Slavery in Colonial America
How it works
While there has been a great amount of attention on the white colonial women experience with legalities in the traditional retelling of US history, it is important to note the the experiences of women of color differ remarkably. Furthermore, even the term women of color is too broad to explain the diversity of legal treatment of women. This term is faulty as it fails to discuss if she was of African American or Native American origin and whether a woman was enslaved or indentured.
Within each group, there were other factors that could also influence their legal position such as wealth and religion. By examining primary resources, we can see the influence of law and legal practices in European settlements of North America that shaped women’s experience regardless of birthplace, race, marital status, religion, and wealth. Colonial leaders used legal codes to establish and maintain roles and women’s rights in British American colonies.
To understand this, we must realize that the rhetoric during colonial America was rooted in classical assumptions of a dichotomy between private and public spheres. Women were assumed to be part of a private realm. They were expected to only be concerned with the issue of forming a household and maintaining it for means of survival. Any challenge to this organization was perceived as a threat to the role of women in colonial America. Legal codes then were written to maintain this structure of dichotomy. Although the goal of maintaining a household was anticipated from both races, different legal codes were written for black and white women in order to distinguish the two groups of women. As the gradual change of the definition of slavery harden and became stricter, laws increased in order to separate the women. Even though indentured servitude existed for white women, and the legal systems coexisted, laws were put into place to differentiate indentured and enslaved labor. This was a way to distinguish white women and women of color.
New laws emerged in late 17th century as a result of increased slavery in colonial America. Efforts to set distinctions and boundaries on race were formed to reduce blurred lines between races. As slavery became more permanent, it was important to colonial leaders to separate white colonial women from African American women. The description of slavery saw racial stipulations increasing as slavery became a major economic resource. We see a trend of slavery beginning to be hereditary in laws of descent. Gender, according to Nancy Woloch, began to play a role in establishing slavery under the law in the 17th century. In her third chapter, we see laws attempting to discourage intermarriage in order to separate the populations. In the span of approximately thirty years, enough intermarriage influenced the effort to discourage being associated with black people. In 1962, Maryland proposed that legal status be determined by the condition of the father, whereas in 1992, any person born to a black parent was expected to be enslaved. In Virginia, laws had a greater emphasis of relationships between white women and black men. In both states, women were held more accountable for acts of interracial sex. Based on this chapter we can conclude that the laws pertaining white women were often stricter and demeaning than those concerning white men. Penalization against women who had sex with other races was met with greater criticism.
There a was also a greater degree of penalization in terms of marriage. The legal status of women depended greatly on her martial status. By examining records of marriage, we see a continuous transfer of property to men upon marriage. Women lost the right to their property unless they acted as feme sole traders. Feme sole traders had the option of partial autonomy with the condition of being responsible for any hardship. Furthermore, absolute divorce was only allowed in two states. European women had greater protection under law of colonial America. While the government remained patriarchal, white women did have the opportunity to petition against the men. Divorce settlements during colonial America, however illustrate that requirements made it difficult for women to ask for absolute divorce. In most states, only legal separation was offered to keep a positive reputation of men involved in the marriage. African American women, by contrast, often did not enjoy the opportunity of marriage recognized by the states.
The laws introduced by colonial leaders as settlements grew shaped the households of colonial America. The dichotomy of public and private spheres based of gender was encouraged by laws to maintain a patriarchal society. When examining the laws pertaining to black and white women, we see a trend of harsher laws for the women of African descent. The authority of law had great influence in the experience of women. Colonial leaders used laws to reduce anxieties that would disrupt norms of race and class. The laws established created distinctions of races to promote white supremacy. Furthermore, even within the European classification, more power and levels of authority were given to men. In the coming generations, these laws would be responsible for setting African American women as inferior.