Women’s life in the 18th Century
30 April 2012
During the 18th century, the women’s role and work was extremely difficult, exhausting, and society was unappreciative. For poor families in colonial times, women’s full time job was homemaking. Poor housewives had to cook meals, make clothing, and doctor their family on top of cleaning, making household goods to use and sell, taking care of their animals, maintaining a fire and even tending to the kitchen gardens. Middle class and wealthy women also shared some of these chores in their households, but they often had servants to help them.
Both men and women had great social pressure on them to marry. Young girls were often married by the age of 13 or 14 and if women weren’t married by the age of 25, it was socially humiliating. Marriage was mostly for economic benefits, not romantic situations. Widows were also pressured to get married as soon as possible. Even in some states, laws were proposed that would force widows to marry within 7 years after their husband’s death. Widows, however, were often married within a year if not sooner.
Women were considered legally dead once they were married under common. Once married, they legally became one with their husbands. Married women had no control of their earnings, inheritance, property, and also could not appear in court as a witness nor vote.
Their husbands, therefore, were responsible for all aspects of their wife including discipline. Widows were better off. They had control over their
property, but could only receive up to one-third of her late husband’s property. A widow could also vote in some areas, but often widows were not aware of this fact or chose not to. Husbands could legally beat their wives. If a woman ran away from her husband, she was considered a thief because she was stealing the clothes she was wearing and herself. If a man murdered his wife, he would be hung. If a woman murdered her husband, she would be burned alive.
The Revolutionary War brought women into many new causes. Although women’s organizations had begun to appear in the late 1600’s, it wasn’t until the mid 1700’s that these organizations involved politics. In 1766, “Sons of Liberty” and “Daughter’s of Liberty” started to appear throughout the country. Right away, the Daughter’s of Liberty was very active. When Americans began to boycott British clothing and materials, these women organizations spun clothing for their community. Also, when tea was taxed, women began a boycott and even went on to form anti-tea leagues.
In January 1770, 538 Boston women signed an agreement, vowing not to drink tea so long as it was taxed. These women organizations also played a large role during the war. Clothing and other materials were needed to clothe Patriot soldiers, so women got together to spin and sew uniforms.
Women also wrote pieces in the local newspapers about the war, held scrap drives and even made cartridges. Sybil Ludington, the 16-year-old daughter of a patriot general, commanded a Patriot militia unit and rode over 40 miles in the dark of the night to wake the minutemen. Women loyalists also played some part in the war. One loyalist women’s organization raised enough money to buy a ship and outfit it as a privateer to fight against the Patriots. Most women loyalist organizations failed to stay active, although some loyalists acted as spies and letter carriers for the English.
With all the war, violence, and fighting between the French, English, Americans, native Americans, men and women alike had to learn and use some sort of protection. Colonial women knew how to threaten force and even kill someone in defense. Guns were owned by just a few, so women grew accustomed to using axes, knifes, gardening and household tools for defense.
After the war was over and the government began to write laws and the Constitution. Women began to focus on changing the common law of total male superiority. Abigail Adams wrote a letter to her own husband, who was on the on the Continental Congress. The letter pleaded for Congress to “Remember the Ladies” when writing to new Constitution. Her husband insured her that the ladies would be taken care of, but the common law would not be changed. Also after the war, more educational opportunities became available to upper class girls. They would often be taught reading, writing, math, as well as other subjects like geometry, foreign languages, music, drawing, and dancing. Other women often times were educated in reading and writing and even picked up on Greek, Latin, and math.
Although colonial times were hard on women, it prepared them for the coming age. Women were ready for change.