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The Declaration of Independence asserted that "all men were created equal." As for women, the document said nothing. American women, especially in the West, were portrayed as bold, assertive, practical and resourceful. In order to insure the survival of their families, many women took on these characteristics. Nevertheless, the importance of the role of women in the nation was not met with a corresponding guarantee of their rights and freedoms as Americans. Neither the US Constitution, nor most of the state constitutions addressed the protection of women's rights. While women risked their lives to bear the children so critical for the growth of the nation, they were given few opportunities for education. Women could hold positions of responsibility and authority, but could not vote. They could work day and night alongside their husbands to forge a life out of the Western wilderness, but most could not own property. They could earn money using their ingenuity and intelligence, but any money they earned belonged to their husbands or other male relatives. Social pressure and the threat of being dependent on their fathers often compelled single women to get married. Only widows seemed to enjoy some rights in the new nation.
Education and Women
In the early national period, the major advance that helped the progress of women's rights was the increased availability of education. Beyond basic literacy and education, women could attend "academies," such as the Philadelphia Young Ladies' Academy; the Moravian Seminary in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania; and Susanna Rowson's Young Ladies Academy in Boston. The Young Ladies Academy of Philadelphia was founded in 1787 to give girls an education equal to that of boys. In its first commencement address, Dr. Benjamin Rush was the speaker at its first commencement. Rowson, head of the Academy in Boston, was the author of the first American best-seller, Charlotte Temple. Rowson also wrote textbooks to make up for the deficiencies in available educational materials. Her works include An Abridgment of Universal Geography, together with Sketches of History (ca. 1805) and A Spelling Dictionary (1807).
The young ladies who attended these academies were generally from relatively wealthy families. Women from more modest families usually had to be content with basic literacy, learned in the home or in community schools. Many of these schools were coeducational for small children. In 1799, the Quakers of Pennsylvania founded the Westtown Boarding School. It was established to teach "domestic employments" and academic subjects to rural women.
Those women who had completed their secondary education, at one of the academies or privately, were unable to attend college, since no college would accept women. In 1814, however, Middlebury Female Seminary, the first school for the higher education of women, was established in Middlebury, Vermont. The first women's college, Mount Holyoke, and the first co-educational college, Oberlin, were still at least 20 years away.
Women who took advantage of the educational opportunities available to them were well-trained for leadership. Unfortunately, few had outlets for their skills. Women of the late eighteenth century and early nineteenth century had few opportunities and outlets for their education and skills. If they were educated, they could teach or open a school. Otherwise, they could open a boardinghouse which, unfortunately, required an initial investment few could afford or obtain. Other possible jobs were becoming a nurse for other people's children, becoming a servant, or becoming a seamstress. Professions were closed to them. Only Quakers allowed women to serve as ministers. While single women were allowed to run businesses, married women had to obtain their husband's permission to work outside the home, and any money they earned legally belonged to their husbands.
In areas in which the Anglican Church had a strong foothold, such as the South, couples who wanted to get divorces could not, since they had to go to a "bishop's court," and there were no bishop's courts in the U.S. Since most women were not allowed to own property, they could not separate from their husbands unless their fathers or some other male relative allowed them to live at home and provided clothing. Few women could earn their own living, since there were few jobs available to them. If a woman was able to obtain a separation, any money she earned was her husband's money. Before 1800, judges automatically gave custody of children of a divorce to the husband, regardless of the situation involved.
Women across the country had few property rights. Because of the traditional status of widows as being in need of social assistance, however, some states made special provisions for them. While most American women were not allowed to sell property; Massachusetts gave that right, in 1787, to women who had been abandoned by their husbands. This began a long process which would result in giving women full property rights in that state.
Women had even fewer voting rights than property rights. The Constitution gave states the right to determine voter eligibility. The states answered by forbidding women to vote. Some state constitutions did not mention women. Others, like New York, stated that only males could vote, thus specifically excluding females.
The only exception to this was New Jersey. In 1776, the New Jersey State Legislature gave the right to vote to single women "worth fifty pounds clear estate" and over 21 years of age. Some historians explain this unique action as the result of several factors. New Jersey delegates were interested in ideas of justice and property and, thus, felt that property-owning women should not be disenfranchised (Married women were considered one with their husbands, with the husband representing the couple in voting, so the delegates did not deem it necessary to give them the right to vote). Many also remembered the numerous ways in which New Jersey women contributed to the war effort, and wanted to reward their involvement and awareness. According to Elias Boudinot, in an oration of July 4, 1793, in Elizabeth Town, New Jersey: "The rights of women are no longer strange sounds to an American ear, and I devoutly hope the day is not far distant when we shall find them dignifying in a distinguished code, the jurisprudence of several states of the Union." In addition, Quakers, who believed in equal rights for the genders, had a strong influence on state politics.
Other historians feel that the New Jersey delegates did not intend to give women the right to vote. They assert that the state constitution was simply worded vaguely, and that women of the state took advantage of the situation. One of the major factors contributing to the eventual withdrawal of female suffrage in New Jersey was the fact that women showed great eagerness to utilize their newly-acquired political rights. In 1807, New Jersey revoked women's right to vote in the state.
There were few American women in public office. One notable exception was Mary Katherine Goddard of Baltimore, Maryland. She was the nation's first postmaster, serving from 1775 to 1789. Although women were granted the right to be elected to office in the US in 1788, few women were elected until after women obtained the right to vote in 1919.
Race and Gender
For African-American women, the abolition of slavery in the North and Northwest was perhaps the most influential event of the early national period. Those who lived in free states were relieved from the burden and horror of slavery. Under slavery, they had no rights when their families were broken up as their husbands and children were be sold elsewhere; or when they or their daughters were raped or assaulted. Families could establish more stable ties, without fear of members being sold away and, if women were raped or assaulted, they were able to bring charges against the assailant, whether he was white or black.
Nevertheless, black women had very limited economic opportunities. Under slavery, any skills taught to slaves were usually taught to men. Thus, black women were largely undereducated and unskilled. Urban black women usually worked as domestic servants, while rural black women were mostly agricultural laborers. About five percent of free black women, however, were able to obtain work as retailers, bakers, peddlers, teachers and keepers of boarding houses.
Women of Native Americans tribes were seriously affected by the forced westward migration of Native Americans, as well as the cultural invasion of the European-Americans. Nevertheless, the radical changes in Native American lives made a greater impact on men than on women. The social roles of defending and providing, traditionally male roles, were greatly threatened by the alien social order. Domestic roles of childbearing and childrearing, farming, cooking, and other activities, generally female roles, were less severely affected.
Despite the social limitations placed upon women, some were able to transcend their restrictions. One outlet for women's skills was the sphere of religion. Although women, except Quakers, did not serve as ministers; many found other capacities in which to serve. In 1790, Frances Dickinson and Ann Teresa Mathews founded the first Roman Catholic convent in the US, a Carmelite convent in Maryland. Twenty years later, Elizabeth Seton and the group which would become the Sisters of Charity, founded the first American Catholic parochial school, in Emmitsburg, Maryland.
In 1800, the Boston Female Society for Missionary Purposes was founded, one of many organizations founded to fund the education of missionaries. Although only male missionaries were initially sent, women were later included. In 1811, the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the US formally stated that it supported "pious females" who had begun organizing independent, female-run benevolent societies to support missionaries, teachers, and doctors overseas and in the US. Nevertheless, the General Assembly emphasized that the women should only provide services for other women and for children, under the belief that such services done for men would have been inappropriate.
Ann (Nancy) Hesseltine Judson and Harriet Newell were the first two American women sent abroad as missionaries. In 1812, the two women were sent with their husbands to India, the Isle of France (now Mauritius) and Burma (now Myanmar). In that same year, Mother Catherine Spaulding founded the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth. This Kentucky order of nurses and teachers made home visits.
One Shoshone woman, Sacagawea, took part in one of the most famous events of the period, the Lewis and Clark Expedition (1804-6). She served as one of guides for Captain Lewis and Captain Clark, along with her husband, Toussaint Charbonneau. The only woman on the expedition; Sacagawea is credited with having saved the notes of the expedition from falling into the water, as well saving the white explorers from attack from the Shoshone. Another woman, Lucy Brewer, was more directly involved in the American military. In 1812, she enlisted in the Marines under the name George Baker, and served aboard the U.S.S. Constitution. Women were not openly allowed in the US Marines until 1918.
In the sphere of culture, women were also active. In the 1790s, Judith Sargent Murray published a series of essays, under the name, "Mr. Vigillius," called "The Gleaner" in the Massachusetts Magazine. Amelia Simmons wrote one of the earliest American cookbooks to focus in American ingredients and dishes. Entitled American Cookery, it was published in 1796, and included recipes for Indian pudding, johnnycakes and flapjacks. In 1805, female artists began exhibiting their artwork at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.
Women were also involved in manufacturing. In 1793, Mrs. Slater was the first woman ever granted a patent in the US for a method of producing cotton sewing thread. The method was probably used in the New England mills of her husband, Samuel Slater. In 1809, Mary Kies, a resident of Connecticut, received a patent for her invention of "a method to weave straw with silk and thread." The method was used as long as straw bonnets were popular, which was about ten years. Around 1813, Francis Cabot Lowell began hiring young women to work in his mills in Waltham, Massachusetts. In addition to providing employment, the management provided housing and activities, going to great lengths to maintain a sense of propriety and decorum. The women working in Lowell's mills comprised the first large-scale women's labor force in the US.
Sexual violence scars Native American women
New law aims to protect indigenous women on US reservations from sky-high rates of sexual assault and offender impunity.
White Earth Nation, Minnesota – It seems like an idyllic memory at first – hiding under a table as a small child, watching her family as they go about their business, unaware of her presence.
But quickly the memory takes a darker turn as Lisa Brunner recounts listening to the screams of her mother as her stepfather beat her, first with his hands, and then with the butt of a shotgun.
“I was literally born into violence,” says Brunner.
“I call it hunting – non-natives come here hunting. They know they can come onto our lands and rape us with impunity because they know that we can’t touch them. “
– Lisa Brunner, rape survivor advocate
In another instance, she recalls running with her mother out of their home across a field and into the woods, her stepfather screaming in the distance.
“I’d found a safe haven,” Brunner says. “I would take her into the woods, and she would pass out. And I’d sit and listen for his screams all night.” If she thought he was getting closer, she would wake her mother and they would run deeper into the woods, deeper into the night.
Brunner, who was sexually abused throughout her childhood by multiple people, now works as an advocate for survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault in her community, the White Earth Nation in Minnesota, and other Native American communities around the US.
“It was a natural way to be, to become that advocate. What really triggered it was all of the violence that occurred.”
Indigenous women in the US experience some of the highest rates of sexual assault in the country. According to the US Department of Justice, nearly half of all Native American women have been raped, beaten, or stalked by an intimate partner one in three will be raped in their lifetime and on some reservations, women are murdered at a rate 10 times higher than the national average.
While the numbers are staggering, the reality that advocates such as Brunner see in their work and communities exposes the depth of the crisis.
One of the services that Brunner provides through a group she runs, the Sacred Spirits First Nations Coalition, is outreach to local teenagers. She recalls what one young girl told her about rape: “My mom and I already talked about that. When I’m raped, we won’t report it, because we know nothing will happen. We don’t want to cause problems for our family.”
Not if she is raped – but when.
Last week’s vote in the US House of Representatives to reauthorise the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) with new protections for Native American women is a significant victory for women such as Brunner, who are living through an epidemic of sexual violence in their communities.
The reauthorised act seeks to address part of the crisis by extending tribal jurisdiction over non-Native Americans who commit crimes of domestic violence or sexual assault against a Native American spouse or partner. Tribal governments in the US currently do not have jurisdiction over non-Native Americans who commit crimes on their land.
According to the Department of Justice, 86 percent of rapes and sexual assaults against Native American women are committed by non-Native American men.
“This strengthens tribal jurisdictions where, frankly, we’ve had an epidemic of sexual violence,” Republican Congressman Tom Cole, a member of the Chickasaw nation in Oklahoma and one of the main supporters of the new tribal amendments, told Al Jazeera following the House vote. “This was an effort to give tribes the ability to deal with the problem.”
Reservation demographics play an important role. A significant portion of residents on reservations are non-native, largely a result of the US government’s sale of tribal land to white settlers around the turn of the century. In Mahnomen County, where Lisa lives and which lies entirely on the White Earth reservation, half the population is white.
Tribes must rely on the federal, or in some cases state, government to prosecute crimes by non-Native Americans that happen on their territory.
But relying on federal or state authorities also often means having to travel hundreds of kilometres to the nearest forensic examiner or prosecutor – and federal prosecution of crimes on tribal land is rare.
