Laws Governing Sex and Gender in Colonial New England


Taken from a production of The Scarlet Letter



Marvelous it may be to see and consider how some kind of wickedness did grow and break forth here, in a land where the same was so much

witnessed against and so narrowly looked unto, and severely punished when it was known, as in no place more, or so much, that I have known

or heard of.


William Bradford, 1642


I. Punishment for Sexual Deviancy


Most crimes committed in New England were sex crimes. Laws were made in accordance with Puritan religious and moral

beliefssex crimes were looked upon as a threat to the social order. Sex crimes were usually defined as those that took place

outside of marriage. Some examples of sex crimes are: fornication, bastardy, adultery, and rape.


    Made capital crime by Massachusetts Bay General Court in 1631


    Difference between reality and the rhetoric of punishment


    Usually punished by fine and public whipping


    Man was required to pay child support if child was born


    Plymouth-whipping and wearing of AD letters on clothing

       Hawthorne-used this as the basis for the Scarlet Letter


    Capital Crime


    Rarely prosecuted as rape


    Usually prosecuted as abduction


    Rape was sometimes punished by banishment for the colony


    Fines and public whippings were employed more frequently for both parties involved


    The victim and the initiator of sexual activity were encouraged to marry if they were unmarried.


Fornication and Bastardy:

    Punishment by fines and whippings


    Man was required to pay child support if child was born


Sodomy was usually punished by execution.

    Sometimes punishments were less severe and consisted of some form of public humiliation, especially if it was female sodomy.



    Execution was the prescribed punishment for bestiality.


    The animal involved was killed and its parts were buried and not used for food.


Lascivious carriage:

    Lascivious carriage emcompassed a large variety of sexual behavior deemed inappropriate by Puritan moral codes.


    Lewd behavior


    Suspicious contact between men and women

       One unmarried couple was charged because they saw each other at a suspicious time of night


    Those convicted of lascivious carriage were whipped in public


    Intent was to prevent adultery, fornication from occurring.

Paining of Puritan woman being arrested


Mens and womens sexual transgressions were usually equally punished, but the Puritans emphasized

the womans offense more than the mans offense. A mans offense was just considered a violation of his

marriage, while a womans offense was considered a violation of her marriage and an offense against the

community. Women were blamed more for illegal sexual activity because they were considered to be

ruled by their emotions, while men were considered to be governed by reason.


II. Legal Status of Men and Women in Marriage


Mr. and Mrs. Thomas Mifflin, John Singleton Copley, 1773, Oil on ticking, 60 x 48" Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia, PA



Men held most of the power in Puritan society. Only widows could hold property and Puritan wives only

held limited legal authority in certain areas, such as the right to make contracts.



Only men hold political power in a marriage since Puritan society was a patriarchy.


    Men head of household


    Wives were under legal entity of their husbands


    Usually only men were allowed to hold property

Colonial Era gravestone in a Cape Cod cemetery

The death of their husbands often left women as head of households.


Widows posed a problem for Puritans since female heads of households did not fit into hierarchy.

    Widows Allowed to keep one third of husbands assets at the time of his death



    England-women not allowed to make contracts


    Women gain more power in America to make contracts


    Widows agree to contracts with their new husbands


    Gained rights to transfer land


Rights held jointly between husband and wife

    Tavern Licenses since a man could have the right to operate a tavern without a wife


    Required to have consent of husband and wife to send a child to orphanage




     Young men and young women needed parental permission to court and marry


     Only magistrates could perform legal marriages


     Marriages not meeting legal requirements resulted in fines


     Requirements eased over time



     Married couples were legally required to live together


     Spouses living apart created grounds for a divorce


     Impotence in either partner created grounds for a divorce


     Adultery a threat to marriage-but divorces usually not granted because

of adultery


     Divorces were not granted because of abuse

        Abuser was usually whipped in public



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