In the eighteenth century, the family was the major unit of economic and social life. Families in Loyalist New Brunswick were almost always patriarchal in their structure; that is, a man was the head of the household and had authority over his wife, children, servants, slaves, and other kin living under his roof. While men were expected to operate in the public sphere of war, politics, and the professions, women’s place was deemed to be in the home. Even in farming families, men and women were socialized to work in separate spheres, as the dictum “women to the hearth, men to the plow” suggests.
The superior status of men in colonial society was sustained by custom, law, and religious injunction. According to British Common Law, which prevailed in New Brunswick, husband and wife were one legal entity. A woman could not sue her husband if he abused her because that would be, in legal terms, suing himself. He alone had the right to determine the fate of their children, and, upon marriage, his wife’s assets and subsequent earnings were under his control.
When her husband died, a woman was entitled, under the law of dower, to a life interest in one-third of her husband’s estate. Often a widow became a boarder in her own home which passed into the hands of one of her sons, rarely to a daughter. Although she is exceptional in that she eventually received compensation from the British government for her losses, Loyalist Polly Dibblee was typical in that she sought the assistance of her male relatives after the suicide of her husband in 1784. [Link] Few women in colonial society bothered to produce a will. An exception was African American Sylvia Johnson, who was childless. In 1801, following the death of her husband, she had a will drawn up to ensure that her property went to her friends. [Link]
In colonial society, single women theoretically had legal status equal to that of men, but they rarely exercised it. Even those few women who had the requisite property qualifications were denied the right to vote and to hold public office. Referred to as ‘spinsters’ or ‘old maids,’ unmarried women who failed to make the transition from a young maid to housewife were often the object of scorn.
The term “spinster” derives from the custom whereby unmarried female children were usually assigned the task of spinning the cloth essential for the family wardrobe. Spinsters Penelope and Sarah Winslow moved into their own house in Fredericton after the death of their mother in 1795. Already middle aged and the beneficiaries of a small annual pension, they had more independence than Hannah Ingraham experienced as a resident in her brother’s house after the death of her parents.
While a husband was the chief executive officer of the family corporation, his wife was deputized to function on behalf of the family when her husband was absent. Thus, we find women running businesses, petitioning governments, and selling the products of their labour – but as agents of the male head of household. As a result, it is sometimes difficult to discover the first names of women, who are acknowledged in public documents only as Mrs. John Smith.
Marriage was the most important event in the lives of most women in colonial society and all but about five percent of women married at some point in their lives. Only through marriage could a woman escape the authority of her father, take charge of important economic and social functions for her own family, and produce the next generation of family labour. In colonial society, large families were prized. Women of normal fertility on average bore a child about every two years and about one in twenty women died in childbirth. As Sarah Frost’s diary reminds us, many Loyalist women who arrived in New Brunswick had several children in tow – their cries on board ship, she noted, were driving her crazy – and would soon give birth to more. [Link]
Life expectancy generally was much shorter in colonial times than it is today. One child in five died before its first birthday and diseases such as cholera, smallpox, and typhoid took an enormous toll on people of every age. Even simple infections were often fatal. Five of Edward Winslow’s children predeceased him and Mary Winslow Miller lost seven of her children to an early death. For boys and girls who survived their first vulnerable year, life expectancy was, on average, about 50 years.
Although some women, most notably those in elite families, sometimes married when they were still in their teens, most women were well into their 20s when they married, usually to men several years older than themselves. Later marriages were a form of birth control in societies where pre-marital sex was frowned upon. For people of modest means, youth was a time to accumulate the resources necessary to buy land and establish a household. Young, unmarried women performed domestic work at home or in the homes of neighbours or relatives, thus learning the skills of housewifery. In their spare time, they produced quilts, linens, and other household items for their “hope chests.”
Women’s status in colonial society was derived primarily from their roles as bearers and nurturers of children, producers of food and warm clothing, and caregivers for the young, old, and sick. Without modern conveniences, women worked hard to produce the wool and linen cloth needed for sturdy coats, trousers, dresses, and underwear; to dry, salt, and store provisions for winter; and to make meals for large families over open hearths. Women in the eighteenth century provided most of a family’s medical care and prepared bodies for burial. Another dictum from this period – “women’s work is never done” – captures the essence of women’s labour in preindustrial society.
In the eighteenth century, literacy was an asset but not an essential requirement for doing the work assigned to most women. Nevertheless, by the end of the eighteenth century, women in colonial North America were reaching high levels of literacy, using their skills to read religious and popular literature pouring off British presses; to write letters, diaries, and poetry; and sometimes, as in the case of Deborah Cottnam, [Link] to earn their living as a teacher, one of the few public professions, other than midwifery, open to women.
It is from the pen of Loyalist Rebecca Byles, who took courses at Cottnam’s school in Halifax, that we receive this comment on the gendered nature of education in colonial America. Boys, she maintained, were poorly educated in the colonies because they were “all intended for the Army or Navy, or some Post under Government, where neither Knowledge or Honesty are required.” Indeed, she continued, “they retard a persons advancement: to Dance, make a genteel Bow, fill up a printed Message Card, and sign a receipt for their Pay, Compleat their Education, & they step forth accomplished Gentlemen.” In contrast, she argued, “Girls . . . have the best Education the place affords, and the accomplishment of their Minds is attended to as well as the adorning of their Persons; in a few years I expect to see Women fill the most important Offices in Church and State.” Byles also noted that she had read John Gregory’s A Father’s Legacy to His Daughters (1774), which was a widely-read advice book for young “ladies” in the late eighteenth century. [Link].
One group of women for whom most of the above generalizations do not apply were enslaved African Americans who lived in Loyalist New Brunswick. Subject to the dictates of their owners, who sold them at will, slaves rarely had the opportunity to form stable families. Slave masters believed that they had the right to sexual relations with their chattel, as seems to be the case in the Winslow family. [Link] Known primarily by their first names, slaves had few legal rights and were often treated brutally by their owners. The life expectancy of slaves was short, due in part to the hard work they were forced to do and an inadequate diet.