According to the Government Accountability Office, between 2005 and 2009, 67 percent of sexual abuse cases sent to the federal government for prosecution were declined. Justice Department officials told Al Jazeera the low prosecution rate is attributable to a lack of evidence, or issues with witnesses in the majority of cases.
While the reauthorised version of VAWA is without a doubt stronger than previous ones, the provisions expanding tribal jurisdiction are still narrow. Tribes continue to have limited sentencing authority – up to three years, which could mean that some cases still are sent to federal or state authorities for prosecution. The new provisions are also geared towards targeting domestic or dating violence.
For instance, the act would not apply to someone in the situation Brunner’s teenage daughter found herself in last year. She was raped last summer by four strangers from outside the reservation.
“I call it hunting – non-natives come here hunting. They know they can come onto our lands and rape us with impunity because they know that we can’t touch them,” Brunner says. “The US government has created that atmosphere.”
“We also need cultivation of tribal justice systems, so that tribes … can take action on their own terms.”
– Sarah Deer, law professor
Jurisdictional loopholes are only one part of the equation, however.
“There is a history of racism and oppression for native women which makes predators think somehow we are vulnerable and that we’re not protected by the system,” said Sarah Deer, a law professor at William Mitchell College of Law in Minnesota and member of the Muscogee Creek Nation. “So you maybe have a hate crime component of this along with a jurisdictional problem.”
While a large number of the sexual assaults against Native American women are perpetrated by non-native men, there are still many cases of domestic violence being committed by Native American males.
“Native women (traditionally) were always able to exercise political power and social power in their communities,” Deer explains. “That has been somewhat tempered by assimilation, where tribes have taken on some of the patriarchal stereotypes of American culture. When native men commit these crimes, they’re acting out against their cultural values.”
Tribal advocates say the trauma of their ancestors has been passed down through generations, with painful memories still fresh: brutal and bloody wars, forced relocation and stolen land. There were also the boarding schools where many Native American children were forcibly removed from their families in an effort to assimilate them into white culture – and where sexual abuse is well-documented. Cultural traditions have been broken, tribal governments weakened.
“If we can replace the violence with our strong cultural values about women, I think we’ll start to stem the tide of violence,” says Deer. “We also need cultivation of tribal justice systems, so that tribes aren’t depending on the state government or the federal government to take action, but can take action on their own terms.”
A next generation
‘One billion rising’ campaign against sexual violence
As they prepare dinner one night, Brunner and her eldest daughter joke about her increased appetite now that she and her boyfriend are expecting their first child.
Both of Brunner’s daughters are survivors of sexual assault – the eldest by an uncle when she was a child, the other after last summer’s assault.
Brunner says despite being excited about her first grandchild, she worries if it’s a girl, she will have to contend with a system stacked against the pursuit of justice that she won’t be able to escape what the past generations of women in her family have endured.
At her home in Mahnomen, Brunner asks this reporter how she slept. When the question is returned, Brunner responds that she didn’t sleep well.
“I dreamt about the men that hurt my daughter.”
Brunner straightens the sleeves of her light sweater, all that protects her from the winter cold outside. She looks out the window with an uneasy expression.
“My daughter told me she dreamt about them, too.”
Legends of America
A Group of Women in New York City, 1909
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Annie Heloise Abel (1873-1947) – Historian and professor renowned for her studies of Native Americans and was one of the first thirty women in the United States to earn a PhD in history.
Jane Addams (1860-1935) – A pacifist, suffragist, an advocate of social reform and, in 1931, the first American woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize. She turned her prize winnings over to the Woman’s International League for Peace and Freedom, of which she was president.
Hannah Adams (1755-1831) Historian and the first professional woman writer in the United States, publishing A Summary History of New England in 1799.
Louisa May Alcott (1832-1888) – A servant, seamstress, teacher and Civil War Nurse, Alcott’s fame came as an author.
Susan Brownell Anthony (1820-1906) - Susan Brownell Anthony was the leader in the American Anti Slavery Society and later turned her life’s devotion to the women’s suffrage movement.
Anne Hennis Trotter Bailey (1742-1825) – Better known as “Mad Ann”, she was a colorful figure, scout, spy, and Indian fighter during the colonial Indian Wars and the American Revolution.
Dona Gertrudis “La Tules” Barcelo (1800-1852) – A saloon owner and master gambler in the Territory of New Mexico at the time of the Mexican-American War. She amassed a small fortune by capitalizing on the flow of American and Mexican traders involved with the Santa Fe Trail.
Ida B. Wells Barnett (1862-1931) – A black journalist and militant civil rights leader, she was a co-founder of the NAACP and the first president of the Negro Fellowship League.
Clara Barton (1824-1912) Called the “Angel of the Battlefield” for her first aid heroism during the Civil War, she was instrumental in founding the American Red Cross.
Anne Bassett (1878-1956) – The daughter or ranch owners at Brown’s Hole, near the Wyoming, Colorado, and Utah border, Bassett became a “member” of Butch Cassidy’s Wild Bunch.
Martha McFarlane McGee Bell (1735-1829) – Became a heroine in the American Revolution after an encounter with General Cornwallis and the British Army and collected valuable information for the American cause.
Sarah Bernhardt (1844-1923) – A French actress, Bernhardt made her way to the United States and was so popular, she was soon dubbed “The Divine Sarah”.
Mary McLeod Bethune (1875-1955) The daughter of former slaves, Mary became a writer, educator, a champion of humanitarian causes, and an advocate of civil rights and education for Blacks.
Mary Bickerdyke (1817-1901) – An energetic heroine whose sole aim during the Civil War was to more efficiently care for wounded Union soldiers.
Elizabeth Blackwell (1821-1910) – The first American woman to receive a medical doctor degree in 1849, she opened the New York Infirmary for Women and Children and co-founded the Women’s Medical College in 1868.
Celia Ann “Mattie” Blaylock (1850-1888) – Involved with Wyatt Earp after the death of his first wife, Blaylock is often termed as Wyatt’s “common law” wife.
Amelia Bloomer (1818-1894) Social reformer, suffragist, and publisher of the temperance paper The Lily, she was ridiculed by 19th-century men for the liberated “pants” outfits she popularized.
Lizzie Borden (1860-1927) – The only suspect in the ax murders of Andrew and Abby Borden, in 1892, was arrested, tried, and acquitted in Fall River, Massachusetts. No one else was ever investigated for the crime, and the case remains “officially” unsolved.
Margaret Heffernan Borland (1824-1873) – A Texas Rancher, Borland owned a herd of more than 10,000 cattle in 1873. She was said to be the only woman known to have led a cattle drive during the days of the Old West.
Anne Bonny – Lady Pirate (1700?-1782?) – A female pirate, Bonny fell in love with a handsome young sailor and ran away to the West Indies with him. She sailed on Captain “Calico Jack” Rackham’s ship, where she gained fame as a bloodthirsty pirate.
Eilley Orrum Bowers (1827–1903) – Known as the “Queen of the Comstock” and the “Washoe Seeress,” Bowers is remembered as one of the most important women in the development of Utah.
Sarah A. Bowman, aka: Great Western (1813-1866) – Sarah A. Bowman, who earned the moniker the “Great Western,” was a Madame, cook, businesswoman, nurse, wife, and mother who made her way around the American West, primarily following soldier camps.
Mary Elizabeth Bowser (1839?-??) – Born as a slave in Richmond, Virginia, she was later freed and became a member of Jefferson Davis’ staff during the Civil War. There, she acted as a prominent Union spy.
Marie Isabella Boyd (1844-1900) – Best known as Belle Boyd or Cleopatra of the Secession, she was a Confederate spy in the American Civil War. She operated from her father’s hotel in Virginia and provided valuable information to Confederate general Stonewall Jackson in 1862.
Sarah Breedlove (1867-1919) – See Madam C.J. Walker
Antoinette Louisa Brown (1825-1921) Social reformer, abolitionist and suffragist, she was the nation’s first ordained female minister, one of the first American women to attend college, and an author of books on evolution and social theory.
Margaret “Molly” Tobin Brown (1867-1932) – Better known as “The Unsinkable Molly Brown,” Molly survived the sinking of the Titanic. But before this disaster she was involved in women’s rights, helping to establish the Colorado chapter of the National American Women’s Suffrage Association.
Julie Bulette – (18??-1867) – A popular Virginia City, Nevada prostitute in the 1860s. She was found murdered in her home on January 20, 1867.
S.M. Burche – Appointed as a U.S. Deputy Marshal by C.H. Thompson of Guthrie, Oklahoma, Burche was one of the few women to be appointed as a deputy during the 19th century.
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Women, Race, and the Law in Early America
Everywhere across European and Indigenous settlements in 17th- and 18th-century North America and the Caribbean, the law or legal practices shaped women’s status and conditioned their dependency, regardless of race, age, marital status, or place of birth. Historians have focused much of their attention on the legal status, powers, and experiences of women of European origin across the colonies and given great consideration to the law of domestic relations, the legal disabilities of coverture, and women’s experiences as plaintiffs and defendants, both civil and criminal, in colonial courts. Early American legalities, however, differed markedly for women of color—whether free, indentured, or enslaved, and whether Native or African in origin or descent—whose relationships to the legal regimes of early America were manifold and complex. In their status under the law, experiences at the bar, and, as a result, positions in household polities, women of color reckoned with a set of legalities that differed from those of their European counterparts. The diversity of women’s experiences of the law was shaped not only by race but also by region: Indigenous people had what one historian has labeled jurispractices, while Europeans brought and created a jurisprudence of race and status that shaped treatments of women of color across imperial spaces. A widely comparative analysis of women and the law reflects ways in which race shaped women’s status under and experiences of the law as well as the legalities of their marriages in pre-Revolutionary America.
Race, Slavery, and the Law
The most important legal distinction for women and men in early North America was their status along the range of freedom and unfreedom. Scholars of prerevolutionary North America argue against neat conceptualizations of slavery and freedom in starkly oppositional terms instead, they recognize that a range of multiple dependencies existed across the regions of early North America. In the earliest years of settlement, before the mid-17th century, Africans, Europeans, and Indigenous Americans understood human bondage as part of a continuum that might range from temporary to permanent. In order to understand the position of women under the law, it is useful first to discuss the variety of unfree statuses that coexisted across early America.
The three principal groups that populated early modern North America—Africans, Native Americans, and Europeans—all practiced varieties of slavery and captivity. In the earliest years of the settlement of British America, slavery was initially a fluid category, one not necessarily permanent, inheritable, or fixed. Rather, for both men and women, slave status encompassed the possibility of change through baptism and legal challenge the same was true of New Netherland. Outside of these jurisdictions, in French, Spanish, and Native settlements, African- or Native-descended women in particular could alter their status through marriage, adoption, or work. Although the English settlements, as opposed to the French and Spanish, had few legal models for slavery aside from apprenticeship law, for the most part Europeans considered enslavement to be an acceptable legal status for cultural outsiders. Although Virginia law required Irish and other “aliens” to serve longer terms than English servants, lawmakers viewed Natives and Africans as pagans or captives taken in war, attributes that justified their permanent enslavement. Similarly, for some Indians and Africans as well, enslavable groups were war captives and others understood to be cultural outcasts slaving defined who was included or excluded. Initially, Europeans did not restrict slavery to Africans and their descendants in America. In North America, Europeans traded Indian slaves—some two to four million from the late 15th to the early 19th centuries, many of whom were initially enslaved by other Native Americans. 1
In contrast, a range of unfree statuses existed in Native communities across early North America. Although Native America was remarkably diverse in the centuries before European settlement, Indigenous communities had developed distinctly complex practices of captivity, treating prisoners as spoils of war, as slaves, or as hostages or pawns in intercommunity diplomatic interactions, and these norms crossed ethnic lines in the north. If these practices appear to have lacked what Europeans recognized as jurisprudence—a written body of laws, a corpus of legal theories, and a judiciary system—Native Americans engaged in what Katherine Hermes calls jurispractice that is, they adhered to customs of acting legally, for instance using standard mechanisms and adhering to rules for resolving disputes, remedying wrongs, and punishing crimes. Within Native communities, slavery was governed by these legal structures and existed across a continuum that might range from temporary unfreedom to permanent bondage. 2
A range of behaviors blurred the differences between enslaved and free, from Creek settlements in southern Georgia and Florida north to New France and across the continent to the Texas and New Mexico borderlands. In the southwest borderlands, Native communities before and after Spanish contact practiced a unique form of slavery in which women and children were captives and hostages. Because slavery was tied to kinship rather than labor, however, the captured women sometimes became cultural mediators despite their marginalization. Among Southern Indians, slavery was a status on the continuum of captivity. Cultural and political outsiders—prisoners of war, individuals traded as property, and even those who voluntarily came to Indian communities—were slaves who brought human capital and social standing to her or his master. Particularly in the southeast and the continental interior, where the balance of power remained on the side of Natives as opposed to Europeans, the former often defined captivity and slavery on their own terms. Captives were not necessarily either prisoners, property, or intended strictly for labor. 3
Gender mattered within these varying statuses and definitions because women typically predominated as captives and assumed distinct roles that might range from pawns to agents. Within Native communities, women were often spared by their captors, while male prisoners were executed this strategy “maximized the demographic benefits of slavery,” because in times of high mortality women’s reproductivity was the best way of rebuilding community populations. 4 Along the eastern seaboard and up into New France, for instance, enslaved Indians were treated, much like their African counterparts, as chattel properties they performed domestic, artisanal, field, sexual, and reproductive labor, even if their status remained uncertain and shaded into freedom. In New France, Native terminology equated slaves with domestic properties—“dogs”—and placed captives on the lowest rungs of membership in their adopting clans. Female captives among the Cherokee faced a similar range of possibilities. They could be married or adopted into clans if these options were not available, however, they were kept as slaves who labored to support their masters and existed as social outsiders. French Louisiana provides yet another example there, Indians relied in part on exchanging women captives in order to forge trade and diplomatic alliances. Such captives could easily become slaves. The Caddos traded captive Apache women to the French settlements these women were desirable commodities as household servants and sexual partners, unwilling or otherwise, so slavery made Indian women sexually available to their captors, traders, and owners. In addition, women also served as hostages in diplomatic negotiations both between Native groups and Native and European power brokers. Moreover, among the widespread Native trade networks, exchanges of captives—again, predominantly women—were part of diplomatic strategies rather than sources of labor. 5
Shortly after the 1650s, and in contrast to the range of unfreedom in Native America, laws in European settlements in northern, eastern, and southern North America, including the Caribbean, made slavery increasingly inflexible. In these regions, particularly in the mid-Atlantic and southern colonies, indentured servitude and slavery coexisted. The former was distinguished by its temporary character and retention of rights servants, in theory, lost none of their legal protections as British subjects, though in practice they were dependent, bound, and coerced. 6 While these labor systems coexisted and shared certain features, legislators worked assiduously to institutionalize the differences between indenture and slavery in law. Statutes tied slavery to racial difference, a condition specific to people of color—that is, to Africans, Indians, and mixed-race individuals like mulattos and mustees (having one-eighth black ancestry), as well as their descendants.
