Friday, March 20, 2015

Early America - Legal Rights for Women


People settling in the British American colonies during the 17C were searching for political or legal refuge; adventure and profit; or religious freedom.



Despite professed beliefs in enlightenment and reason, independence for most women in the British American colonies and the new republic was nearly impossible. Individualism and freedom were reserved for men almost exclusively in colonial society throughout the 17C & 18C.

Women living in the British American colonies usually did not have the right to vote or hold office. Some colonies and states did allow women to vote briefly, but by 1787, women in all states except New Jersey had lost the right to vote.

If they were married, the great majority of women could not own land in their names. Men usually willed real estate to surviving sons and only personal property to surviving daughters, ensuring that land would pass from man to man.

If a woman had somehow acquired land or economic security before she married through inheritance or her own hard work, all her property automatically was awarded to her new spouse when she married in most colonies. In England and its colonies, the common law of coverture placed married women under the direction of their husbands.

Married women could not make contracts, even for their own labor. A wife had no legal identity separate from her husband's. The interests of a wife and her children were to be determined and represented solely by her husband.


Property was power in the colonies, and married women would have neither.

Divorces were rare, and usually men were allowed to beat their wives, just as they beat their slaves and servants and dogs and horses. When a wife chose to run away from an unbearable marriage, her husband could advertise for her capture and return in local newspapers; just as he could advertise for the return of his runaway slaves and servants.

Many widows chose not to remarry because of these laws; however, most widows with younger children remarried quickly for financial and physical assistance in raising her growing family.


17C Woman by Wenceslaus Hollar (1607-1677)


We have few depictions of women in the 17C British American colonies, but the prints by Wenceslaus Hollar (1607-1677) allow us to see the hairstyles & fashions being worn on the other side of the Atlantic during the early years of the English colonization of America. 

Wenceslaus Hollar (European-born English artist, 1607-1677) Ornatus Muliebris Anglicanus; Print made by 1640. British Library. An English lady with curly shoulder-length hair standing whole length to left, looking to left; wearing pearls in her hair, pearl necklace, jewelled rope on her waist over her bodice, lace-trimmed collar fastened with a brooch, and gloves. 

The artist Hollar was born in 1607, the son of an upper middle-class civic official. He left his native Prague at age 20. He was almost blind in one eye but became a skilled artist. His 1st book of etchings was published in 1635, in Cologne, when Hollar was 28. The following year his work caught they eye of English art collector the Earl of Arundel who visiting the continent.  Hollar became a part of his household, settling in England early in 1637. He left London for Antwerp in 1642, where he continued to work on a variety of projects for 10 years.  In 1652, he returned to England, working on a number of large projects for the publishers John Ogilby & William Dugdale. Hollar died in London in1677. By his life's end, he had produced nearly 3000 separate etchings.