The Changing Roles of Women
Life in the American colonies between 1600 and 1780, the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries was profoundly influenced by the nearness of the people and the soil. During the colonial period, even the largest cities were never vary far removed from the backcountry farms that supported them with agricultural and household industry products. Townspeople were in close daily contact with farmers for their survival. Farmers relied on the nearest town to market their goods, and city dwellers or merchants relied on goods produced from the farm to maintain their businesses. (Wright 2) The interdependency of these cultures and family units ensured physical survival for all involved.
Only the family unit itself made survival during these times economically feasible due to the vast territory between farms, cities, and the lack of infrastructure. Society and the economy at the time were geared only to accept family units, and not the single individual due to the unsettled environment of the colonies. If there were free single men or women employed by households or businesses this was rare. The role of women in this society was critical to its success, although much has not been written regarding their critical roles and their contributions. Men cleared the land and women saw to the household and reproduction needs of the family. Both functions and roles supported one another and were paramount to the family’s survival.
The basic family unit included the husband, wife, children, and slaves or apprentices. This family unit might include children from previous marriages, and apprentices might be neighbors or related family members. (Crawford 74) Of particular interest were women and their roles in the family unit at the time. The major roles for women included that of "wife" and "mother." Wifehood and motherhood were regarded as women's most significant professions during this period.
Maternity and childrearing, the natural biological role of women, was traditionally regarded as their major social role. (Booth 157) For the majority of women during this period their time and efforts centered on the home. Men were the heads of the household and women acted in a supporting role to the family unit. If a woman did not have a husband, she was probably assisting a parent, relation, or master, but this was rare. Women fed the family, made clothing and household goods, cleaned house and clothing, cared for and raised the children, and served as nurse and midwife to other family units and members. Few household items were purchased, and most items were manufactured in the home. Pots and pans, cutlery, salt, and tea would come from shops (most likely these were imported goods), but candles; soap, clothing, and food were domestic products that took countless hours of work to produce. Life and its daily routine were labor-intensive for most women in the beginning of this century.
Diaries of women in...