Women in Colonial Virginia


The record of women in colonial Virginia begins with Native Americans and gradually includes European and African women. The experiences of these women differed widely depending on their ethnicity, their status, and the gender roles as defined by their culture. In the colony’s early years, survival, not tradition, influenced the roles of men and women, whether white or Black, free or enslaved. Planters’ wives, indentured servants, and enslaved women labored in the tobacco fields alongside one another, while an unmarried woman with land could engage in business the same way a man might. Colonists envisioned a stable society based on the patriarchal system they had known in England, but the uneven sex ratio, the scattered nature of settlement, and the high mortality rate and frequent remarriages made the transfer of such ideas difficult. However, a society with less emphasis on gender roles gradually ceded to the traditional patriarchal system, although women did hold some forms of informal power. By the mid-seventeenth century, the colony’s lawmakers began to codify two distinct roles for Virginia women: the so-called good wife, typically free and white, who performed domestic work in her home and raised her children; and the agricultural laborer, typically enslaved and Black. Although middle class women continued to work alongside their husbands in the fields and operate taverns and other businesses well into the eighteenth century, all classes of women were increasingly relegated to the private sphere while their husbands increasingly dominated the public world.

Early Virginia

Fictiliuvaforu in quibus cibucoquunt (The Beauty of the Earthenware Vessels in Which They Cook Food)

The first women in colonial Virginia were Virginia Indians. Because of their regular interactions with the English colonists, scholars know the most about the Algonquian-speaking Indians of Tsenacomoco. In early Virginia Indian society, gender roles were clearly defined because men and women needed to work as partners to survive. Women bore and cared for children and prepared food, but they also farmed; foraged for additional food; built homes; made pottery, mats, baskets, household implements, and furnishings; and collected firewood. Indian women were not restricted to the home, as English women often were; they were required to travel on foot and by canoe outside their homes and towns. Men hunted, fished, and participated in political and military councils. Although Virginia Indian chiefs, or weroances, were almost always men, the position was inherited through the female line. (Cockacoeske and Ann were important weroansquas, or women chiefs.)

Little is known about the education that Indian girls received, but they likely learned from the example provided by their elders. A girl was expected to learn how to perform her assigned tasks before reaching a marriageable age; her skill level determined her desirability as a marriage partner. Men initiated courtship, but women could decline offers of marriage. If a spouse was captured or killed, men and women alike were encouraged to remarry. (For example, the first marriage of Pocahontas, daughter of the paramount chief Powhatan, likely ended after she was captured by the English and held at Jamestown.)

Women at Jamestown

The first two English women to arrive in Virginia came in mid-October 1608 as part of the so-called Second Supply of colonists. Mistress Forrest made the journey with her husband, Thomas Forrest, and her maid, Ann Burras. Thomas Forrest was the first colonist to have authority over both his wife and a dependent member of his household. Before the end of 1608, Ann Burras married John Laydon, a laborer and one of the original settlers. English women continued to trickle into the colony after Forrest and Burras’s arrival, although a concerted effort to increase the English female population of Virginia was not made until 1619.

Depiction of Colonial-Era Marriage

The colonists at Jamestown hoped to recreate in Virginia the patriarchal social structure they had known in England, where a man had authority over his wife and all dependent members of his household. This structure was fortified by the doctrine of coverture, which affirmed that a woman, once married, was totally subsumed, or “covered,” under her husband’s person. A married woman, or feme covert, had no legal status; did not control any property, even if she brought it to the marriage; and ceded to her husband full rights to all incomes and wages she earned. A single adult woman, whether unmarried or widowed, was considered a feme sole. She could buy and sell property and engage in contracts and other business and legal transactions.

In early Virginia, the strictest definition of coverture was rarely applied. Disease, food shortages, and conflict with the Indians disrupted the roles that European men and women typically played. Conditions within James Fort were dismal because there were not enough women to do the necessary domestic work, and men often refused to do what they perceived as women’s work, including doing laundry, cleaning house, and cultivating corn, which they had seen Indian women do. In England, women did not grow the main crop and spent most of their time in or near their home.

Marriage of Pocahontas & Rolfe Puzzle

The Virginia colony began to stabilize after Pocahontas married the English colonist John Rolfe in 1614. Their marriage effectively ended the First Anglo-Powhatan War (1609–1614) and initiated a period of peace during which the English greatly expanded their settlements, established plantations along the James River, and grew and exported tobacco. In 1619, officials of the Virginia Company of London decided to recruit respectable women to, as Company treasurer Sir Edwin Sandys put it, “make wifes to the inhabitants and by that meanes to make the men there more setled and lesse moveable.” Married landowners, as heads of households with authority over their wives and children, would add stability to life in the colony. Their wives would work in the home, produce food in their gardens, and raise children. Ninety “younge, handsome and honestly educated maydes” were shipped to the colony in 1620. In 1621, the Virginia Company sent fifty-seven marriageable women between the ages of fifteen and twenty-eight. A wife procured in this manner cost 120 pounds of tobacco per head—six times the cost of a male indentured servant.

