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Colonial Women and Modern Women

Colonial Women

The roles of women in families have changed drastically over the years. Colonial women used to be the caretakers of the households and they basically had no voice or say when it came to overseeing the household. They did what their husbands and leaders of the town, who were primarily male, told them to do. They were definitely seen as lesser beings to men, by everyone, family members and husbands included. Modern women play a much different role in their families. Some modern women work and provide all of the financial support for their families. Some of them are homemakers and there has been a big debate sparked over which it is better to stay home with ones kids or to work and help ends meet. Most modern women do not actually have much of a choice and have to leave the house to work. Colonial women and modern women are definitely two different entities in the family world.

Colonial families, or Puritans as otherwise known, followed a basic family structure that was akin to the way the ancient medieval Europeans lived their lives. The Puritan family was a "secure and father-dominated European household, medieval in origins, the performed religious, economic and social functions" (Rothman, 1966, p. 631). One change had been undergone once the Puritans had reached America, however, and children were no longer sent to a neighboring family to become apprentices and learn special trades. It was no longer thought that the father would spoil the child and raise it wrong, so families became more private and took care of their own children, rather than sending them away to be disciplined by strangers. Because of this change, households became smaller in size going from the usual 12 to 13 children to 6 to 8 children. This change meant that "the dominant familial image for much of the 19th and 20th centuries in the United States was one in which married women were viewed as caretakers of the home and family, and married men were responsible for securing a family's financial well-being" (Cunningham, 2008, p. 299).

Once arriving in America another change had become an issue for the Puritan family. The ratio of men to women was much greater so locking down a husband would have been much easier. Because of this imbalanced ratio, women got married a lot younger than men did; "Focusing on the Colonial period there are a number of factors that have been cited as determining age levels at marriage. The high ages for men and the low ages for women at first marriage during the first decades of settlement in the seventeenth century have been attributed to a severely imbalanced sex ratio" (Seward, 1973, p. 65). This is one of the things that contributed to noticeable gender differences of the Colonial period. Men were all over the place and there were four men to every five people in the colonies. They were quick to find women to take as wives and wed them and women got married on an average age of 22.5 years old. Men were married on average at 25 years old. One colony even imported shipload of women to try to balance out the sex ratio; "Between 1620 and 1622 about 150 'pure and spotless' women disembarked and were auctioned off for eighty pounds of tobacco apiece or more to future husbands" (Woloch, 2006, p.18).

Women were being bought and sold as wives, but this was one of the constraints of being a woman during this period. Yes, it was a choice for them to travel to America to obtain a husband, but obviously most women did not get to choose which man they would take for a husband. This is kind of a give or take situation. It afforded women the opportunity to find husbands and be wed, however, the lack of choice could present obstacles that would not have been easily dealt with.

Women in the home obeyed their husbands and respected them. The women were responsible for keeping the house clean, keeping the food cooked and teaching the children household activities. The man was responsible for everything else, including the discipline of the children, hence the modern 1950s threat of 'just wait until your father gets home!'. The man ruled the home in the colonial times; "The head of the family in all colonies, North or South, was expected to control its members. He wielded authority over wife and children, supervised finances, made family decisions, served as intermediary between family and community, and in more pious circles, provided the conduit through which God's blessings flowed" (Woloch, 2006, p. 19). This left women at a disadvantage.

When women lost their husbands, which was not rare in this time period due to a high mortality rate, they became widows and on the occasion were left estates. When the husband was alive the wife was protected, even though she did not really have a say. As a widow she was left unprotected, left to fend for herself and tend to her own finances, and the government of the time could take her land any time they wished. She was able to own the land, but only in a limited sense of the word owning should a male decided that she was not fit to own what was rightfully hers.

Married women did have a certain protection under the law. Antenuptial and postnuptial contracts could be drawn up so that a woman's husband could not take her possessions protected the women a little bit. There were also laws that protected women from being abused by their husbands, however, there were also laws that protected husbands from wives who did not do what they were supposed to do. There was a role that women were supposed to play, and it was nice, docile wife, who listened to her husband and her government, and did everything that she was told without question and in silence. This meant that there were laws in place to protect a husband against a woman who would be verbally aggressive, engage in adultery, wage attacks, or be financially irresponsible. Over the course of time, women became unhappy with being docile and they wanted more.