After 1650 , Europeans across early America enacted a series of statutes that legally defined slavery as a permanent, heritable condition based on the maternal status of Africans and their descendants. Europeans continued to trade and purchase Indian slaves or enslave them as punitive retribution in the wake of wars, but late-17th-century British North Americans, for instance, began to establish some limits on Indian slavery. In New England, enslaved Indian captives did not necessarily transfer their status to their progeny, and some jurisdictions required legal permission before the children of enslaved Indian captives could be purchased or sold. New England prohibited Indian slavery after 1700 , as Virginia had recently done, but Native American workers continued in various forms of unfreedom thereafter. 7 Nonetheless, in both north and south, the law of slavery and the restriction of slavery to groups defined by race—Africans, Indians, and their descendants—was well established by the turn of the 18th century. Further elaboration of these codes would continue, of course, but the law of slavery, particularly in its connection to Africans and their descendants, remained fundamentally unaltered in European settlements across North America until the era of the American Revolution.
Women, Race, and Legal Status
The varied range of race and status across cultures and colonies is central to any consideration of women and the law in early North America for two reasons. First, the proportion of women who arrived as slaves exceeded that of those who arrived as free migrants. Probably four-fifths of all women who came to North America before 1800 were not European. In addition, women typically comprised between 40 and 49 percent of captives taken from the Gold Coast between 1662 and 1700 during those same years, they outnumbered men in the slave cargoes taken from the Bight of Biafra. Second, women often predominated among Native American captives. By 1708 , for instance, one-third of Native Americans in South Carolina were enslaved, and Native women were three to five times more likely to be enslaved than their male counterparts. A similar predominance of women as captives can be found in New France in the north and New Spain in the south. While male captives were more likely to be executed, their female counterparts were more likely to be adopted into tribes because of their potential as reproductive, household, and domestic laborers. Women also predominated among free black populations in the upper south and cities like New Orleans, where urban markets allowed them to sell goods or services and purchase their manumission with the proceeds. 8
Most of the women who came to early European settlements in North America did so as forced migrants from Africa, and their race and fertility were the foundational elements of the first slave laws enacted by Europeans. Across most of early North America, African slaves and their descendants inherited their enslaved status from their mothers. Although the number of laws governing slavery—and enslaved women—accumulated over the course of the colonial period, the legal doctrine of partus sequitur ventrem—progeny follows the womb—was one of the first, and it inextricably bound racial slavery to maternal identity. The doctrine first established the inheritability, and hence the permanence, of slavery as a legal status. 9
The law not only defined who might be a slave in America—the progeny of enslaved women—it also encouraged owners to consciously view the fertility of their enslaved women as a form of market capital. For instance, Jennifer L. Morgan’s analysis of the estates and wills of Caribbean slave owners reveals that they clearly comprehended the potential value of African women’s reproductivity. Planters’ purchasing patterns reflect their efforts not only to build their workforce but also to do so in a way that provided opportunities for sexual relationships among their enslaved workers. In sharp contrast to the southern and Caribbean British colonies, enslaved people constituted a tiny fraction of New England’s population. Moreover, very much unlike their southern counterparts, northern slave owners in the colonial period did not prize fertility in their female slaves since their children were likely sold—and sometimes infants were given away—because owners did not want the burden of supporting them, enslaved women may have attempted to avoid pregnancy. 10
In addition to institutionalizing inheritable slavery in female reproductivity, the law also provided planters with economic incentives to encourage the fertility and reproductivity of their enslaved women. The law did not penalize owners who raped or otherwise sexually coerced their enslaved women. On occasions, masters sued those who had harmed, sexually or otherwise, their enslaved women in order to regain lost value. While enslaved women transferred their status to their progeny, other laws stripped them of their legal identity, leaving them no standing under the law. Enslaved women had no recourse for sexual harm, regardless of the status of the perpetrator, although the earliest colonial statutes universally instructed masters to provide adequate provisioning and reasonable treatment to their enslaved subjects. Rape and sexual coercion were difficult crimes even for a free woman to establish and gain convictions for in the colonial courts. Enslaved women endured coerced sex with masters, overseers, and other white authorities, but indictments were exceptionally uncommon and practically nonexistent, although theory it was possible to charge and convict a white man for raping an enslaved woman. 11
Across European settlements, however, the law and experience of enslaved women varied with region. In New Spain and New France, masters appear to have been more accountable to their slaves under the law. Imperial legal codes, such as provisions of Spain’s Las Siete Partidas (Seven Part Code, probably written in the 13th century) and Recopilación de leyes de los reinos de las Indias (Compilation of the Law of the Kingdoms of the Indies, 1681 ) and France’s Code Noir (Black Code, initially written in 1685 but revised in 1724 ), regulated slavery as well as relationships between the enslaved and owners, enslaved and free people of color, and those of African and European descent. These jurisprudential codes were enforced but were also subject to local custom and influence, in which the Catholic Church and its ecclesiastical courts played a significant role. Beyond the stipulation that masters provide adequate food, clothing, and religious instruction, in New Spain the codes bore directly on women by requiring masters to honor marriage vows between slaves and keep enslaved couples together. For instance, the Code Noir stipulated that masters could not force slaves to marry against their will, sell wives and husbands away from one another, or separate parents from children. In addition, it provided a mechanism by which some enslaved women gained freedom through intermarriage, although it expressly prohibited marriage between enslaved women and free men. The law contained a proviso that if a man was unmarried “during his concubinage with this slave,” the couple could marry according to the church rules, and she and their children would be granted freedom. Such marriages remained relatively rare in the French period but gained recognition under Spanish rule. Similarly, under the Siete Partidas , ecclesiastical courts heard the complaints of enslaved wives who sought remedy or legal separation from abusive spouses. Moreover, enslaved couples occasionally successfully sued masters who failed to live up to the law in these regards. 12
Not all women of African or Indian descent were enslaved, however, and the free black population, particularly in the upper South and urban areas, grew in numbers throughout the early period. A conservative estimate suggests that free blacks comprised up to 10 percent of the population in the upper South and were more numerous in urban jurisdictions such as Charleston, St. Augustine, and New Orleans. Women often predominated in the free black population. In the upper South, they outnumbered their free male counterparts by 2:1, and in New Orleans, for instance, where women comprised about half of the population of African descent, two-thirds of them were free. Like their European counterparts, free blacks were able to pursue and protect their rights under law they could, for instance, own property, file lawsuits, make contracts, issue wills, and sue and be sued. 13
Still, for mixed-race women in early America, their very ancestries meant that, while free, these women were differently marked by the legal system, and they occupied a status that differed from both their free white and enslaved black counterparts. In French Louisiana, free blacks could be returned to slavery and sold if they had been convicted of certain crimes (harboring runaways and theft, for instance) and were unable to pay their legal fines in other jurisdictions, free black women were subjected to illegal trafficking. 14 Across British North America, free blacks were legally designated as a debased class of people. In Pennsylvania in 1726 , lawmakers required a bond on emancipated slaves, free blacks could be required to labor without pay, and free men of color could be sold into slavery if they married white women. 15 In Virginia, a 1723 law for the most part barred manumissions. Free blacks purchasing a family member’s freedom would have to obtain the permission of the governor and council or ostensibly have to pay for their relative’s passage out of the colony. 16 Across British North America, many free blacks were born as the products of mixed-race, out-of-wedlock unions, which meant that they became bound servants for their first two or three decades. By the terms of an early-18th-century Virginia law, children born to free women who had themselves been bound servants were required to serve the same amount of time as their mothers. 17
In addition, when free women of color married enslaved men, those unions challenged early American understandings of household status in ways that the reverse (that is, when free men of color married enslaved women) did not. In a society in which patriarchal authority was enshrined in the law, free women of color who married enslaved men initially must have posed challenges to the logic of coverture. Under the law of domestic relations, a husband was vested in rights to his wife’s property and body upon marriage. There were limits, but husbands gained possessory rights to their wives’ personal and real property (including enslaved property) married women could not make contracts or buy or sell property, nor were they entitled to their own earnings without their husbands’ consent. This doctrine of coverture was at the time referred to as the law of “baron and feme,” meaning lord and woman rather than husband and wife. The challenge of the free wife with an enslaved husband was easily resolved, however: lawmakers extended coverture to mixed-status marriages and, when necessary, vested wives’ legal identities in the masters of their husbands. 18
The need to distinguish among the various legal statuses of enslaved women, free women of color, and free women of European descent was evidenced early on in North American law. In mid-17th-century Virginia, for instance, statutes stipulated that adult women of color were to be taxed, like all men. However, adult white women were not taxed at all, with attempts to tax indentured white women proving unenforceable. These laws created some of the earliest statutory distinctions among free Virginia women and made race a “cornerstone” of womanhood. When confusion over the status of free black women arose a couple of decades later, a new law declared that, despite their freedom, they should not “be admitted to a full fruition of the exemptions and impunities” of English women. The taxes levied on women of color reflected the assumption that, unlike their white counterparts, free women of color were suitable for physically burdensome agricultural labor and occupied a debased position across colonial America. Further non-gender-specific legal disabilities followed in the early 18th century, when all free people of color were debarred from serving as witnesses in trials, except for those of slaves. 19
From the fourth decade of the 17th century, then, the law was instrumental in shaping the meaning and experience of freedom along the lines of gender and race. Yet even for enslaved and free women of color, the law was rooted in time and place, in specific communities of real people. Local legal officials could and did on occasion acknowledge that marginalized individuals who, despite the seemingly strict statutory definitions of slavery and status, deserved redress in courts of law.
