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A Woman’s Role in the Colonial Period
A Woman’s Role in the Colonial Period

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During the colonial period, granted the role of homemaker and mother, a woman was the center of the household. A woman was to immerse herself into the home and subordinate herself to her husband. However, as time progresses and the nineteenth century opens, the woman begins to work outside the home and emerges to breathe the air of freedom and self-determination.
In the early history of the colonies, women married prematurely which increased the birthrate. Women generally married a man for financial support and security. Women wed by their early twenties and gave birth to children every two years until menopause. A woman could expect to experience up to ten pregnancies and have as many as eight surviving children. A New England woman might have dependent children living in her home until the day of her death, and child nurturing practically became her full-time occupation.
During the Revolutionary era, most of the women were still doing the traditional women’s work. However, some women, disguised as men, managed to serve in the military, and New Jersey’s new constitution in 1776 temporarily gave women the right to vote. Women did not go untouched by the Revolutionary ideas and beliefs. The unselfish devotion of a mother to her family was often cited as the very model of proper republican behavior. So therefore, the idea of “republican motherhood” as a result derived, elevating women to a newly high-status role as the special keepers of the nation’s conscience.
As Americans began to settle beyond the Appalachian Mountains, life was depressing for most pioneer families. Poorly fed, scantily dressed, housed in hastily erected shanties, they were perpetual victims of disease, depression, and premature death. Unbearable loneliness haunted women settlers who were often cut off from human contact, even their neighbors, for even days or even weeks, while confined to a small, cramped, dimly lit cabin in an almost completely secluded area. Breakdowns and even madness were all too frequently the “opportunities” that the frontier offered to pioneer women.
While manufacturing spread across the country, women were pulled toward the clanging mechanism of factory production. They toiled six days a week, earning a meager amount for tedious periods of twelve or thirteen hours. Opportunities for women to be economically self-supporting were scarce and consisted mainly of nursing, domestic service, and especially teaching. About 10 percent of white women were working for pay outside their own homes in 1850, and estimates are that about 20 percent of all women had been employed at some time prior to marriage. The vast majority of working women were single. Upon marriage, they left their paying jobs and took up their new work, without wages, as wives and mothers. In the home they were preserved in a “cult of domesticity.” From their platform, married women commanded immense moral power, and they increasingly made decisions that changed the character of the family itself. Women’s changing roles and the spreading of the industrial revolution brought some important changes in the life of the nineteenth century home. Love, not parent “arrangement”, more frequently determined the choice of a spouse. Families became more closely knit and affectionate, providing the emotional retreat that made the menacing impersonality of big-city industrialism tolerable to many people. Most striking, families grew smaller. The average household had nearly six members at the end of the eighteenth century but fewer than five members a century later. The number of births among women aged 14 to 45, dropped sharply among white women in the years after the Revolution and, in the course of the nineteenth century as a whole, fell by half. Women played a large part in decisions to have fewer children. This newly aggressive role for women has been called “domestic feminism”, because it signified the growing power and independence of women, even while they remained trapped in the “cult of domesticity”. Smaller families, in turn, meant child-centered families, since where children are fewer, parents can lavish more care on them individually. The outlines of the “modern” family were clear by mid-century: it was small, affectionate, child-centered, and provided a special arena for the talents of women.
When the nineteenth century opened, it was still a man’s world, in both America and Europe. Despite these relative advantages, women were still the inundated sex in America in the early part of the century. Women were thought to be physically and emotionally weak, but also artistic and superior. Some women increasingly felt that the glorified sanctuary of the home was in fact in a gilded cage. Boisterous female reformers began to gather strength as the century neared its halfway point.

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