Professor Carol Berkin
    Colonial Women
    April 6, 1999

    Carol Berkin is Professor of History at Baruch College and CUNY Graduate Center. She is an expert on the subject of women's history in colonial American. She has written widely on the subject in several books including "First Generations — Women in Colonial American," "Women's Voices/Women's Lives: Documents in Early American History" and "Women, War and Revolution." Through her research, Professor Berkin has brought vivid portraits of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century women as active participants in the creation of their societies.


    US Hello Everyone. It is April 6, 1999 at 1pm eastern time. We are pleased to introduce Carol Berkin, Professor of History at Baruch College and CUNY Graduate Center. It is a beautiful day in Manhattan.
    Ques Did women play any political role in the American Revolution?
    Berkin They did not play a formal political role because they were not seen as full citizens with political rights. Colonial society believed that women were represented by their husbands or their fathers in public affairs. But, during the Pre-Revolutionary period, the leaders called on all citizens to assist them in protesting "English oppression." Women were called on to boycott English manufactured goods. And this was the most powerful weapon in the colonies.
    tinky1 Could women become professionals? Did they become lawyers or doctors?
    Berkin Good question. Doctors were not professionals in Colonial Society. Midwives were, and they did most of the doctoring. Neither were lawyers, by the way. They were just beginning to become a profession at the eve of the Revolution. But, when women were in professions, such as printer or blacksmith, it was because their husband had died and their sons were not yet old enough to take over the business. That was part of a wife's job, assisting her husband, even as a widow.
    shs What roles did women fill in when there was a demand on men during the war? Were there any Rosie the Riveters?
    Berkin Yes, there was a "Rosie the Riveter." Women were often thought of as surrogates or deputies for their husbands. So, when a farmer went to war, his wife managed the farm. When a shopkeeper went to war, his wife took over the shop. Women began to talk about the farm first as "your farm" but later as "our farm" and after years of managing it on their own, as "my farm."
    shs So there was some advancement in women's rights at least for some?
    Berkin Not so much in their rights as in the range of their experiences. The test of whether their rights were expanded would be what happened after the men came home. In almost all cases, women returned to what were considered "female duties."
    Ques What was the most common occupation for women in Colonial times?
    Berkin Running a household was what most white women could expect to do as their career. But, remember this wasn't just cleaning and cooking. This was skilled craft work. They were the manufacturers of most of what the family needed to survive. They made candles, cloth, cheese, butter. You couldn't just eat the crops that a man grew in the field.
    Jayne Professor Berkin, we sometimes hear about relations between Indians and colonists, but only between the men. Did the women ever get together and share recipes and the like?
    Berkin Interesting question, Jayne. There was very little contact because Indian women weren't housekeepers or housewives. They were the farmers in their communities. The roles of white women and Indian women and the power they had were vastly different. Captured white women often preferred life with the Indian tribe to life in Colonial society.
    shs Why would white women have this preference?
    Berkin Because they had more power.
    Jayne Did Indian women have a lot of power? Did white women know that and what did they think about that?
    Berkin Their children belonged to them and not their husbands. They worked together in the fields and didn't feel isolated as Colonial housewives often did. In tribes that were hunting tribes, like the Hurons, women didn't have great power. But in agricultural tribes, such as the Iroquois, they did. They controlled the food supply. Men couldn't go to war if the women refused to give them supplies. Colonial women did not really know about that, though. Only those who had been captured in raids spent any time learning about what most white settlers considered a "savage" culture.
    Ques What were the duties besides wife and mother that women were expected to fulfill?
    Berkin They were, especially in New England, expected to be good neighbors, and good Christians. This meant helping out in a crisis and acts of charity and piety.
    Ques What about slave women? What was their life like?
    Berkin White society believed men should farm and women work in the home. But slave women were routinely sent to work in the fields. Notions of femininity didn't apply if you were an African-American. In fact, slave women did most of the most difficult labor.
    xena It seems that women back then had really big families. Did they have any choice in those decisions?
    Berkin Very little. Women started their families often before they were married. 60% of all Puritan brides were already pregnant. They had children every 2-1/2 years. Right up until they couldn't have any anymore. Often, mothers and their grown daughters were nursing babies at the same time.
    shs What was infant/child mortality?