In contrast to enslaved and free African and Indian women and their descendants, female migrants from Europe were governed by the common law of coverture, plus specific colonial statutes that defined their access to property, the nature of their labor, and the contours of their speech. Regardless of their legal status along the continuum of enslaved and free, these women were able to use the courts to protect their interests in property as well as in attempts to safeguard their persons. For European women, upon marriage, a wife’s legal identity ceased to have a separate legal existence from her husband in British law she was transformed from a feme sole (a single woman, a status that extended to widows) to a feme covert (a married woman), rendering her a legal dependent of her husband, unable, with important exceptions, to own property, make contracts, or collect wages. While these terms are specific to English law, French, Spanish, and Dutch law all placed greater or lesser restraints on married women, who were considered to be wards of their husbands. In contrast to the British model of coverture, for example, wives in Spanish America retained property rights during marriage they retained legal control over their property and could will it independently of their husbands. 20 While European women were legally disabled upon marriage, they had recourse to legal devices—prenuptial agreements, equity jurisdiction, feme sole trader status—that under certain circumstances ameliorated the harsh effects of the law. In addition, propertied women were accorded a degree of power based upon their rank they were able to secure legal rights to act independently of their husbands, even when their marriages had disintegrated and the law provided no options for divorce. 21
During the colonial period, European women in America remained entitled to the legal protections provided by imperial authorities, even when they occupied unfree statuses, such as indentured servitude. For instance, when masters or mistresses mistreated their indentured servant women physically or sexually or violated the terms of their labor contracts, the servants had a right to complain at the local court for redress in some jurisdictions, their pleas met with remedies from the bench. Nevertheless, patriarchal models of authority prevailed, and despite their access to the courts, indentured women remained restricted by a series of laws that gave their masters extensive powers over them. They could not marry or travel while under contract, and if they ran away, became pregnant, or challenged their masters, they would be penalized with extra terms of service. While the law in Virginia, for instance, penalized masters who impregnated their servant women by freeing the latter, at the same time the statute averred that such women might be unfairly “induced to lay all their bastards to their masters” in order to gain their freedom. The statutory language is clearly indicative of class-based notions of dissolute sexuality. Indeed, the statutes enacted across imperial North America, like those iterated above, were devoted to creating and enforcing differences among women on the basis of not only race but class as well. 22
Native Americans understood a range of conjugal unions, only some of which paralleled the Western concept of marriage. Particularly, before contact with Europeans, when Native American law held sway, polygyny—the marriage of one man to several women—was a normal feature of many Native societies across the Americas, practiced mostly by elites. Most individuals in Indian communities engaged in monogamous unions with other individuals, but these could be dissolved at the discretion of either party. These marriages forged kin and clan associations, social bonds, and diplomatic alliances. However, where European trade networks, expansion, and settlements penetrated existing Native American communities, the colonizers attempted to align Native marital practices with their own laws. Marriage was central to European social and religious order, and in New England, New France, and New Spain, for instance, missionaries worked earnestly to persuade their converts of the superiority of European marriage indeed, Native conjugal practices were a central institution that Europeans sought to control. In many cases, European and Indian conflicts over marriage reshaped gender roles of Native men and women. 23
From the colonial southeast, across the continent, and in the southwest, marriage among Native Americans was a central instrument in brokering and fostering intercultural alliances. On imperial frontiers, for instance, intermarriage between European men and Indigenous women cemented diplomatic and economic alliances between Indigenous communities and European traders. Like their male counterparts, women indigenous to North America who married Europeans held a unique status, simultaneously within and outside the European legal systems. The French expression à la façon du pays—by the custom of the county—reflected the extent to which these marriages proceeded according to cultural convention rather than law. In a later period, some European men took advantage of this extralegality to dissolve these relationships when it suited them, something that would have been nearly impossible in marriages among whites. Nearer to European settlements, such customary marriages were also considered to be a means of assimilating enslaved Native American wives into the culture of their husbands, but it is important to recognize that these “marriages” usually rested on coercion rather than cooperation. As one scholar argues for New France, for captive Indigenous women, rising from slavery into freedom sometimes required “prolonged submission to what could be defined as serial rape.” 24
Marital unions of enslaved men and women in British North America proceeded according to custom and generally carried no legal protections. However, in other European jurisdictions, marriages between slaves carried legal recognition. In 17th-century New Amsterdam, for instance, a group of enslaved men petitioned their owner, the Dutch West India Company, for their freedom and that of their wives. Their request was granted, but it came with significant qualifications and did not reflect the status of all New Netherland slaves. Those granted “half-freedom” were permitted to farm, but if they failed to pay an annual tax, they would be returned to slavery. Despite its limitations, the status of “half-free” helped to establish a more formal recognition of marriage. In addition, some enslaved women in New Netherland appear to have been successful in their requests for free status because of the value that whites placed on their domestic labor. 25
In French and Latin America, slaves were often granted a limited legal personality with regard to marriage. While practices varied, several types of legally recognized marital arrangements seem to have been possible within and across the status of enslaved and free occasionally, they were racially exogamous as well. Moreover, the legal recognition of marriages among slaves and between enslaved and free persons had the backing of ecclesiastical courts and the Catholic Church: depending upon jurisdiction, enslaved people could successfully sue masters who threatened to separate couples or families, for cruelty, and as well as to protect their property rights. Evidence from Latin America and French and Spanish Louisiana testifies to some official recognition of unions between slaves as well as between enslaved and free blacks, and, occasionally, between whites and blacks. When courts—usually ecclesiastical jurisdictions—ruled in favor of enslaved couples over masters, they upheld the legal primacy of marriage over slavery. 26
In addition, in some jurisdictions marriage provided an avenue out of slavery. Despite its ban on interracial marriage, an early version of the Code Noir stipulated that concubines bearing children to unmarried free men would gain their freedom if the couple married. Although a later revision of the Code eliminated the legality of sex across the color line, interracial unions occurred, and some were sanctioned. Moreover, in comparison to English jurisdictions, the manumission policies under both the French and Spanish regimes were more liberal and defined for ex-slaves and free people of color. In particular, when the Spanish assumed power in Louisiana in 1769 , slaves were able to make use of coaración, a legal mechanism that allowed them to purchase their freedom even when their masters were opposed. This accounted for half of all manumissions after the assumption of New Orleans. The conditions and legal regimes in Spanish settlements created a society in which racially mixed unions were tolerated and in which free blacks, and particularly the women who predominated among that population, enjoyed the possibilities of legal, social, and economic standing. Despite French and Spanish hostility towards free blacks, the imperial powers left unscathed many of their rights as subjects. 27
The situation across colonial British America could not have been more different. Colonial statutes almost always proscribed marriage and sex between Europeans and African- or Indian-descended people, often under penalty of banishment. 28 In many jurisdictions before the founding of the United States, these statutes were strictly enforced and offenders suffered penalties and punishments, but there were exceptions, particularly on the frontiers of settlement, where local custom sometimes tolerated such unions. 29 Several types of marital unions existed among people of color across the early modern Americas. Some marriages had legal standing, others held tenuous claims to the law’s protection, and still others lacked legal sanction altogether. “Indian” or “Negro” marriages, as some colonists called them, were understood in various times and places as legitimate and legal, and Europeans likely recognized in them elements of what the English termed spousals or self-marriages. Extralegal, if locally recognized, unions seem to have predominated in regions such as the Chesapeake (as well as colonial Louisiana and Florida) and resulted from various causes, among them uneven sex ratios, the initial legal indeterminacy between slavery and servitude, religious attitudes, economic and political instability, and the mixing of Africans, Europeans, and Native Americans.
If free African- and Indian-descended women were able to marry under these terms, they could not expect that marriage would guarantee the protections and disabilities of coverture as their European counterparts did. Marriages between two enslaved spouses were denied legal protection altogether in British North America. Throughout the early modern Americas, political authorities tailored legal regimes, including the legalities of marriage, to reflect both imperial inheritance and the realities of New World settlements. The “Indian,” “Christian,” “Negro,” and “irregular” or common-law marriages found in 18th-century British North America did not carry the same legal protections that were evident in Latin America. Although religion often played a role in formalizing marriage among slaves in English colonies—the largest number of marriages occurred among slaves owned by ministers and deacons—ministers devised vows that emphasized masters’ full property rights over their slaves. At wedding ceremonies, enslaved couples or free persons of color marrying enslaved spouses were required to concede their owners’ right to sell and separate them. 30
Marriage and slavery often existed in tension with one another as legal institutions, and many people of color attempted to negotiate the law’s conflicting aims, especially when one spouse was free and the other was enslaved and, as a result, their mixed-status marriage straddled the lines of freedom and slavery. Free black men in late colonial and revolutionary New England, for example, sought to exploit these competing tensions to their advantage. They sued the owners of their enslaved wives, arguing that their rights as husbands superseded the property rights of their wives’ masters and that the enslavement of wives deprived free black husbands of their rights. These legal strategies employed by plaintiffs set coverture against slavery and used the legal subordination of wives to husba claims that met with some success in the lower courts. 31
Coverture positioned wives and husbands differently in marriage, of course. In late-18th-century New England, for instance, the rules of coverture were used to limit the rights of enslaved and free women. For instance, enslaved wives—despite the legal uncertainty of “Negro marriage”—could not sue for their freedom or file lawsuits on their own behalf because they were femes covert, although unmarried enslaved women could do so. In mixed-status marriages in which wives were free and husbands were enslaved, however, women could not consistently claim rights as heads of households and were forced to balance their rights as heads of households with their subordination as wives. Free women of color would need to carefully navigate the competing aims of masters, local courts, and statute law in order to keep their families intact. They would need to develop their skills as litigators and their legal acumen if they were to survive the shifting legalities of marriage and race occurring all around them. 32
Although the association between women and the crime of witchcraft looms large in the contemporary imagination of early North America, women were far more likely to be accused of slander or defamation, sexual crimes, or running away than of felony witchcraft. In all of these cases, the crimes and their punishments intersected with and varied according to race and status under the law. Where women were the targets of defamation, for instance, the offending words typically cast aspersions on their sexual reputations and could also extend to accusations of interracial liaisons. For women, gossip was a way not only to judge others but also to enforce collective values. Slander was a major mechanism for women to exercise power in early modern America, a classic weapon of the weak women had few other means to attack their enemies. 33
Fornication outside marriage and bastardy, or out-of-wedlock pregnancy, predominated as crimes for which free women were prosecuted in early North America. In these and other cases involving free women’s bodies and reproductivity, legal testimony provided by midwives or matrons’ juries was used to establish paternity or the commission of a crime, such as infanticide. This was one of the few official functions of women before the colonial courts, one that recognized their legal expertise.
Prosecutions for fornication and bastardy occurred in the North American colonies throughout the colonial period. Some urban centers, such as Philadelphia and New Orleans, exhibited a relative tolerance for a range of sexual behaviors outside of marriage and an acceptance for unofficial marital practices both of these spanned across class and race. 34 The situation in New England and the Chesapeake was far different. In the former, a double standard—or the drive to hold women alone accountable for sexual infractions, rather than alongside their partners—emerged by the 18th century. Extramarital sex was punished with whippings or fines, even when the offending couple married, and, particularly in the early years of settlement, required public penance as well. Where servants were numerous, such as in the Chesapeake, lawmakers evidenced a concerted drive to prosecute their sexual crimes. Here, too, men were prosecuted alongside women while the latter bore the brunt of punishments, the courts were interested in determining paternal identity in order to secure support for the child. Servant women who bore children out of wedlock in the time of their servitude were saddled with a year or two of extra service in order to pay for their misdeeds. Statutes in particular indicted the character of servant women who bore children out of wedlock. While they censured masters’ sexual relationships with their servant women, laws also cautioned that such women were likely to wrongly or falsely name their masters as the fathers of their out-of-wedlock children. Authorities also enacted particular punishments for white women who engaged in interracial sex, selling them into long-term labor contracts.
Prosecutions of sex crimes before the courts were shaped by racial considerations from nearly the beginning of settlement, and by the early 18th century some British colonial jurisdictions had written race-specific statutes punishing bastardy. In Virginia, mixed-race offspring of white women and men of color were sentenced to thirty years of service similarly, the out-of-wedlock offspring of free women of color who had been servants in Virginia, for instance, were often bound over for similarly lengthy terms of service, typically thirty to thirty-one years. In the upper south, these laws effectively shaped the household polity for free blacks, creating a bound system of mixed-race, if nominally free, laborers. Many free mixed-race children became servants for at least the first three decades of their lives. 35 Following English practice, local justices had discretionary powers to indenture the children of parents who were judged to be unable to provide for their offspring. As had been the case in England since the enactment of the 16th-century Statute of Artificers, it was perfectly acceptable to compel free individuals, if they were poor, to labor. Keeping family members together was less important to the law than forcing the poor to work. 36
Unlike their free counterparts, enslaved women could not legally be construed to be mothers, because the legal status of slavery for the most part negated prosecutions for fornication and bastardy. In another point of contrast, enslaved women were subjected to plantation justice as well as the criminal justice system that lawmakers erected specifically for slaves. When they stood before the court as criminal defendants, African and Indian slaves and servants were more likely to be convicted than their European counterparts. Enslaved women were subjected to all manner of private punishments meted out by their masters or mistresses or, if tried in the separate slave courts established in Virginia and other slave colonies, they were convicted in a summary justice system and endured far more severe punishments than their free and European counterparts. Some evidence from after the period of the American Revolution suggests that local communities mitigated these punishments or more actively sought redress for enslaved women who had been convicted of crimes. In these cases, the abstraction of the law could be undercut by the concrete knowledge of communities, and cases, even those involving slaves, could hinge on local knowledge. 37
Conclusion: Toward the American Revolution
Historians of early American women have argued for some time that the Revolution did not substantially alter the legal status of free women. The Revolution did not challenge coverture or alter the law of domestic relations, and, in fact, female subordination may have even been strengthened in the landscape of the early Republic. Legal changes in the wake of the Revolution did, however, liberalize complete divorce in the United States. While colonial statutes had allowed partial divorces in the form of legal separations (a mensa et thoro), only a few jurisdictions had offered absolute divorce (a vincula) either through the courts, as in Connecticut, or through private legislative act. Making divorce, albeit on the premise that one party was at fault, more widely available carried fairly radical implications for marriages involving free women.