Gender and the Establishment of Virginia Society

The History of Moll Flanders, &c.

As the historian James Horn notes, seventeenth-century Virginia was an immigrant society. Men and women left England for a variety of reasons—some to acquire land and others, such as convict laborers, because they had no other option. Although male migrants outnumbered female migrants six to one, immigrants of both sexes shared certain characteristics: they hoped to improve their economic standing and they were, for the most part, young and single. Most started their new lives in the colony as indentured servants, exchanging four to seven years of work for paid passage to the New World.

Like their male counterparts, female indentured servants faced harsh conditions once they arrived in Virginia. Many who migrated to the Chesapeake were unable to acclimate to their new surroundings, became sick, and died. Those who survived labored in tobacco fields for their masters (some of whom physically and sexually abused their servants) until their time of service was complete.

Jamestown 1630s: Harvey's Industrial Enclave

A woman who had completed her indenture was likely to find a husband: for most of the seventeenth century, men outnumbered women in Virginia by a ratio of three or four to one. But in Virginia, marriage did not necessarily exempt a woman from performing agricultural work in addition to her domestic tasks. Even the women who had been shipped to the colony in the 1620s specifically to become wives found themselves working alongside laborers who were white and black, free and unfree. To the English, the fact that planters’ wives worked in the fields was a sign of social instability—an indication that Virginia’s settlers had not established “proper,” gender-based work roles.

Some women—especially those who combined modest wealth and entrepreneurial skills—operated almost like men. Dutch settler Anna Varlett Hack Boot carried on extensive trading activities throughout the Atlantic, while single and as a married woman, mostly with other Dutch merchants. The same was true of Anne Toft, who traded fish and tobacco with Dutch and English merchants. In the 1660s Toft, as a single woman, accumulated thousands of acres of land in Virginia, Maryland, and Jamaica. While Toft and Boot were exceptional, they were not the only women in seventeenth-century Virginia who bought and sold land, engaged in small-scale trading, and went to court to protect their investments.

Legislating Social Roles Based on Gender and Race

The progression of Virginia law in the seventeenth century makes clear that colonial leaders did not want white women to perform agricultural labor. In 1643, for example, the General Assembly decided that African women were tithable, or eligible to be taxed, as white and black men were. This distinction may reflect lawmakers’ expectation that African women would be field laborers, thus contributing to the colony’s wealth, and European women would remain in the domestic sphere. The legislators hoped their decision to limit white women to domestic work would further stabilize the colony’s social order and give husbands more authority and control over their wives.

Ducking Chair

Male authority in early Virginia—based on reputation, not family tradition—was fragile, and women did not always submit to it. Specifically, some women used words to improve their reputations, to acquire a small degree of power in their communities, and even to express political opinions. They questioned males’ ability to govern and used gossip to control stories about themselves and their neighbors. This type of disorderly speech was a threat to colonial officials. In December 1662, the General Assembly passed a law stating that a “brabling” (quarrelsome or riotous) wife could be ducked, or plunged underwater, as punishment for slandering her husband or neighbors. The statute trivialized female communication and freed husbands from the burden of paying a fine for their wives’ behavior.

At the same legislative session, the General Assembly turned its attention to the status of Africans in Virginia. Although many planters who purchased Africans held these individuals as lifelong slaves, no law guaranteed a colonist’s right to do so. Some men also questioned whether a black child born in Virginia was a slave. The lawmakers (men who owned the majority of Africans in Virginia) determined that “all children borne in this country shalbe held bond or free only according to the condition of the mother”—that is, a child born to an enslaved woman would also be a slave for his or her lifetime. In addition to securing colonists’ right to own an individual as property, this law made African women the key to the expansion of slavery in Virginia. The General Assembly also attempted to limit the size of the colony’s free black population by imposing harsh punishments on interracial couples and white women who gave birth to mulatto children. By establishing white participation in interracial relationships as the transgression, the scholar Kathleen M. Brown has argued, the General Assembly cast Africans in the role of moral corruptor, distancing African women in the colony even further from white women.