    Berkin It was very different in the 17th century than in the 18th, and very different in the south than in the north. In the south, men and women only lived to be 40. About 1/4 of all children died in infancy. Another 1/4 never lived to be teenagers. In the north, the climate was very healthy. People lived longer than in England and some historians say that grandparents were a New England invention. Most children lived to be adults. What killed children most were simple childhood diseases that we can cure today easily.
    xena Did they get in trouble for having sex before marriage?
    Berkin No, as long as there was marriage. The concern was to make sure there were no dependent mothers and children in the community. And, Puritans believed that once you published your banns (announced your engagement), then you could have sex.
    Jayne But they still had to live in their family homes until they were married, right? Where did they find privacy?
    Berkin Colonists didn't have the same sense of privacy that we do. In the 17th century, the entire family and the servants all slept in one room. Often, the parents and the children slept in one bed. There was no such thing as a teenager having privacy. So, sex was more public, in a sense, than today.
    Jayne But if you were engaged, would your boyfriend sleep over?
    Berkin When a boy came to court or visit his sweetheart, it was after dark when field work was done. Even in New England, there was still wild animals roaming about. So, he rarely went home. He slept over and families sometimes put a "bundling board" between the boy and the girl. The "bundling board" was just a piece of wood that divided the family from the visitor.
    tinky Did women have access to the legal system? Could they sue people or divorce their husband?
    Berkin Good question. Divorce was very rare in Colonial America. It was hard for both men and women. In Puritan New England, you could get a divorce if someone couldn't have children. Most colonies granted what we would call "permanent separations" but neither party could remarry. Many men and some women "divorced" their spouse by leaving town or the colony. Bigamy was a big social problem. Single women could sue in courts, but married women could only sue in court with their husband's permission.
    Ques Witchcraft was almost universally attributed to women. Why?
    Berkin It was assumed, in Colonial America, that women were morally weaker than men. The story of Eve and her temptation in the Garden of Eden seemed to prove this to most English people. So, it was assumed that women would be won over by the devil to witchcraft more readily than men. But often if they suspected a group of witches existed, they looked for a man to be their leader.
    Ques There must have been some educated women in colonial times — who were they and what were their accomplishments?
    Berkin Okay, yes, there were some educated women. It would help to be from a very wealthy family, of course. Some women were educated by their fathers because they had no brothers. Women's historians have nicknamed this pattern "the renaissance syndrome" because fathers in renaissance Italy also sometimes educated their daughters. If there were no sons. Anne Hutchinson is a good example. A married woman was considered feme covert, or "woman covered" (by a man) in all public matters. She, like idiots and children, was "non compos mentis" (not mentally competent) with duties and some privileges. Men were supposed to take care of, and support, their wives and children. Women were supposed to obey their husbands. Thus, men were expected to speak for the family in the courts, in politics, and in other public places. Men knew women were smart, or competent, but they could not go off acting independently if social order were going to be maintained.
    shs Why was Anne Hutchinson banished?
    Berkin She was challenging the Puritan authorities, the government authorities, and inviting people to think for themselves.
    shs How do you go from being competent before marriage to incompetent after?
    Berkin (Laughter). This was hierarchical society which meant that everybody was supposed to have an assigned place. This is hard for us to understand, I know.
    xena How come in all the history books that i read there are never women mentioned or maybe just Betsy Ross.
    Berkin When I was going to school, there were no women in American history, except perhaps Martha Washington and Betsy Ross. And, when I went to graduate school, we were expected to write books about men just like the ones we had read. Happily, some of us said no. As a result, you have the chance to read about famous women and ordinary ones; urban women and frontier settlers; artists, poets, and political reformers. The women I study — colonial women — may have had few rights and few economic opportunities, but we now consider their experiences and their contributions as important to understand as those of their husbands, fathers, and sons. They were skilled craftswomen, talented parents, religious thinkers, resourceful women who could take over their husbands' duties and continue to perform their own. And, in the Revolution they proved they were politically aware — and many were active patriots, fighting for independence. We have just begun to discover what their lives can tell us. I certainly hope some of you will take up the task of learning more.
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