The Revolution did, however, alter the landscape of slavery in the new United States. Northern states, where slavery was never as directly central to the labor system as it was in the south, began enacting gradual emancipation statutes in the wake of the American Revolution. Although in the southern colonies the earliest codes defining racial slavery were elaborated throughout the colonial period and remained in place through the Civil War, a wave of manumissions in the upper south followed in the wake of the American Revolution, when legislators briefly liberalized emancipation statutes. In the north, free women of color became involved in antislavery work in the south, they became active petitioners and litigants in court, seeking to maintain or secure the freedom of themselves and their families. Yet, while slavery may have been dismantled or compromised in some jurisdictions, that did not quell racism. In contrast, the U.S. acquisition of Louisiana in 1803 introduced laws in the former French territory that hardened the boundaries between enslaved and free and limited the freedoms of its free black population. Manumissions were restricted to those above the age of thirty, and newly freed individuals were ordered to leave the territory. Marriages across status (between enslaved and free people) were outlawed, as were interracial unions. The lines of legitimate inheritance, previously much more expansive in Louisiana, were changed to strictly follow marriages. In addition, while Pennsylvania repealed its ban on interracial marriage in 1780 , existing and new statutory laws against interracial marriage and sex were strengthened and spread through much of the new United States. Some Indian nations also enacted prohibitions against intermarriage with African Americans. The altered landscape of slavery in the aftermath of the American Revolution had some liberatory consequences for women of color, but its more repressive features are the ones that truly mark the institution through the eve of the Civil War. 38
Discussion of the Literature
The earliest studies of women and the law in early America include Richard B. Morris, Studies in the Early History of American Law, With Special Reference to the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries ( 1930 ) Julia Cherry Spruill, Women’s Life and Work in the Southern Colonies ( 1932 ) and Mary Ritter Beard, Woman as Force in History: A Study in Traditions and Realities ( 1946 ). A renewed concern for the topic remerged alongside feminism in the 1970s, and by the early 21st century the intersection of gender and the law had become an established subfield of both U.S. women’s history and early American studies. One early expression of the need to consider the gendered politics of law can be seen in Linda K. Kerber, et al., “Beyond Roles, Beyond Separate Spheres: Thinking about Gender in the Early Republic.” 39 The intersection of the law with gender and racial formation in early America is a touchstone in Kathleen M. Brown’s influential review essays, “Brave New Worlds: Women's and Gender History” 40 and “Beyond the Great Debates: Gender and Race in Early America,” 41 as well as in her book Good Wives, Nasty Wenches, and Anxious Patriarchs: Gender, Race, and Power in Colonial Virginia. 42 See also Sharon Block and Kathleen M. Brown, “Clio in Search of Eros: Redefining Sexuality in Early America” 43 Karin Wulf, “Women and Families in Early (North) America and the Wider (Atlantic)” 44 and Terri L. Snyder, “Refiguring Women in Early America.” 45
The earliest works on early American women and the law focused almost exclusively on British America—mostly on New England—and the realms of women’s legal status, property, and domestic relations. These include Marylynn Salmon, Women and the Law of Property in Early America 46 Linda K. Kerber, Women of the Republic: Intellect and Ideology in Revolutionary America 47 Joan R. Gundersen and Gwen Victor Gampel, “Married Women’s Legal Status in Eighteenth-Century New York and Virginia” 48 Mary Beth Norton, Liberty’s Daughters: The Revolutionary Experience of American Women, 1750–1800 49 and Linda E. Speth, “‘More than Her Thirds’: Wives and Widows in Colonial Virginia.” 50 Although not explicitly focused on legal history per se, legal status is foundational to the work of Lois Green Carr and Lorena S. Walsh, “The Planter's Wife: The Experience of White Women in Seventeenth-Century Maryland.” 51 Historians have also evidenced an interest in crime, including, of course, witchcraft. See for instance Barbara S. Lindeman, “‘To Ravish and Carnally Know’: Rape in Eighteenth-Century Massachusetts” 52 John Putnam Demos, Entertaining Satan: Witchcraft and the Culture of Early New England 53 N. E. H. Hull, Female Felons: Women and Serious Crime in Colonial Massachusetts 54 and Carol F. Karlsen, The Devil in the Shape of a Woman: Witchcraft in Colonial New England . 55
In the 1990s, historians began to consider women’s relations to the law from a variety of perspectives, focusing particularly on women’s appearances in court. Their work evidenced a concern for the larger implications of legalities for power relations in society, with work on the Chesapeake and New England still predominating. See for instance, Cornelia Hughes Dayton, Women Before the Bar: Gender, Law, Society in Connecticut, 1639–1789 56 Susan Juster, Disorderly Women: Sexual Politics and Evangelicalism in Revolutionary New England 57 Deborah A. Rosen, Courts and Commerce: Gender, Law, and the Market Economy in Colonial New York 58 and Kathleen M. Brown’s radical rethinking of women’s legal status in conjunction with changing race and class relations in Good Wives, Nasty Wenches, and Anxious Patriarchs: Gender, Race, and Power in Colonial Virginia . 59 Mary Beth Norton offered a comparative examination of gendered power in the households and communities of 17th-century New England and the Chesapeake in Founding Mothers and Fathers: Gendered Power and the Forming of American Society . 60 In Not All Wives: Women of Colonial Philadelphia , 61 Karin A. Wulf shifted attention to the legal status of unmarried women in mid-Atlantic Philadelphia. Other works investigating women’s experiences in the courts include Kirsten Fischer, Suspect Relations: Sex, Race, and Resistance in Colonial North Carolina 62 Linda L. Sturtz, “Within Her Power”: Propertied Women in Colonial Virginia 63 Terri L. Snyder, Brabbling Women: Disorderly Speech and the Law in Early Virginia 64 Sharon Block, Rape and Sexual Power in Early America 65 and Clare A. Lyons, Sex Among the Rabble: An Intimate History of Gender and Power in the Age of Revolution, Philadelphia, 1730–1830. 66 See also Holly Brewer, “The Transformation of Domestic Law.” 67 Some studies focusing explicitly on marriage—particularly irregular marriage—include Richard Godbeer, Sexual Revolution in Early America 68 and Carole Shammas, A History of Household Government in America . 69
A growing literature on Indigenous women has provided a much-needed corrective to the predominance of Anglo America. Even more importantly, this material has fundamentally altered the geographical scope of early American history. Important titles include Sylvia Van Kirk, Many Tender Ties: Women in Fur-Trade Society, 1670–1870 70 Ann Marie Plane, Colonial Intimacies: Indian Marriage in Early New England 71 Sarah M. S. Pearsall, “‘Having Many Wives’ in Two American Rebellions: The Politics of Households and the Radically Conservative” 72 Susan Sleeper-Smith, Indian Women and French Men: Rethinking the Cultural Encounter in the Western Great Lakes 73 James F. Brooks, Captives and Cousins: Slavery, Kinship, and Community in the Southwest Borderlands 74 Ann Little, Abraham in Arms: War and Gender in Colonial New England 75 Juliana Barr, Peace Came in the Form of a Woman: Indians and Spaniards in the Texas Borderlands 76 Kathleen DuVal, “Intermarriage and Métissage in Colonial Louisiana” 77 Daniel Mandell, Tribe, Race, History: Native Americans in Southern New England, 1780–1880 78 Michelle LeMaster, Brothers Born of One Mother: British-Native American Relations in the Colonial Southeast 79 and Brett Rushforth, Bonds of Alliance: Indigenous and Atlantic Slaveries in New France . 80 An instructive treatment of the Creek Mary Musgrove Bosomworth’s negotiation of European legalities can be found in Joshua Piker, The Four Deaths of Acorn Wheeler: Telling Stories in Colonial America . 81
Similarly, the literature on enslaved and free women of color, both within and outside of British North America, has measurably deepened in recent years. Although not explicitly focused on early America, Deborah Gray White, Ar’n’t I a Woman: Female Slaves in the Plantation South , remains an indispensable starting point for the study of women and slavery. Jennifer L. Morgan concentrates explicitly on the early modern period in Laboring Women: Reproduction and Gender in New World Slavery . 82 Works examining race and gender in southern Spanish and French North American and Caribbean possessions include Barbara Bush, Slave Women in Caribbean Society, 1630–1838 83 the essays collected in The Devil’s Lane: Sex and Race in the Early South , ed. Catherine Clinton and Michelle Gillespie 84 Jane Landers, Black Society in Spanish Florida 85 Jennifer M. Spear, Race, Sex, and Social Order in Early New Orleans 86 Emily Clark, The Strange History of the American Quadroon: Free Women of Color in the Revolutionary Atlantic World 87 Hilary McD. Beckles, Natural Rebels: A History of Enslaved Women in Barbados 88 Christine M. Walker, “Pursuing Her Profits: Women in Jamaica, Atlantic Slavery and a Globalising Market, 1700–60” 89 and Heather Miyano Kopelson, Faithful Bodies: Creating Religion and Race in the Puritan Atlantic . 90
In many cases, the laws and statutes for various imperial colonies across North America and the Caribbean have been published in multiple volume sets over the course of the 19th and 20th centuries. Many are now available electronically through Google Books, the Internet Archive, or legislative, state library, and university websites. The slave codes of Barbados and Jamaica can be found in Carla Gardina Pestana and Sharon V. Salinger, eds., The Early English Caribbean, 1570–1770 , Vol. 3 91 and Stanley Engerman, Seymour Drescher, and Robert Paquette, eds., Slavery . 92 While a close reading of statutes is imperative for understanding the timing and evolution of laws regarding race and women across colonial America, statutes are best considered in conjunction with other juridical sources.
To best view the law of race and gender in application and experience, early American scholars often turn to judicial records of local, provincial, notarial, and imperial jurisdictions across and outside of the United States. Unlike the statute collections listed above, comparatively few court records have been published or made available digitally, but this is changing some of the printed compilations are available via the Internet Archive or Google Books. However, students should bear in mind that printed compilations may exclude court papers that accompanied the cases, and so checking against unpublished archival materials still remains essential for in-depth legal history. Students would also do well to consult the websites of state libraries or governments in order to see which of their collections have been digitized.
What follows is a representative but by no means exhaustive list of primary sources, and, as can be seen, English sources for New England and the upper south are overrepresented. For Louisiana, the Caribbean, and New France, there is less republication of original sources, although that is changing. In consulting archives, early Americanists should move beyond strictly legal sources. As historians have demonstrated, legal handbooks, church and probate records, diaries of planters, and accounts of guardians of the poor, for instance, can be used fruitfully, augmenting legal sources by providing evidence of the law in action.
Published Primary Sources
For New England and northern colonies, see J. Hammond Trumbull and Charles Hoadly, eds., The Public Records of the Colony of Connecticut, 1636–1776 93 John A. Noble, ed., Records of the Court of Assistants of the Colony of Massachusetts Bay 1630–1692 94 George Francis Dow, ed., Records and Files of the Quarterly Courts of Essex County Massachusetts 95 and the New Hampshire Provincial and State Papers . 96 For Virginia, see Susie M. Ames, ed., County Court Records of Accomack-Northampton, Virginia, 1632–1640 97 Susie M. Ames, ed., County Court Records of Accomack-Northampton, Virginia, 1632–1640 98 and H. R. MacIlwaine, ed., Minutes of the Council and General Court of Virginia, 1622–1632, 1670–1676 . 99 For Maryland, see William Hand Browne, et al., eds., Archives of Maryland , 100 also available as Archives of Maryland Online.
The Salem Witch Trials
The Salem witch trials of 1692 were the earliest examples of mass hysteria in the country.
Evaluate what the Salem witch trials reveal about the role of religion and the role of women in the colonies
- The Salem witch trials were a series of hearings and prosecutions of people accused of witchcraft in colonial Massachusetts between 1692 and 1693.
- The trials resulted in the executions of 20 people, 14 of them women. All but one were hanged five others (including two infant children) died in prison.
- What happened in colonial America was not unique, but rather an example of the much broader phenomenon of witch trials that occurred during the early modern period throughout England and France.
- Women were more susceptible to suspicions of witchcraft because they were perceived, in Puritan society, to have weaker constitutions that were more likely to be inhabited by the Devil.
- Initially, those accused of witchcraft tended to be outcasts in some way or another, but as the trials went on, even citizens in good standing were not immune from accusations.