Extant county court records indicate that mothers of free black and mulatto children took it upon themselves to learn about the colony’s laws and protect the fragile freedom of their children. Elizabeth Banks, of York County, a white indentured servant, arranged to have her mulatto daughters, Ann and Mary, bound out to planters who lived a short distance from her. As an adult, Mary Banks appeared before York County’s justices of the peace to make similar arrangements for her children, Hannah and Elizabeth. These women and other mothers of free black and mulatto boys and girls negotiated apprenticeships, secured food and shelter, and labored so there would be money to buy necessities for their families.

Order and Disorder in the Late Seventeenth Century

The events of Bacon’s Rebellion (1676–1677), and the role that female voices played in them, highlight the instability of Virginia society in the late seventeenth century. By this time, the men at the top of Virginia’s social and economic order controlled much of the colony’s wealth. They owned thousands of acres of land, had indentured servants and slaves who labored for their benefit, and had wives and children over whom they had authority. In contrast, many of the men at the bottom of the social order had neither land nor a wife. As tobacco prices dropped due to overproduction, it became harder for these individuals to support themselves.

Letter from Lady Berkeley

Discontent with their position, many of these men eagerly joined Nathaniel Bacon when he challenged Governor Sir William Berkeley for control of the colony in 1676. Berkeley had branded Bacon a rebel, and as such, Bacon could not attend meetings of the county court or parish churches to recruit supporters. Instead, women such as Lydia Cheesman, Ann Cotton, and Sarah Drummond openly challenged the governor’s authority, spread word of Bacon’s plans, and urged their husbands to enlist with the rebel. (The historian Stephen Saunders Webb has described these women as “news wives.”) Other women demonstrated their loyalty to the governor and especially to his wife, Lady Frances Culpeper Stephens Berkeley, who spoke out in support of her husband and even sailed to England to present his side of story to Charles II.

In part because of the efforts of news wives, hundreds joined Bacon’s army. Among them were indentured servants and slaves to whom Bacon had promised freedom in exchange for their participation. This coming together of free men, indentured servants, slaves, and women threatened the security of Virginia’s nascent patriarchy. After the rebellion collapsed in 1677, the colony’s leaders passed legislation to suppress any future alliances. A series of laws passed in the last quarter of the seventeenth century increased restrictions on slaves, while the “Act of Reliefe” penalized those who “shall presume to speake, write, disperse or publish by words, writeing or otherwise, any matter or thing tending to rebellion.” First offenders had to pay a fine of 1,000 pounds of tobacco and stand in the stocks for two hours—unless they were married women, or femes covert, who had to pay the fine or endure twenty lashes to the bare back.

“Good Wives” in the Eighteenth Century

An Overseer Doing His Duty near Fredericksburg

By the end of the seventeenth century, one’s role in Virginia society depended on both gender and race. Black women, whether enslaved or free, occupied a position at the bottom of the social and economic ladder. They could not fulfill the English ideal of the good wife because they were primarily agricultural laborers. In contrast, white females could be good wives even if they spent some time tending tobacco plants.

A good wife in early eighteenth-century Virginia had different responsibilities from her counterpart in England. In Virginia, as in England, a good wife cared for her children, cooked, cleaned, tended the garden, and managed the work done by a staff of domestics. But unlike that of her English counterpart, a Virginia wife’s staff included enslaved men, women, and children. Learning how to manage slaves who had recently been imported into the colony from Africa was an additional challenge for white Virginians of either sex. To them, these slaves were different from the enslaved men, women, and children who had been born in Virginia. Most of the new slaves did not speak English, and many had ritual scarification and body piercings.

The Compleat Housewife; or

Extant documents indicate that some husbands and wives of the gentry class struggled to determine who was in control of the household. The planter elite believed they needed to impose their authority on their wives and to manage the domestic work in their homes. The need to control one’s wife was crucial because failure to manage a woman was a sign that a man was not in control of his life. William Byrd II, for example, recorded his frustration on the occasions when his wife, Lucy Parke Byrd, did not submit to his authority. Byrd challenged her husband, perhaps in part because she wanted to direct the work of the slaves who labored in their home. It was uncertain exactly what work was to be done by a good wife if her husband owned slaves to labor for their benefit.

By the second quarter of the eighteenth century, however, the role and duties of a good wife in Virginia were clearer. An elite woman’s main responsibility was to prepare her children to be members of Virginia’s gentry. In addition to providing instruction in reading, writing, arithmetic, and religion, gentry wives made sure that their sons and daughters knew proper etiquette, how to converse with guests, and how to dance. The wife of a prosperous planter also taught her children how to manage enslaved laborers, including the personal slave who would tend to their daily needs. Establishing these behaviors helped gentry families maintain their power, which was consolidated largely through marriage.

