Laws Governing Sex and Gender in Colonial New England

 

Taken from a production of The Scarlet Letter

< http://www.thescarletletter.com/thescarletletter/images/judgment_day_cropped.jpg>

 

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.

 

www.corbis.com

Adultery:

    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

Rape:

    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.

 

Bestiality:

    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.

 


http://mailer.fsu.edu/~jgm8530/Pathetique/sets%20and%20costumes/arrested%20-%20puritan%20-%20DYER_painting_sm.jpg

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

http://mag.rochester.edu/learn/teacherServices/onlineResources/copley/AboutFaceImages.html

 

 

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

 

 

http://www.capecodgravestones.com

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

 

Contracts:

    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

www.corbis.com

 

 

Courtship:

     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

 

Divorce:

     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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