- Puritans: A group of English Reformed Protestants in the 16th and 17th centuries who sought to reform the Church of England from all Roman Catholic practices.
- due process: The requirement that the state must respect all legal rights that are owed to a person.
The Salem witch trials were a series of hearings and prosecutions of people accused of witchcraft in colonial Massachusetts between February 1692 and May 1693. The trials resulted in the executions of 20 people, 14 of them women and all but one by hanging. Five others (including two infant children) died in prison.
Twelve other women had previously been executed for witchcraft in Massachusetts and Connecticut during the 17th century. The episode is one of colonial America’s most notorious cases of mass hysteria. It has been used in political rhetoric and popular literature as a vivid cautionary tale about the dangers of isolationism, religious extremism, false accusations, and lapses in due process. What happened in colonial America was not unique, but rather an example of the much broader phenomenon of witch trials that occurred during the early modern period throughout England and France.
Puritan Beliefs and Witchcraft
Like many other Europeans, the Puritans of New England believed in the supernatural. Every event in the colonies appeared to be a sign of God’s mercy or judgment, and it was commonly believed that witches allied themselves with the Devil to carry out evil deeds or cause deliberate harm. Events such as the sickness or death of children, the loss of cattle, and other catastrophes were often blamed on the work of witches.
Women were more susceptible to suspicions of witchcraft because they were perceived, in Puritan society, to have weaker constitutions that were more likely to be inhabited by the Devil. Women healers with knowledge of herbal remedies—things that could often deemed “pagan” by Puritans—were particularly at risk of being accused of witchcraft.
Hundreds were accused of witchcraft including townspeople whose habits or appearance bothered their neighbors or who appeared threatening for any reason. Women made up the vast majority of suspects and those who were executed. Prior to 1692, there had been rumors of witchcraft in villages neighboring Salem Village and other towns. Cotton Mather, a minister of Boston’s North Church (not to be confused with the later Anglican North Church associated with Paul Revere), was a prolific publisher of pamphlets, including some that expressed his belief in witchcraft.
The Salem Trials
In Salem Village, in February 1692, Betty Parris, age 9, and her cousin Abigail Williams, age 11, began to have fits in which they screamed, threw things, uttered strange sounds, crawled under furniture, and contorted themselves into peculiar positions. A doctor could find no physical evidence of any ailment, and other young women in the village began to exhibit similar behaviors. Colonists suspected witchcraft and accusations began to spread.
The first three people accused and arrested for allegedly causing the afflictions were Sarah Good (a homeless beggar), Sarah Osborne (a woman who rarely attended church), and Tituba (an African or American Indian slave). Each of these women was a kind of outcast and exhibited many of the character traits typical of the “usual suspects” for witchcraft accusations. They were left to defend themselves.
Throughout the year, more women and some men were arrested, including citizens in good standing, and colonists began to fear that anyone could be a witch. Many of the accusers who prosecuted the suspected witches had been traumatized by the American Indian wars on the frontier and by unprecedented political and cultural changes in New England. Relying on their belief in witchcraft to help make sense of their changing world, Puritan authorities executed 20 people and caused the deaths of several others before the trials were over.
The Salem Witch Trials: The central figure in this 1876 illustration of the courtroom is usually identified as Mary Walcott, one of the “afflicted” girls called as a witness at the Salem Witch Trials in 1692-93.
Women in government
By 1939, 19 percent of government employees were women, 5 percent more than ten years earlier. The women's rate of federal employment was increasing twice as fast as the men's, but it was doing so only in specific areas of government—in the new federal agencies providing work relief and social security programs. For example, the Works Progress Administration (WPA), created in 1935 to provide jobs for those still out of work, had a woman administrator, Ellen Sullivan Woodward (1887–1971), who served as head of the Women's and Professional Projects Division of the WPA. Woodward oversaw the work of 450,000 women on work relief projects such as sewing, library work, public health programs, educational programs, and research services. Dewson had recommended Woodward to the WPA's head, Harry Hopkins (1890–1946), and considered the appointment one of her proudest achievements.
Dewson also played a hand in Nellie Tayloe Ross's appointment as the first woman director of the U.S. Mint. Another first for women was Ruth Bryan Owen's (1885–1954) appointment as minister to Denmark, a political position just below that of ambassador. Through her political network Dewson frequently organized letter-writing campaigns to push for certain appointments. As a result of one of these campaigns, Florence Allen (1884–1966) was named to the U.S. circuit court of appeals, the highest position a woman had ever held in the federal judicial (legal) system. Although Dewson always downplayed her personal responsibility for placing these and other women in their New Deal positions, her perseverance and close relationship with the Roosevelts certainly contributed to the number of women in New Deal programs. Dewson and Eleanor Roosevelt agreed that women's energy and idealism would bring out the humanitarian side of government, its growing concern for the welfare of human beings. The concept of the federal government caring for its citizens' well-being first emerged in the United States in the 1930s, in response to the extreme hardships brought on by the Great Depression.
Mary McLeod Bethune (1875–1955) became the first black American woman to head a federal agency. She was appointed as Negro Affairs director for the National Youth Administration (NYA) in 1936. The NYA was designed to meet the educational and employment needs of America's youths. Bethune successfully oversaw the administration of funds for black schools and educational programs. From 1935 to 1944 she also held the title of Special Advisor on Minority Affairs. She was the unofficial leader of Roosevelt's "Black Cabinet," various black federal officials who served as an informal advisory group to the president.
Hallie Flanagan (1890–1969) was another prominent woman in the New Deal. She headed the Federal Theater Project (FTP), a project within the Works Progress Administration. The FTP provided work relief for those who had been employed in theater production before the economic crisis of the Great Depression eliminated most of their jobs. The FTP was highly controversial from the start: Many people argued that it was ridiculous to spend public funds to employ actors and artists. Nevertheless, Flanagan developed the program with determination, and the FTP eventually employed more than twelve thousand actors, directors, set artists, stage-hands, and others in over twenty-eight states. Collectively they staged productions in more than 105 theaters. Many productions were free to the public, and, because of this, many Americans got their first introduction to live plays and musicals.
Fighting for the Union
With the outbreak of war in 1861, women and men alike eagerly volunteered to fight for the cause. In the Northern states, women organized ladies’ aid societies to supply the Union troops with everything they needed, from food (they baked and canned and planted fruit and vegetable gardens for the soldiers) to clothing (they sewed and laundered uniforms, knitted socks and gloves, mended blankets and embroidered quilts and pillowcases) to cash (they organized door-to-door fundraising campaigns, county fairs and performances of all kinds to raise money for medical supplies and other necessities).
But many women wanted to take a more active role in the war effort. Inspired by the work of Florence Nightingale and her fellow nurses in the Crimean War, they tried to find a way to work on the front lines, caring for sick and injured soldiers and keeping the rest of the Union troops healthy and safe.
In June 1861, they succeeded: The federal government agreed to create 𠇊 preventive hygienic and sanitary service for the benefit of the army” called the United States Sanitary Commission. The Sanitary Commission’s primary objective was to combat preventable diseases and infections by improving conditions (particularly cookery” and bad hygiene) in army camps and hospitals. It also worked to provide relief to sick and wounded soldiers. By war’s end, the Sanitary Commission had provided almost $15 million in supplies–the vast majority of which had been collected by women–to the Union Army.
Nearly 20,000 women worked more directly for the Union war effort. Working-class white women and free and enslaved African-American women worked as laundresses, cooks and “matrons,” and some 3,000 middle-class white women worked as nurses. The activist Dorothea Dix, the superintendent of Army nurses, put out a call for responsible, maternal volunteers who would not distract the troops or behave in unseemly or unfeminine ways: Dix insisted that her nurses be “past 30 years of age, healthy, plain almost to repulsion in dress and devoid of personal attractions.” (One of the most famous of these Union nurses was the writer Louisa May Alcott.)
Army nurses traveled from hospital to hospital, providing “humane and efficient care for wounded, sick and dying soldiers.” They also acted as mothers and housekeepers–“havens in a heartless world”𠄿or the soldiers under their care.
WHITE WOMEN ARE INSTRUMENTS OF TERROR – Charles Blow, NYTimes
At a time of so much death and suffering in this country and around the world from the Covid-19 pandemic, it can be easy, I suppose, to take any incidents that don’t result in death as minor occurrences. But they aren’t.
The continued public assault on black people, particularly black men, by the white public and by the police predates the pandemic and will outlast it. This racial street theater against black people is an endemic, primal feature of the Republic.
Specifically, I am enraged by white women weaponizing racial anxiety, using their white femininity to activate systems of white terror against black men. This has long been a power white women realized they had and that they exerted. This was again evident when a white woman in New York’s Central Park told a black man, a bird-watcher, that she was going to call the police and tell them that he was threatening her life. This was not innocent nor benign nor divorced from historical context.
Throughout history, white women have used the violence of white men and the institutions these men control as their own muscle. From the beginning, anti-black white terrorists used the defense of white women and white purity as a way to wrap violence in valor. Carnage became chivalry. We often like to make white supremacy a testosterone-fueled masculine expression, but it is just as likely to wear heels as a hood. Particularly in the post-Civil War era, when slavery had been undone, white male politicians used the fear of rape of white women by black men to codify racial terror.
As the author and scholar Rebecca Edwards has pointed out in her book “Angels in the Machinery: Gender in American Party Politics From the Civil War to the Progressive Era,” white politicians have long focused their furor by claiming to be the defenders of white women, a last guard against their suffering.
As Dr. Edwards noted, Mississippi’s James Vardaman, arguably one of the most violent racist politicians in American history, and that’s quite a feat, said in 1903, “a vote for Vardaman is a vote for white supremacy, a vote for the quelling of the arrogant spirit that has been aroused in the blacks by Roosevelt and his henchmen, … a vote for the safety of the home and the protection of our women and children.” Vardaman, who once famously said, “If it is necessary, every Negro in the state will be lynched,” won election and became governor of Mississippi. Indeed, untold numbers of lynchings were executed because white women had claimed that a black man raped, assaulted, talked to or glanced at them.
But it goes even further than that. The Tulsa Race massacre, the destruction of Black Wall Street, was spurred by an incident between a white female elevator operator and a black man. As the Oklahoma Historical Society points out, the most common explanation is that he stepped on her toe. As many as 300 people were killed because of it.
Here are the pioneering women who will be on new quarters
Beginning in 2022, women’s faces will appear on quarters for the first time, and the public will help choose who will be minted.
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Beginning in 2022, women’s faces will circulate through the nation’s currency on quarters — something long overdue, according to Rep. Barbara Lee, a California Democrat who has been working on this legislation since 2017.
“I wanted to make sure that women would be honored, and their images and names be lifted up on our coins. I mean, it’s outrageous that we haven’t,” Lee said. “Hopefully the public really delves into who these women were, because these women have made such a contribution to our country in so many ways.”
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Lee began drafting legislation on the coin program with help from Rosa Rios, the Treasury official who oversaw the United States Mint under former President Barack Obama. She introduced her bill, the Circulating Collectible Coin Redesign Act, with two Republicans, Reps. Anthony Gonzalez of Ohio and Deb Fischer of Nebraska. It was signed into law in 2020.
The program will have the United States Mint circulate up to five chosen women on the reverse (tail) side of the quarter-dollar from 2022 to 2025 — allowing for up to 22 women to have their faces on U.S. quarters by the end of 2025. The Mint selected the first two women to be in circulation by 2022: the civil rights activist and poet Maya Angelou and astronaut Dr. Sally Ride. Three others were announced in June: Wilma Mankiller, Adelina Otero-Warren and Anna May Wong.
“In circulation means if you go to purchase whatever in the grocery store … the chances are you may get a quarter with Dr. Maya Angelou or Dr. Sally Ride,” Lee said.
It’s not just about the coins, but about what they represent and the power they have to start a dialogue in this nation around women who were trailblazers in their field, Lee said. The last time a woman appeared on U.S. currency was in 2000, when gold $1 Sacagawea coins went into circulation, honoring the Indigenous woman who helped the Lewis and Clark expedition explore the Louisiana Purchase territory.
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The public will have the opportunity to nominate other women for the quarters using this form established by the National Women’s History Museum. Janet Yellen, the Treasury secretary, will select the women in consultation with the Smithsonian Institution’s American Women’s History Initiative, the National Women’s History Museum, and the Congressional Bipartisan Women’s Caucus. With this public form and additional input from organizations, Lee hopes to highlight a diverse range of women who come from all walks of life.
“I think it’s important that the public understands and knows how to weigh in on this,” Lee said.
“That’s a mammoth kind of effort that we’re mounting, but we’re getting the word out.”
The women chosen have to be deceased and can be influential in a myriad of fields and time periods including, but not limited to, civil rights, the women’s suffrage movement, government, the humanities or science.
