In colonial America, the experiences of women and children varied widely, among ethnic and social groups, and from colony to colony. They had fewer rights than women and children do today, yet they had many responsibilities and activities that contributed to their families and communities.

The first European women who came to the Southern colonies were indentured servants, arriving in the Jamestown colony in the early 1600s. Though the “ideal” European family was headed by a man who presided over his family and business while his wife only worked inside the home, this model did not work well in the early Southern colonies. Merely surviving was difficult, so all hands were needed to ensure that the colony could continue. As a result, the social structure flattened a bit, with land-owning men and women doing the same work of farming and building settlements (alongside their servants and those they had enslaved, who were working on the same projects). As the Southern colonies became more established, society reverted to the European model, and white women began focusing on running the household, and managing servants and those they had enslaved. This was not true in every colony, however. The people who founded the northern colonies, like the Puritans, adhered to strict religious rules, and brought their European gender roles into the new world from the very start.

Regardless of the colony in which they lived, white women in colonial America had many responsibilities. They oversaw managing the household, including baking, sewing, educating the children, producing soap and candles, and more. In the 18th century, social classes began evolving, and a new “middling” class arose. Sometimes women in that class would help their husbands in their careers as tavern owners, tradesmen, or businessmen. However, white women still had few rights. They could not vote, and they lost all their property in marriage (though women had some property rights). Childbearing in colonial times was dangerous, and women and children often died during childbirth.

White children in colonial America also had many responsibilities. In most colonies, they were taught to read by their parents, usually so they could study the Bible (the Christian holy book). Boys learned additional skills so they could go into business, farming, or trade, while girls learned household skills which varied depending on the family’s social status. For example, a girl from a higher class—a privileged socioeconomic background—would learn etiquette and manners, hosting guests, and dancing, while a girl from a lower class—a resource-poor background—would learn practical skills like soap-making. There was also time for play in middling and high-class families. Children played with board games, puzzles, and cards, and did activities like rolling hoops and playing an early version of bowling. Overall, the main goal of parents in colonial America was to prepare their children for adulthood.

Women and Children in Colonial America

The freedoms and responsibilities afforded to white American women and children in the colonial era varied depending on their socioeconomic background. Here, a Dutch colonial family from a relatively privileged background is illustrated sitting around their tea table in the New York colony of the 1700s.

colonialism
Noun

type of government where a geographic area is ruled by a foreign power.

colony
Noun

people and land separated by distance or culture from the government that controls them.

elite
Adjective

exclusive or the best.

ethnic group
Adjective

people sharing genetic characteristics, culture, language, religion or history.

etiquette
Noun

the rules indicating the proper and polite way to behave.

indentured servant
Noun

person under contract to work for another over a period of time.

pious
Adjective

full of virtue and devotion.

privilege
Noun

benefit or special right.

settlement
Noun

community or village.

socioeconomic
Adjective

combination of social and economic factors.

socio-economic class
Noun

division in society based on income level and type of employment.