Colonial-Era Gown

While the patriarchal ideal dominated both theory and practice by the mid-eighteenth century, a minority of adult women operated successfully outside this norm. This was especially true of widows, who as feme soles continued to buy and sell land, negotiate contracts, and manage households with servants and slaves. A majority of widows remarried, but many did not, preferring instead to remain single and independent. In some areas of Virginia, these widows and other single women were a significant economic force, representing up to 15 percent of the landowners and owning nearly 20 percent of the land.

Women also participated in the political life of the colony even though they had no official role. While it is possible that a few wealthy widows may have voted in the seventeenth century, a 1699 law made clear that this was a male-only activity. Women did, however, help enfranchise men through land they brought to a marriage and this in turn gave some of them indirect power to influence the voting behavior of their husbands. Candidates, too, understood that treating wives with cordiality and respect might impact the outcome of an election.

Middling, Poor, and Enslaved Women in the Eighteenth Century

Bookplate belonging to Catherine Blaikley

Middling and poor women also worked to make sure that their children were ready for adulthood. They taught sons and daughters the basic math and writing skills that would enable them to keep accounts and manage their households or plantations. By mid-century, some middling and poor females decided to move to one of the colony’s urban areas, such as Williamsburg or Norfolk, where they might run taverns, work as milliners, become midwives, or wash and mend clothes. Christiana Campbell and Jane Vobe kept two of Williamsburg’s most popular taverns and counted the colony’s leaders, including George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, among their customers. Catherine Rathell and sisters Margaret and Jane Hunter (later Jane Charlton) opened shops that helped Williamsburg residents and visitors to keep up with the latest British fashions. The midwife Catherine Blaikley used a red morocco pocketbook to hold money, receipts, and notes. When she died in 1771 the Virginia Gazette reported that Blaikley had delivered more than 3,000 babies born to white and black women in the Williamsburg area. Ann Ashby (also known as Ann Jones), a free black woman, laundered clothing, repaired torn garments, and knit stockings for her customers. Although Rathell, Hunter, Charlton, Blaikley, and Ashby worked to support themselves and their families, their actions did not challenge gender roles because their businesses were an extension of the domestic work performed by women.

The Old Plantation

By the mid-eighteenth century, the majority of enslaved people in Virginia had been born in the colony. They spoke English and knew how to negotiate with their owners to gain small concessions in work demands, food, and clothing. In the eyes of the law, however, black women were supposed to perform strenuous agricultural labor and increase their masters’ wealth by bearing children. Most slave owners gave little thought to the stability of their slaves’ domestic lives, often dividing families to turn a profit. They also divided enslaved families in their wills if it would benefit their heirs. Nevertheless, enslaved mothers made an effort to teach their children about slavery and to preserve their culture.

The Move toward Revolution

Indenture for a Free Black Woman

Women’s lives changed between the end of the French and Indian War (1754–1763) and the issuance of the Declaration of Independence in 1776. When Virginia’s burgesses and merchants pledged not to import specified goods as a way to protest taxes imposed by Great Britain, some women also promised to do without these items. The decision not to import material objects not only gave women an opportunity to express their political views, it also changed the daily work done by many women because they had to learn how to produce items they previously purchased from British merchants. Elite wives also taught some enslaved women how to make soap and candles. Other female slaves learned how to spin thread and weave cloth. Seamstresses turned the Virginia cloth into clothing that colonists wore to protest “taxation without representation.” It became a sign of honor to wear clothes made in Virginia from cloth spun in the colony.

Continental Army Soldiers

Once Virginians declared their independence from Great Britain, women of all classes found their lives changed. Wives of both Patriots and Loyalists learned how to operate households during times of food shortages and high prices. Some Loyalist families decided to leave Virginia and once they arrived in England, the women in these households learned how to adapt to the gender expectations in their new country. Wives of Continental soldiers functioned as the heads of their households while their husbands were gone. For some enslaved women, Dunmore’s Proclamation (1775) offered a chance to seize independence and begin life as free women. Whether Virginia women spent the Revolution in America or in England, they continued to perform domestic work, raise their children, and add stability to their societies.

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APA Citation:
Richter, Julie. Women in Colonial Virginia. (2020, December 07). In Encyclopedia Virginia. https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/women-in-colonial-virginia.
MLA Citation:
Richter, Julie. "Women in Colonial Virginia" Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, (07 Dec. 2020). Web. 19 Jun. 2024
Last updated: 2024, May 03
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