whether a slave or not, was unfortunate since women were being treated more as property than independent human beings. For English women, it was even worse because the British society had a stern patriarchal system, both at home and in its foreign colonies. However, being a man or woman is not much of a choice but one has an option of either remaining single, getting married or continue being a widow after the demise of a husband. If I were an English colonial woman in North America, I would rather remain a widow than remarry or remain single. The choice would not be perfect but the conditions and reality of the alternatives status justify it. The following is a comprehensive analysis of these statuses.
Under the English customary law of coverture, which was followed by almost all the British colonies in North America, the husband immediately absorbed a womans legal identity after marriage. A married woman became a Feme covert meaning that she no longer had a separate legal identity and therefore could not sue or even vote. After marriage, she did not have a right to own property or engage in any business contracts. The literature has it that the husband had even control of her body. For instance, if a woman was taken to court for adultery charges and found guilty, the husband was the one to bear the punishment for the vice. Essentially, she was a mans property with little or no independence.
The quality of life for a married woman hugely depended on whom she got married to after the indentured servitude. Those who married their former masters became mistresses of the servants. The roles of the formally women servants would change from heavy toiling in the tobacco to conducting business and trade when their husbands were not around. For those who were married to less privileged men, who were the majority before the codification of permanent slavery for the African slaves compared to their former masters, the load did not lighten. There were additional responsibilities of giving birth and taking care of the children as well as working in the fields. This shows that a woman getting married, except the few who were lucky to marry the planter class, would further strip off their individual rights and make her a mans property.
Being a single woman in North America was definitely a good trade-off nonetheless. At Chesapeake, a single woman was entitled to Feme sole, a status that gave them individual rights before the law of the land. The Feme solo rights allowed them to sue or be sued, vote and even hold public offices. A married woman would not enjoy all these freedoms. A good example of a single woman who became very successful in Chesapeake was Margaret Brent. Together with her sister, she was able to amass a lot of wealth including landholdings because she had rights to engage in contracts, reclaim debts in courts and even conduct her business without interference and burden of a husband. Her case was however not a typical one for every single woman during the era. She was a well-connected English Catholic. This is a major factor to consider as most of the women, over three quarters, came in as indentured servants. They were sent to tobacco farms to plant seedlings, hoe, weed out and during harvesting, they would strip and process the leaves for the market. The harsh conditions of servitude discouraged any efforts of an ordinary woman towards becoming a successful independent single woman in North America. Living as a single woman was likely to extend the harsh life as shown in The Distressed Damsel where a woman servant laments being betrayed by her employer. According to the book, women viewed marriage as a mark of freedom from the harsh labor, because they could not be allowed to marry during the indenture period. They now could get pregnant without fear of public whooping or fine, as well as, being rescued from the prevalent sexual exploitation during servitude. From a realistic point of view, if I were not a well-connected single woman like Brent, I would definitely fall in the category of three-quarter indentured women who went through all manners of abuse including sexual exploitation. At this point, I would rather be married than spend the rest of life suffering injustices in a patriarchal system that objectified women.
When the husband died, the widow was entitled to at least a third of the familys estate, as a dower right to sustain her for the rest of her life. They had the option of either remarrying or remaining as widows. For those who chose to remain as widows, the law granted them the Feme sole status, which gave them back their individual rights. Most of the husbands left a higher portion of their property to their wives because there were so many uncertainties about their children making it into adult hood. The Feme solo rights made it possible for women to act on their own, ran printing establishments, inns and taverns without their efforts being stifled by egotistic husbands .The testimony of Ann Pollard [by my] own proper gettings by my Labor and Industry [the estate of my husband] is Considerably Advanced and bettereddemonstrated how proud the widows were in their capacities to administer their holdings. In spite of who a widow had been married to before the demise, the dower they received ensured that they had a decent chance of remarrying to a well of husband hence their economic future was secured.
From the comprehensive analysis of the three status cases, it is clear that the environment was too harsh for a single woman to survive through without a man at some juncture in their lifetime. Unless she was from the minority wealthy families, it would be difficult for an ordinary woman to paddle through the patriarchal system that considered women as inferiors. Getting married on the other hand cost a woman her identity and the fundamental rights of even dictating what they could do with their bodies. It would be sad to live the entire life at the mercies of a man even if they provided for family. As an English woman, I would love to own property, be free to make own decisions, have freedom over my personal life and engagements, and ultimately have a secure financial future. These would only be possible if I was a widow during the colonial period.
DuBois, Ellen Carol, and Lynn Dumenil. Through Women's Eyes: An American History with Documents. Bedford/St. Martin's, 2005
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