This role that women held began to change very drastically, slowly at first, and then a little bit faster. Over time women became interested in what was happening in politics and wanted to be involved in some of the choices. It was then women realized that they could have a say and gained the right to vote. This affected the colonial ideal of the typical housewife, a role that would be forever changed.


Puritan Women

The Change

Women gaining the right to vote was only one thing that changed the woman's role in the household. It was found that homemade goods could be sold and traded for other homemade goods and useful items. This gave women a greater purpose within the home, and a greater say. Women began to become more active in helping with the children, and taught children special trades and household chores. This freed up time for the housewives, who participated in voting, went to visit friends and neighbors, and took over the church scene, which had been primarily ruled by males. Over the course of time the household idea of the perfect housewife changed due to the events that happened over the course of roughly about 100 or more years.

Numerous wars, technology, the industrial revolution and open education all contributed to the great change of the woman and her role in the family. In a lot of instances over time, women had to step into the roles of men and fill their shoes for an extended period. For a brief moment during the 1950s women fell slightly back into the role of the colonial period women, going back to becoming homemakers while the men went to work, though there was a few differences in the way that women acted and raised their children. " Most Americans bought into the American dream: a house, a mom, a dad, and two kids" (Gilbert, 2013). This ideal fell through when men had to go back to war and when women had to go to work in order to obtain and maintain a certain lifestyle. By the 1970s a modern woman had sprung up and the ideal of the perfect and happy homemaker were a distant hope, though there are some women who aspire to this dream still today.

We Win!

Modern Women

In the year 2015 women are strong, independent, well educated and torn between two perfect Worlds, which almost never coincide with each other happily. The woman in a family today has one of three options; school and family, work and family or just family. The woman who chooses just family is kind of going along with the puritan way of life, however, a lot has changed since then. Technology, open education and human advancement has severely changed the role of the 'happy homemaker', perfect wife and mother role.

The housewife, or homemaker of the 21st Century is by no means the weak and docile housewife of the 1800's. Today's housewife does everything, while the husband financially supports the family. The ideal of the housewife is that she stays at home. This means that she gets children to school and daycare in the mornings, goes home and cleans the house while watching daytime television and cooking, gets the children after school, gets the children fed and homework done, takes the children to extra-curricular activities and gets them home and in bed, all while not bothering dad and having his dinner ready by the time he gets home from work. Today's housewife should be able to take care of the house, the kids, the shopping, the discipline, the errands, the appointments, the phone calls and the budget. The man should make the money and spend as much time with his family as his work will allow him to. That is the view of the typical 'perfect family'.

The working mother of the 21st century is just as amazing as the housewife of the 21st century, if not more so. This mother arranges things so that everything that she is responsible for as a housewife gets done, all while advancing her career, which is no easy feat. This mother may sacrifice time with her family, or her own personal time, but she can balance work and household well which makes it work.

"A long-standing debate questions whether homemakers or working wives are happier" (Tanja van der Lippe, J. & Chloe Tai, T., 2011). It would seem that neither is happier than the other, and the happiness level is based off of one's personal choices. Homemakers seem quite happy in their roles as homemakers who are able to spend as much time as they like with their families or themselves. In the same respect working housewives are almost just as happy as they have something to do once their children are off to school. The third option is to be a mother furthering her education.

Sometimes this can be difficult if having to attend an actual institution of higher learning but, with today's advancements in technology almost anything can be learned through distance learning. Some women try to stretch themselves as much as possible and work, attend to their families and go to school all at the same time. This can cause certain areas to suffer, like family time, house caring and other important home matters, especially if the woman cannot use proper time management skills. Essentially, this is also the issue that is argued about the most when comparing modern housewives to modern working women, or women furthering education while they have families.

