Gender Roles in Colonial America



The Importance of Gender Roles

v     Firmly established gender roles helped maintain strong family structures

o       Strong family structures were necessary because the family was the basis for all other institutions. The government, church and community all worked through the nuclear family unit.



Male Roles

“I am perpetually taken up giving out orders, in prescribing duties, in hearing parties [disputes], in administering justice, and in distributing rewards and punishments…In short, I look upon my family as a patriarchal sovereign, in which I am myself both king and priest.” – 1712 Spectator magazine contributor


Thomas Amory II Painted by John Singleton Copley, 1770-1772. Oil on Canvas, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington DC



v    Growing up Male

o       As children, boys would have learned what it meant to be a man from the example of their fathers.

o       They also would have read the lengthy instruction in proper behavior in The New England Primer.

o       Once they were apprenticed, boys were expected to learn and perform the duties of adult tradesmen.


v    What it meant to “Be a Man” in Colonial Society

o       To have social power - As Colonial society was intensely patriarchal, men enjoyed power in both private and public life.

o       To be educated – Boys were able to attend grammar schools and attain a college education if their families could afford it.

o       To contribute to the community – In general, the products of men’s labor were enjoyed by the whole community.

o       To participate in government – Men could serve as public officials, or simply participate in government by voting.

o       To own property – Men inherited and bought land much more frequently than women did. A man’s right to vote also necessitated owning land in the early Colonial period.

o       To maintain a family – Men were expected to provide adequately for their families and to control the behavior of their families. Men were seen to be the representatives for their families in public.


v    Passing on Knowledge

o       Men assisted their wives in the literacy instruction of their young children.

o       Once children had mastered basic literacy, fathers took on the responsibility of teaching them writing and mathematics, skills they would need later in life.



Female Roles

“Let your Dress, your Conversation and the whole Business of your life be to please your husband and make him happy.”


Mrs. David Simmons Painted by John Singleton Copley


v    Growing up Female

o       Girls learned their gender roles from the example of their mothers.

o       They were also informed by the Primer (to a lesser extent than boys) what it meant to be good or bad.

o       By the age of thirteen, girls were expected to share in all the tasks of adult women.


v    What it meant to be a Woman in Colonial Society

o       To maintain household order – Women took care of young children, bought and prepared food, directed the activities of indentured servants or slaves, and performed all manner of other household chores.

o       To encourage faith and moral development - Mothers were often the primary spiritual instructors in the home, especially in the latter part of the Seventeenth Century.

o       To be subordinate to men – A woman’s identity and property were always connected with the men in her life. As a child, she would have been subordinate to her father. Upon marriage, she would have become a feme covert; her identity and property then transferred to her husband.


v    Women’s Work

o       Women living in the country were expected to do their productive work inside the home. Generally this work was done for the benefit of the family, and not the outside world. “Women’s Work” would have included such activities as spinning, weaving and churning.

o       Women living in cities would have engaged in similar tasks, but also had the option of hiring themselves out in the community. These women would have served as seamstresses or nurses.

o       Midwives – Prior to the mid Eighteenth Century, female midwives attended to the births of children.

o       Feme Sole Traders – Some women did run their own business establishments. Known as “Feme Sole Traders”, these women had no other means of supporting themselves. The town councils granted them the right to own a business to keep them off public relief.


v    Passing on Knowledge

o       Mothers who could read taught that skill to all their children.

o       Women were in charge of the education of their daughters in all matters female.



Enforcing Gender Roles


v    The Quaker meeting

o       Quaker communities often met as separate men’s and women’s meetings.

o       Men’s meetings discouraged masters from owning slaves, disciplined husbands and fathers for abuse of wives and children, punished fornication, and dealt with other organizational and judicial aspects of Quaker community life.

o       Women’s meetings assumed the responsibility for monitoring family life, mediating family disputes, and disciplining members who stepped out of line. They also approved marriages before any ceremony took place


v     The Courts

o       Many legal cases admonished adult men and women for not behaving as they should.

The Copley Family Painted by John Singleton Copley, 1776-1777 Oil on Canvas, National Gallery of Art, Washington DC




Breaking the Roles


v    Public Misbehavior

o       Men did not often step outside of their traditional gender roles. There was simply no need for it. They enjoyed all the freedom they wanted.

o       Women, however, lacked the same type of freedom, and often got into trouble for achieving positions of power.

v     Sectarian churches – The Methodists, African Methodists, the Freewill and Separate Baptists, and the Quakers all allowed women into the pulpit. This was the highest position in any Protestant church that women could hope to achieve.

v     Itinerant Preaching – A female itinerant preacher would have traveled about the colonies preaching the word of God as she understood it. With no place to call home, these women were often seen as vagrants bound to disturb the morality of the towns they visited. Consequently, female preachers faced jeers, catcalls and all manner of other abuse from the citizens of the towns they visited. Sometimes the preachers’ sexuality was questioned as well because public speaking was seen as a very un-feminine activity.

v     Anne Hutchinson – Although she was not allowed to speak in church because of her gender, she felt certain that Biblical teachings entitled her to freedom of speech in private confines. Consequently, Hutchinson often invited people to her home to discuss sermons and spiritual matters. The church leaders were shocked by her behavior. Despite her insistence that her actions were defended by scripture, they tried her as a heretic and removed her from Massachusetts Bay.


v    Punishment

o       Women who stepped outside of the traditional gender roles were especially dangerous. They represented a world turned upside down; a world in which men simply were unable to make sense of their position. Men had been socialized from birth to be in control of their families and society. Their collective insecurity about their social place contributed to their harsh treatment of women who stepped outside the traditional gender roles of Colonial life.

o       Women who “broke the roles” faced public ridicule, and occasional legal admonishment for their actions.

o       In the late 1600s, trials for fornication and infanticide specifically directed at women increased.

o       And of course, the fail-safe plan for dealing with women in power: Witchcraft accusations. This punishment was particularly effective because the woman accused was rarely able to gain public support for her cause.



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