1. Lesson title: Gender and Opportunity in Colonial America2. Overview
This lesson investigates Elizabeth Murray's experiences as a shopkeeper in the mid-eighteenth century. Her experiences will serve as a case study of what women could achieve in colonial America in specific circumstances and with particular advantages. Since Murray's experiences were not shared by the majority of colonial women, this case study will help explain why many women without her advantages had fewer opportunities and, therefore, less independence.
3. Historical background and bibliography
People in England and its colonies were concerned with maintaining order in society. Central to the creation of an ordered society was the construction of harmonious family, which was often thought to represent a miniature version of society as a whole. God had established the family as a patriarchal unit, an arrangement in which a woman submitted to her husband's authority in an unequal partnership. This submission was supported by reference to the Bible. The husband, in turn, protected his wife and their children. The unequal partnership of patriarchy was a legal ideal as well as a religious one. The English legal doctrine of coverture taught that a woman ceased to exist as a separate legal person after she married.
Patriarchy shaped women's social experience in several ways. First, women did not generally live on their own. Married women were expected to live in respectful submission to their husbands. Single women often lived with a brother or some other family member in a household headed by a male, where they did housework and childcare in exchange for their room and board. Second, women were generally not trained or educated in the same ways as males, though many girls were taught basic literacy at home. Third, women were unable to engage independently in most economic activities. Some advice literature urged husbands to ask their wives' opinions before making important financial decisions, but evidence reveals that most husbands ignored this input.
There were some exceptions to the pattern just described. In many cases, however, these exceptions only confirmed the general pattern of patriarchy. For example, some ministers, especially those in the Puritan and Quaker traditions, emphasized the spiritual equality of men and women. Coverture laws provided some protections to a wife. If a husband chose to sell property during their marriage, the wife was supposed to be interviewed independently of her husband by the court to confirm that she agreed with his decision. Coverture also provided that a widow receive some property, one third of the total value of her husband's estate to protect her from poverty. However, this amount was seldom enough to maintain the standard of living she enjoyed while he was alive. Also, she could not sell the property or transfer it to another person in a will.
In the pre-industrial world, the home was the center of family economic activity. Therefore, on occasion, married women conducted financial business on their husbands' behalf. The wife was allowed to behave in ways outside her traditional role when she was acting as a representative of her husband. Further, under certain conditions, a woman might help plant crops, order supplies, or keep shop. But, though women were occasionally given limited authority, few had the training to maintain their economic affairs entirely independently.
Women's opportunities to engage in business independently varied widely. Widowed women might become shopkeepers, using resources they inherited from their husbands; single women shopkeepers existed as well, though they were rarer. Large ports offered some women the opportunity to work as midwives, teachers, tavernkeepers, and shopkeepers.
Patricia Cleary, "'Who shall say we have not equal abilitys with the Men when Girls of 18 years of age discover such great capacitys?': Women of Commerce in Boston, 1750-1776," in Conrad Edick Wright and Katheryn P. Viens, eds., Entrepreneurs: The Boston Business Community, 1700-1850(Boston: Massachusetts Historical Society, Northeastern University Press, 1997). Liberty's Daughters: The Revolutionary Experience of American Women, 1750-1800 (Boston: Little, Brown, 1980). Marylynn Salmon, Women and the Law of Property in Early America (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1986). Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, Good Wives: Image and Reality in the Lives of Women in Northern New England, 1650-1750 (New York: Knopf, 1982).
4. Guiding questions
What economic, legal, and political rights did women have during the colonial period? How did Elizabeth Murray attempt to create an independent life in Boston? How successful was she in achieving her goal? To what extent do her experiences reflect the experiences of colonial women in general?
5. Learning objectives:
Students will analyze the experiences of colonial Americans within the context of their era. Students will analyze primary documents, using them to understand important aspects of daily life in the eighteenth century.
Input and guided practice: The overview background essay (above at right) is the starting point of this lesson. Teachers may assign students to read the "student version" of the essay before class, in class, or may choose to lecture from it. Please note that the teacher version has additional detail and commentary. As an alternate approach, students can also be directed to the "student activities" lesson instructions, which provide detailed guidance for proceeding through all of the readings and sources.
Independent practice: Once students are familiar with the background of gender in the colonial period, they are ready to examine the documents related to women in general (Documents 1-6, links embedded in the essay). This source examination can be done in groups, pairs, or individually. It might be a good idea, however, to begin by modeling or discussing the first document together. If you wish to print out source analysis worksheets, try the links on the evaluating primary sources page. After examining the documents, students should be able to discuss their responses to the question, What economic, legal, and political rights did women have during the colonial period?
Now they are ready to examine documents related to Elizabeth Murray as a case study of one particular woman in colonial Boston (Documents 7-11). They will follow the same format in examining the documents as above, but this time in order to answer the question: How did Elizabeth Murray attempt to create an independent life in Boston? After students have examined these documents, discussion should move beyond Murray's life to consider how typical she was of colonial women's experience. Students should be able to see some of the social, economic, and geographical circumstances that allowed her more freedom than many of her contemporaries, such as some financial resources, a supportive family network, an ideal port location.
The lesson could conclude by sharing out verbally, with brief quickwrites, or with longer and more formally-structured essays.
Teacher-author: This lesson was created by Dave Neumann, Long Beach Unified School District.