This week at the Center for Women’s History at New-York Historical Society, we continue our celebration of Women’s History Month with a focus on teaching women’s history. Today, we feature a guest post from our Education Division. This post is part of our ongoing series on Women and the American Story, our nine-unit women’s history curriculum guide.
As we celebrate Women’s History Month, it is important to take a step back from the achievements of the outstanding women of our nation’s past to appreciate the legal and cultural background against which their successes shone so bright. In my research for the English colonies module of our new Early Colonial unit of Women and the American Story (launching Election Day 2018 – save the date!), it was easy to be dazzled by the stories of Anne Bradstreet, Sybilla Masters, and Weetamo, and lose sight of the experiences of the thousands of other women who could not break out of the mold society had set for them. The will of Joseph Grover, a father of one son and five daughters in 1688, was a stark reminder of the ways women were trapped by the legal and economic realities of their times.
Coverture: The Legal and Economic Control of Women
Joseph Grover was a successful farmer in Monmouth County, New Jersey, which was at the time an English colony. In England and its colonies, it was widely believed that women were not intelligent or competent enough to appear in court or make business deals on their own. As a result, women in the English colonies lived under the legal practice of coverture. In the video below from our online course, Women Have Always Worked, Columbia Professor Alice Kessler-Harris explains the law of coverture.
Coverture meant that women were always under the legal and economic control of the men in their lives. Before marriage, a woman’s interests were handled by her father. After marriage that responsibility passed to her husband. This changeover was symbolized by a woman taking her husband’s name. If there was no father or husband in a woman’s life, it was expected that a brother, uncle, son, or other male relative would step in to care for her. In theory this meant that a woman could count on legal and financial support for her entire life, and could focus on her womanly responsibilities of tending the home and raising the children. In reality, it left the majority of women trapped in the roles of daughter and wife, with very slim chances of following a different path.
This meant that, in 1688, when Joseph sat down to write his will, his wife Hannah had no say in what would happen to their property. The resulting document is a masterclass in the marginalization of women. Joseph leaves his entire family farm, as well as all the livestock and the best home goods, to his son James, following the common English practice of primogeniture. Acknowledging that the baby his wife Hannah was currently carrying might turn out to be a boy, he stipulates that in that case the farm should be split between the two sons. But Joseph continues to explicitly state that if it is a daughter then James gets the whole farm: “but if It shall happen to prove to be a daughter that then all the above said land and Meadow with all and singular the privileges and appurtenances there unto belonging to him and to his heirs and assigns for ever as hereafter followeth Unto my son James as Above said.”
No farms for baby girls!
As for the five daughters, Joseph stipulates that they should equally divide his share of a secondary piece of uncultivated land that he recently purchased with a neighbor: “I give and bequeath unto my daughters all my whole purchase of the property the which I bought with John Throckmorton Of Robert Turner A part thereof being laid out unto me at Crosswicks I say again all the said property both that which is laid and yet to lay out I give and bequeath unto my daughters unto them and their heirs and assigns for ever and to be equally divided between them quantity with quality.” The best they can hope for is a fifth of a half share of property! And what if the unborn baby turns out to be a daughter (spoiler alert: she did!)? Their piece drops to a sixth of a half share. This is certainly not enough land to ensure any of Joseph’s daughters’ financial security, but it would be enough to attract a farmer husband like their father. It is clear that Joseph has no further dreams for his daughters, whom he does not even bother to name in his will.
Partial shares for daughters.
And what about Joseph’s wife Hannah, who has already borne him six healthy children and is carrying a seventh? At first glance, Joseph seems to respect his wife and wish to make sure the rest of her days are spent in comfort. She is named as one of the executors of his will (along with a male friend—she couldn’t possibly be expected to handle everything on her own!), and put in charge of the family farm until their eldest son reaches the age of 21. When he reaches that age, her landed interest drops to half until her death, which is still more than the third that was traditional in English society at the time. But there is a catch! If Hannah decides to remarry, she loses all of it. The running of the farm reverts to a guardian, and Hannah is left with nothing to bring to a second marriage. Joseph is so adamant about this that he underlined this part twice! No wife of his is going to remarry and still get to benefit from the fruits of his labor.
Underlined twice so we knew he meant business.
What does all of this mean for Hannah and her daughters? For all of them, it works out the same: choose to live the rest of your life as a poor dependent of the eldest son, or take your chances marrying and hope to improve your status. There is no financial provision to make a third option — living as a woman of independent means — viable. Without the steadfast support of the men in their lives, women in the early colonial period were stuck. To make any kind of “outside the box” life possible, colonial women needed men to provide them the opportunities to do things other than raise babies and keep house. And that was just the bare minimum of what a woman might need, because there were plenty of other other social, legal, and cultural pressures they would have to overcome. This means that women who didn’t rise to fame and glory weren’t inherently lazy or stupid. They just never even had a chance.
Making Sense of the Marginalization of Women
So what are we, as educators, supposed to do with this information? We have to make time in our busy classrooms to show our students this document and allow them to work out for themselves what the implications were for Hannah and her six daughters, so that they realize that the reason we don’t see women so often in the official documents in this period is not because they had nothing to offer, but because the whole legal and economic system was stacked against them, and would be for centuries to come. We have to start teaching all of women’s history, not just the outstanding highlights. Otherwise, our students might assume that, apart from a few exceptions, women just didn’t really matter in our nation’s history. And that would be a terrible shame!
Looking for more ways to incorporate the experiences of women in your early colonial lesson plans? Keep an eye on the Women and the American Story website, where our Early Colonial unit will be appearing in pilot form this summer. We will officially launch the unit at our teacher workshops on Election Day 2018. It will feature documents, images, life stories, and other sources that will illuminate the lives of women of all races and ages in the English, French, Dutch, and Spanish colonies of North America, from 1492 until about 1740.
– Allyson Schettino, Associate Director of School Programs
Top Photo Credits: Detail of The last will and Testament of Joseph Grover, December 7, 1688. New-York Historical Society Library.