Homemakers like to put across that a woman's place is nowhere but the home and caring for the children, even though homemakers will frequently find some kind of at home employment or volunteer opportunity outside of the home to fill their time when all of the housework is done, the kids are at school and the husband is at work. Homemakers argue that children need cared for by their mothers first and foremost, and that women do not have time for actual careers. One thing that homemakers fail to understand is the cost of living and only one person working in a household earning an income being not enough to make ends really meet. In Colonial times, and even a little bit after, families could afford for women to stay home and be the sole housekeeper/child rearer. Now-a-days women have to go to work in order to supplement the income that their husbands do not make in order to survive. Things have been this way since the Great Depression and the wars.

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Even though there is this great debate among women of the 21st century they still all want the same thing. They want to be recognized for their accomplishments in the home and the workplace, as well as at school. They want to be on an equal playing field when it comes to men in the workplace, in order to properly provide for their families, which is something that women have done for centuries just in different ways. The mother of today can be more than just a mother. She can be career oriented and goal driven. She could be on the path to a higher education in order to obtain better employment. Either way, a mother's job is to look after her whole family and make sure that everyone has what they need. Mothers are very flexible so if they have to stay at home in order to do it they will, if they have to work, they will. Women have more rights when it comes to the household then they ever did in the colonial times.

The roles of women in families have changed drastically over the years. Colonial women used to be the caretakers of the households and they basically had no voice or say when it came to overseeing the household. Modern women play a much different role in their families. The similarities between these two different types of household female are that they wanted to provide for their families and they wanted to make their families as happy as possible no matter the cost. The differences are that colonial women were docile, stayed at home and had no say, to where modern women have pretty much all of the say when it comes to control in their households. Women no longer bow before their husbands feet when he comes in from a long day at work because odds are mommy just got off of work too. Women live in a World where they are free to raise their families however they wish. They can stay at home, they can go to work, it does not matter anymore. Women head their households now, instead of allowing a man to run everything. In most instances husbands and wives work together to make the household run efficiently and smoothly, to whereas the colonial woman would have turned to her husband for all decisions made. Americans have come a long way so that women could have a choice and a say in their households, and so that women may be free to make whatever choices the need to in order to maintain harmony in the home.

Strong Modern Woman

Yay Hermione!


Cunningham, M. (2008). Changing attitudes toward the male breadwinner, female homemaker family model: Influences of women's employment and education over the life course. Social Forces, 87(1), 299-323. Retrieved from

Gilbert, K. (2013). The modern homemaker. Psychology Today, 46(2), 28-29. Retrieved from

Rothman, D.J. (1966). A note on the study of the colonial family. The William and Mary Quarterly. Retrieved from

Seward, R.R. (1973). The colonial family in America: Toward a socio-historical restoration of its structure. Journal of Marriage and Family. Retrieved from

Treas, J., van der Lippe, T., & Tai, T. C. (2011). The happy homemaker? Married women's well-being in cross-national perspective. Social Forces, 90(1), 111-132. Retrieved

Woloch. N. (2006). Women and the American experience: a concise history 2006 (5th ed). New York: McGraw Hill Higher Education.

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Modern or Colonial

© 2015 Kelly Miller


esmerelda on October 19, 2018:

thank you this helped with my enmeshment

Just History from England on January 25, 2015:

I could not do the poll- could not make my mind up! I don't think women can ever get the right deal but we must compromise and struggle to get something that suits us. I work part time and that seems to keep everything just about ticking along

Kelly Miller (author) from Apollo, Pennsylvania on January 24, 2015:

You should check out some of the older ones...I basically post my papers from my classes and I was recently in women's history. Now I am in World War History, so all of my next posts will be war related.

Marcy Goodfleisch from Planet Earth on January 24, 2015:

This is very informative, LyryKell! It looks like you've just been here a few months - welcome to the site! I love comparing old traditions and cultural elements to newer ones - those things tell a lot about where we've come in the last few centuries and how we relate to others today compared to back then.

Hope to read more of your hubs soon!

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