Lee hopes opening the process to the public can help this become an educational tool, allowing young people to learn about influential women in history and understand their stories before submitting nominations.
“I think it is a good organizing tool that communities should use, and have children kind of tell stories and do the research and come up with who they think would be the woman that should be submitted,” Lee said. “It’s about time that people who exchange currency and coins understand that women deserve things. This is long past due.”
The women on the faces of the quarters
Maya Angelou (April 4, 1928 – May 28, 2014)
Angelou was a civil rights activist, poet and writer best known for her 1969 memoir “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.” She wrote this book — which documents her childhood in Arkansas and her experiences of racism as a young Black woman — following her efforts to aid Black leaders across the nation, including Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. In 1993, she became the first woman to be the inaugural poet in U.S. history, reciting “On the Pulse of Morning,” during former President Bill Clinton’s inauguration. She wrote seven autobiographies, three essay books and many other pieces that were adapted for the screen over the years. “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you,” Angelou said.
Dr. Sally Ride (May 26, 1951 – July 23, 2012)
Ride became the first American woman — and youngest American — to fly in space on June 18, 1983, on the Challenger space shuttle after NASA changed its policy to allow women astronauts in space in the late 1970s. Ride was studying physics and English at Stanford University when she saw her student newspaper run an ad looking for astronauts. She applied right away and was one of just six women selected to train. In 1986, when the Challenger shuttle exploded, killing all on board, Ride was one of the top investigators looking into the tragedy. In 2001, Ride co-founded Sally Ride Science, which aimed to motivate primarily young women and girls to explore the science and space fields largely dominated by men.
Wilma Mankiller (November 18, 1945 – April 6, 2010)
Mankiller was the first woman to be principal chief of the Cherokee Nation and the first woman elected as chief of a major tribe. She dedicated her life to fighting for the rights of Indigenous people. Her activism began in 1969 through her support of a group of American Indians who took over the federal penitentiary on Alcatraz Island on San Francisco Bay to expose the suffering of Indigenous people in America. She became the director of Oakland’s Native American Youth Center and then later founded the Community Development Department for the Cherokee Nation, where she worked to improve access to water and housing.
Adelina Otero-Warren (October 23, 1881 – January 3, 1965)
Otero-Warren was a leader in New Mexico’s women’s suffrage movement and the first woman to be superintendent of public schools in Santa Fe. Within the suffrage movement, she fought to include Spanish to reach more Hispanic women, and emphasized the need to publish suffrage material in both Spanish and English, making the movement more accessible. She also led the effort to ratify the 19th amendment in New Mexico. She worked tirelessly to include bicultural education in New Mexico and honor the cultural practices of the state’s Indigenous communities. In 1917, she was appointed as superintendent of public schools in Santa Fe, where she focused on promoting adult education programs and improving the physical conditions of schools.
Anna May Wong (January 3, 1905 – February 3, 1961)
Wong was the first Chinese American film star in Hollywood and appeared in over 60 movies, as well as starring in roles on television and on the stage. Growing up, she worked in her family’s laundry business while attending Chinese language classes after school. But when the film industry moved from New York City to California, she started visiting movie sets and was cast in her first starring role in “The Toll of the Sea” in 1922. After working in the United States for years, Wong moved abroad because of the discrimination she experienced in the American film industry. Later in her life, she became an activist, raising money and advocating for Chinese refugees during World War II. She was the first Asian American to lead a US television show, “The Gallery of Madame Liu-Tsong.”
Support in the domestic realm Edit
Homespun movement Edit
Women in the era of the Revolution were, for the most part, responsible for managing the household. Connected to these activities, women worked in the homespun movement. Instead of wearing or purchasing clothing made of imported British materials, Patriot women continued a long tradition of weaving, and spun their cloth to make clothing for their families.  In addition to the boycotts of British textiles, the homespun movement served the Continental Army by producing needed clothing and blankets. Benjamin Franklin's youngest sister, Jane Mecom, could be called on for her soap recipe, and even instructions on how to build the soap-making forms. Wearing "clothes of your make and spinning," or "homespun," was a peaceful way of expressing support for the patriot cause. 
Nonimportation and Nonconsumption Edit
Nonimportation and nonconsumption became major weapons in the arsenal of the American resistance movement against British taxation without representation.  Women played a major role in this method of defiance by denouncing silks, satins, and other luxuries in favor of homespun clothing generally made in spinning and quilting bees, sending a strong message of unity against British oppression. In 1769, Christopher Gadsden made a direct appeal to colonial women, saying that "our political salvation, at this crisis, depends altogether upon the strictest economy, that the women could, with propriety, have the principal management thereof." (To the Planters, Mechanics, and Freeholders of the Province of South Carolina, No Ways Concerned in the Importation of British Manufactures, June 22, 1769.) 
As managers of the domestic economy, housewives used their purchasing power to support the Patriot cause. Women refused to purchase British manufactured goods for use in their homes. The tea boycott, for example, was a relatively mild way for a woman to identify herself and her household as part of the patriot war effort. While the Boston Tea Party of 1773 is the most widely recognized manifestation of this boycott, it is important to note that for years previous to that explosive action, Patriot women had been refusing to consume that very same British product as a political statement. The Edenton Tea Party represented one of the first coordinated and publicized political actions by women in the colonies. Fifty-one women in Edenton, North Carolina signed an agreement officially agreeing to boycott tea and other British products and sent it to British newspapers.  Similar boycotts extended to a variety of British goods, and women instead opted in favor of purchasing or making "American" goods. Even though these "non-consumption boycotts" depended on national policy (formulated by men), it was women who enacted them in the household spheres in which they reigned.
During the Revolution, buying American products became a patriotic gesture. Also, frugality (a lauded feminine virtue before the years of the revolution) likewise became a political statement as households were asked to contribute to the wartime efforts. 
Other civilian activities Edit
Women were asked to put their homes into public service for the quartering of American soldiers. 
Women helped the Patriot cause through organizations such as the Ladies Association in Philadelphia. The women of Philadelphia collected funds to assist in the war effort, which Martha Washington then took directly to her husband, General George Washington. Other states subsequently followed the example set by founders Esther de Berdt Reed (wife of the Pennsylvania governor, Joseph Reed) and Sarah Franklin Bache (daughter of Benjamin Franklin). In 1780, the colonies raised over $300,000 through these female-run organizations. 
Mercy Otis Warren wrote scathing satirical plays that damaged the reputations of local British officials such as Governor Thomas Hutchinson and attorney general Jonathan Sewall. Poet Hannah Griffitts wrote verses urging Pennsylvania women to boycott British goods. Both women published their work anonymously. 
The revolution created food shortages and drove up prices. Women were among the food rioters who conducted over 30 raids on storehouses between 1776 and 1779, seizing goods from merchants they considered unreasonable. In Boston, a group of women marched down to a warehouse where a merchant was holding coffee that he refused to sell. They accosted the owner, forced him to turn over his keys to the warehouse, and confiscated the coffee. 
Camp followers Edit
Some women were economically unable to maintain their households in their husband's absence or wished to be by their side. Known as camp followers, these women followed the Continental Army, serving the soldiers and officers as washerwomen, cooks, nurses, seamstresses, supply scavengers, and occasionally as soldiers and spies. The women that followed the army were at times referred to as "necessary nuisances" and "baggage" by commanding officers, but at other times were widely praised.  These women helped the army camps run smoothly. Prostitutes were also present, but they were a worrisome presence to military leaders particularly because of the possible spread of venereal diseases. 
Wives of some of the superior officers (Martha Washington, for example) visited the camps frequently. Unlike poorer women present in the army camps, the value of these well-to-do women to the army was symbolic or spiritual, rather than practical. Their presence was a declaration that everyone made sacrifices for the war cause. 
Specific population numbers vary from claims that 20,000 women marched with the army to more conservative estimates that females formed 3% of camp populations. Women joined up with army regiments for various reasons: fear of starvation, rape, loneliness, and imminent poverty- either as a last resort or following their husbands.  Camp women were subject to the same commanders as the soldiers and were expelled for expressing autonomy. Army units in areas hard hit by war or in enemy-occupied territory housed more women than those in safe areas, most likely because women in battle-ridden areas sought the protection of the Continental Army. 
Women soldiers Edit
Women who fought in the war were met with the ambivalence that fluctuated between admiration and contempt, depending on the particular woman's motivation and activity. Devotion to following a man was admired, while those who seemed enticed by the enlistment bounty warranted the scorn of enlisted men. Anna Maria Lane and Margaret Corbin fit under the first category, while Anne Bailey (under the name Samuel Gay) belonged to the second. Anne Bailey was discharged, fined, and put in jail for two weeks. Anne Smith was condemned for her attempt to join the army to secure the enlistment fee.  Deborah Samson served in the Continental Army as Private Robert Shurtleff for over a year when her gender was discovered, she was honorably discharged and granted a veteran's pension by the state of Massachusetts. 
The "Molly Pitcher" of legend is likely a composite character based on several women who carried water to the troops (presumably in a pitcher), either for them to drink, or to cool down the cannons.  Some historians believe her story is based on that of Mary Ludwig Hays and Margaret Corbin. 
Some women fought the British without leaving home for example, Nancy Hart of Georgia reportedly shot two loyalist soldiers in her kitchen, and held several others at gunpoint until help arrived.  Martha Bratton blew up her husband's cache of gunpowder before it could be stolen by loyalists.  When British troops seized the home of Rebecca Brewton Motte, she permitted patriot forces to destroy it. 
Other Patriot women concealed army dispatches and letters containing sensitive military information underneath their petticoats as they rode through enemy territory to deliver it. Deborah Sampson,  Harriet Prudence Patterson Hall,  and Lydia Darragh  all managed to sneak important information past the British to their American compatriot.  On the night of April 26, 1777, sixteen-year-old Sybil Ludington rode 40 miles through the villages of Putnam County, New York, knocking on farmhouse doors to warn militiamen that British troops were on their way to Danbury, Connecticut. 
Female poets Edit
Instead of fighting physically, many women chose to fight using their words women at the time were able to catalog significant events throughout the war within their poetry about their struggles for genuine equality as well as the terror of their husbands or family members that were at risk as they chose to fight. One well-known and influential female poet of the time was Annis Boudinot Stockton a member of the Mid-Atlantic Writing Circle, Stockton wrote poetry about several historic events including the Revolutionary War. Alongside being a member of the Mid-Atlantic Writing Circle, she was the only woman to join the American Whig Society, for which she guarded sensitive documents during the war.  Another influential poet during this time was Elizabeth Graeme Fergusson another member of the Mid-Atlantic Writing Circle, Fergusson was only lightly supportive of the American Revolution in comparison to Stockton. Fergusson's poetry tended to be more emotional as well through her work shines a glimpse into the lives of married women throughout the Revolutionary War. 
Ann Bates was an influential spy for British Loyalist forces. 
After the conclusion of the French and Indian War, the various colonies of the Thirteen Colonies claimed territory beyond the Appalachian Mountains. To try and avert war between the colonists and the Native Americans, King George III issued the Royal Proclamation of 1763, forbidding the Americans from settling beyond the Appalachian Mountains, among other things. The settlers, infuriated at what they perceived to be imperial overreach, continued to encroach westwards, albeit at a slower rate. As the American Revolutionary War drew near, the British Army was stationed in New York and Boston, leaving the western frontier devoid of any military authority. This left the region in the hand of the American settlers and the Indian tribes, who engaged in violent conflicts during and after the war. 
Several historians claim that contact with whites resulted in the displacement of women from their traditional spheres, both as a result of war-related upheavals and specific American policy after the war. Post-Revolutionary guidelines called for the "civilization" of Native peoples, and which meant turning a population from a hunting-based society to an agricultural one, even though almost all Native American societies did practice agriculture—the women farmed. However, U.S. policymakers believed that farming could not be a significant part of Native life if women were the main contributors to the operation. Thus, the American government instead encouraged Native women to take up spinning and weaving and attempted to force men to farm, reversing gender roles and causing severe social problems that ran contrary to Native cultural mores.
Iroquois women Edit
At the outset of the Revolutionary War, it was unclear which side the Native Americans tribes would choose to join. For the Iroquois Confederacy, they mostly chose to side with the British, thanks to their long alliance with the British since the early 18th century. Many Iroquois were fearful of American settlers encroaching on their lands, and saw an alliance with the British as the best way to prevent this actuality. Individuals such as Joseph Brant were significant in convincing their fellow Iroquois to join the war.
As a result of this alliance, the American Major General John Sullivan and his soldiers burned and destroyed about forty Iroquois towns in what is now upstate New York, displacing thousands of Iroquois inhabitants. This campaign obliterated hundreds of acres of crops and orchards, which had largely been the domain of the agricultural women, and served to kill thousands of Iroquois (including women), both outright and through the ensuing starvation.
Catawba women Edit
Before the American Revolution, relations between the Catawba Nation and the American colonists were cautiously hostile, as neither side was interested in starting a war. Tensions led to conflict, particularly over land. While settlers believed in private property and put up fences to mark their lands, Catawbas believed that no person could claim land forever, and tore the fences down. Catawba men roamed the countryside in search of game, while settlers considered hunters trespassers, and wrecked their hunting camps. The settlers brought with them new methods of farming which profoundly affected Catawba's daily life. Like every society heavily dependent upon agriculture, the Catawbas oriented their existence to that pursuit. Colonists' crops required enclosures, schedules, and practices unfamiliar to Catawba cultivators. These changes particularly affected women, who had traditionally farmed while the men would hunt. As with other Indian groups, the Catawba Nation could not maintain traditional ways of life. To survive, they found ways of living with the settlers. The nation started to trade with settlers in household goods made by Catawba women, who turned traditional crafts into a profitable business. As early as 1772, Catawba women peddled their crafts to local farmers.
One of the most successful ways that the Catawba Nation improved relations with settlers was by participating in the American Revolution. Its location gave it little choice in the matter Superintendent of Southern Indians John Stuart observed in 1775, "they are domiciliated and dispersed thro' the Settlements of north and South Carolina." In July 1775, two Catawbas arrived in Charleston to learn more about the dispute between the crown and the colonists. The rebels' Council of Safety sent the representatives home with a letter explaining the colonists' grievances, reminding Catawbas of their friendship with Southern Carolina, promising trade and pay for Indians who served, and warning what would happen if the Nation refused to serve. Over the next eight years, the Catawbas would fight for the patriot cause, fighting against Loyalist militia.
During the Revolution, Catawba warriors fought alongside American troops at many battles throughout the South. The Indians who remained at home often provided food to patriots. Since traditional Catawba gender roles prescribed women and children as agricultural preparers, wartime responsibility of providing for the patriots fell heavily on women. Several Catawbas also served as informal goodwill ambassadors to their neighbors. One such person was Sally New River, a woman who enjoyed both the respect of her people and the affection of local whites. When visitors arrived unannounced, Sally New River made sure they were provided for. She spent much time with the Spratt family, whose patriarch was the first white man to lease Catawba land. Fifty years after her death, local whites still recalled "old aunt Sally" with affection.
Overall, however, the Catawbas' role in the war has been termed "rather negligible" with so few men to commit to the cause, it does seem unlikely that the Nation determined the outcome of any battle. But the significance of their contribution lay in their active and visible support. While their alliance with the patriots helped them fit into a rapidly changing environment—in 1782, the state legislature sent the nation five hundred bushels of corn to tide them over until summer and both paid them for their service in the army and reimbursed them for the livestock they had supplied—the settler's temporarily favorable impression of the Catawbas did not guarantee a secure future. The Indian's continued indifference to Christianity frustrated the American colonist, who tried to educate select members at the College of William and Mary in hopes that these people would return to their Catawba homes converted, and ready to convert others. Efforts failed, refueling popular sentiments about the inferiority of Indians.
Relations between the Catawba and the settlers did not improve in the long term, despite the Catawba's decision to fight with the patriots. After the revolution, tenants previously renting land from the natives demanded that they become owners. Throughout the 1830s, the South Carolina legislature sent representatives to negotiate the sale of land. This constant pressure, combined with U.S. government removal policies, culminated in the spring of 1840 with the signing of the Treaty of Nation Ford. The treaty stipulated that the Catawbas relinquish their 144,000 acres (580 km 2 ) of land to the state of South Carolina. The agreement all but destroyed the Catawba Nation. "As a Nation," South Carolina governor David Johnson said of the Catawbas in 1847, "they are, in effect, dissolved."
Although the American Revolution is famous for its rhetoric of liberty and equality, one of the most downtrodden groups in the soon-to-be United States is all but forgotten in contemporary scholarship. African-American women, the majority of whom were slaves, played an important role in the war but most ultimately gained much less than they had hoped at its inception. The majority of African Americans in the 1770s lived as slaves, both in the South and the North.
Freedom suits Edit
Between 1716 and 1783, fourteen northern black women brought civil lawsuits to gain freedom. Black women brought freedom suits for one of the following legal technicalities: there had been a fraudulent sale the plaintiff's mother was not black (enslavement was determined by one's mother's status), or the plaintiff had entered a manumission agreement and the documentation had disappeared. Elizabeth Freeman is arguably the best known of these plaintiffs. She brought "the first legal test of the constitutionality of slavery in Massachusetts" in 1781, with Brom & Bett v. J. Ashley Esq.  The state legislature never outlawed slavery outright, but its 1780 Bill of Rights declared all men free and equal Freeman effectively used this rhetoric to challenge slavery forever in Massachusetts. Along with Brom, another of her owner's slaves, Freeman, won her freedom in 1781.  Similarly, in 1782 a slave woman named Belinda petitioned the Massachusetts Legislature, not for her freedom, but for compensation for the fifty years she served as a slave. However, not all states followed Massachusetts' example so quickly: in 1810 there were still 27,000 slaves living in the Northern states. 
In the tense years leading up to the war, Britain recognized that slavery was a weak point of the American colonists. Indeed, unrest in slave communities was greatest in the two decades surrounding the American Revolution. In January 1775, a proposal was made in the British House of Commons for general emancipation in all British territories, a political maneuver intended to humble "the high aristocratic spirit of Virginia and the Southern Colonies."  Slaves in the colonies recognized a certain British openness to their claims: in 1774, a "great number of blacks" petitioned General Thomas Gage, the British commander-in-chief of America and the governor of Massachusetts Bay, for their freedom. 
Lord Dunmore's Proclamation Edit
Slavery was the backbone of Southern society and the British reasoned that dismantling it would undermine Southern ability to wage war. In April 1775, Lord Dunmore and the governor of Virginia, appropriated the colony's store of gunpowder because he suspected the Virginia Assembly of rebellious sentiments. This precipitated an armed uprising.  From his warship off the coast of Virginia, the governor issued Lord Dunmore's Proclamation, which declared martial law and offered freedom for "all indentured servants, Negroes, and others. that are able and willing to bear arms."  Like the 1775 House of Commons proposal, Dunmore's Proclamation was intended to scare the white slaveholders of Virginia and to encourage black slaves to abandon their masters, instead of being born out of abolitionist sentiments. 
About a third of all of the slaves who responded to Dunmore's Proclamation were women. In the colonial period, approximately 1/8 of all runaways were women.  The small percentage of women attempting escape was because they were the anchors of slave family life. Most women would not leave without their families, especially their children, and since running in large groups increased the odds of capture exponentially, many women simply chose not to run at all. If slave women did leave their owners, it was often to attempt to reunite with family members who had been sold away. 
Of the men that flooded Lord Dunmore's camp, some saw combat. Dunmore formed an "Ethiopian Regiment" of approximately five hundred of these former slaves and put them to work fighting their former masters.  Often their wives followed them, working as cooks, laundresses, and nurses in camp. Some served as the personal servants of British officers. 
The Phillipsburg Proclamation Edit
In June 1776, General Henry Clinton similarly promised that any slave who fled to a British camp would have "full security to follow within these Lines, any occupation which he shall think proper."  Like the preceding proclamation by Lord Dunmore, Clinton's was self-interested and ambivalent he was alarmed by the prospect of slaves joining the Continental Army on being promised freedom and thus bolstering the numbers of the army. However, southern slaveholders saw Clinton's Phillipsburg Proclamation as an attack on their property and way of life and an invitation to anarchy. The Proclamation aroused much anti-British sentiment and became a rallying cry for Southern Patriots.
Most of the slaves that joined General Clinton after his Phillipsburg Proclamation left their homes in family groups. Clinton attempted to register these blacks to control the numerous masterless men who were viewed as a threat to peace and order. In the registration process, Clinton returned all those slaves that had run away from Loyalist sympathizers. Of the slaves permitted to stay, the division of labor was highly gendered. Men were generally employed in the engineering and Royal Artillery departments of the army as carpenters, wheelwrights, smiths, sawyers, equipment menders, wagon and platform builders, and menders, etc. Both men and women made musket cartridges and butchered and preserved meat for the hungry army. Southern black women and children who knew the territory often served as guides to the confusing, swampy territories. 
The British authorities in America claimed some escaped slaves as crown property and put them to work on public works projects or, more commonly, agriculture. Agricultural labor was vital because the large British army needed constant food supplies and it was expensive to ship food from England. These slaves were promised manumission in return for their service. 
Many Southern slaveholders "refugeed" their slaves to prevent them from escaping and/or being killed during the war. They force-marched slaves to holdings out of the way of the war, usually in Florida, Louisiana, or the West Indies. 
Slaves in the Continental army Edit
Like the British, the new American government recognized that blacks were potentially a numerous source of recruits. However, George Washington was initially reluctant to encourage slaves to fight in exchange for freedom because of racially-based objections and because he feared numerous black recruits that he could not control. Therefore, at the onset of the war, only free blacks, a tiny percent of the population, were allowed to fight. In the fall of 1776, when the Continental Congress asked the states for more battalions, they suggested that the states round up more troops "by draft, from their militias, or in any other way." This was interpreted as authorization to recruit black males, slave or free. 
In the South, black slave women were vital to the Patriot cause. They made up the bulk of the workforce that built and repaired the fortifications used during the sieges of Savannah, Charleston, and other low country towns and cities, and were similarly promised freedom for their service. [ citation needed ]
The period directly following the war was one of much hope and indecision for African Americans. Many expected the new country would live up to its ideals and abolish slavery. However, slavery was in fact built into the new Constitution – and even in many northern states, where slavery was neither prevalent nor particularly profitable, it took years and many court challenges to gradually abolish slavery.
Migration to the North Edit
There was a massive migration, not unlike the Great Migration, of blacks to urban areas in the North after the close of the war. This migration was largely female. Before the Revolution, Northern urban populations were overwhelmingly male by 1806, women outnumbered men four to three in New York City. Increasing this disparity was the fact that the maritime industry was the largest employer of black males in the post-Revolutionary period, taking many young black men away to sea for several years at a time. The rural African-American population in the North remained predominately male.
Most free urban blacks in the North were employed in "service trades," including cooking and catering, cleaning stables, cutting hair and driving coaches. Family life was often broken up in these urban black communities. Many families lost members in the Revolution, either to the chaos of the time or back to slavery. Many employers refused to house whole families of blacks, preferring to board only their "domestic" woman laborer. Despite these challenges, many Black women made efforts to support and maintain ties to their nuclear kin.
In the Pennsylvania colony, for instance, church records document many Black unions. Especially since women held as slaves needed masters' permission to wed, "there are enough records to point out that Black women had a value for solidifying the family structure according to the laws of the colony".  Those families that did live together often took in boarders to supplement income or shared a dwelling with another black family or more, contributing to the nontraditional shape of black family life in the post-Revolutionary period.
In the South, broken families increased as slavery became more entrenched and expanded westward. For example, in the Chesapeake region, agricultural and economic patterns changed after the war, with many planters moving away from labor-intensive tobacco as a cash crop and diversifying their plantings. Many slaves were sold, usually to the Lower South or West, where slave agriculture was expanding. Of those slaves that were not sold, many men with skills were hired out, taking them away from their families.
Following the war, significant numbers of African-American women and men relocated to Nova Scotia and the British Caribbean. While many moved with their Loyalist masters, others relocated independently. For example, enslaved women living in Philadelphia, rather than waiting for their husbands to return from fighting for the colonists, left with the British who progressively departed in the early 1780s. These African-American women moved of their own accord to Great Britain, Nova Scotia, and the West Indies –in search of a better life. 
Another way that Black women in the North tried to empower themselves and their children after the Revolution was through education. Early Black women's organizations were local efforts to support their children's access to schooling. For example, Dinah Chase Whipple, a young widow, and mother of seven founded the Ladies African Charitable Society of Portsmouth in New Hampshire. The Ladies Society was "a highly practical undertaking designed to provide financial backing for a school two sisters-in-law ran out of their home". 
Although the rhetoric of the Revolution brought much promise of change, that promise was largely unfulfilled for African Americans, especially African-American women. Most women's status did not change appreciably. If anything, family life became more unstable in the south and, although slavery was gradually abolished in the north, economic opportunities and family stability slowly diminished in urban areas. However, black women contributed significantly on both the Patriot and Loyalist sides, and have thus far gone unheralded.
A few exceptions include Phillis Wheatley, an enslaved woman in Boston who became the first African-American published poet Mammy Kate of Georgia, who saved the life of Stephen Heard by smuggling him out of a British prison in a laundry basket and Sally St. Clair of South Carolina, a woman of African and French ancestry,  who passed as a man and served as a gunner in the Continental army until she was killed in action in the Battle of Savannah.