In the early 1600’s men, women, and children began to migrate from Europe to North America. Women as well as men came to seek religious freedom and for economic reasons.
In 1620 the Mayflower embarked on a voyage to start a new colony in Northern Virginia. The Mayflower landed in New England and anchored off the coast of Cape Cod on November 11, 1620. Rather than continue on to Virginia the colonists decided to stay and settle near Plymouth harbor. The Pilgrims (homeless travelers), as they were known, suffered greatly that winter with almost half of them dying. There were a hundred people on board the Mayflower and eleven of them were girls. Their ages ranged from one year to about sixteen. The Pilgrims’ concern was that women and girls would not survive the long sea voyage. As it turns out none of the girls died, while two others, a man and a boy, did.
Most of the girls on the Mayflower came with their families, and others were sent because their families could no longer care for them. The first women to come on shore were sent because laundry needed to be done. When the colonists arrived they were faced with many hardships and challenges. They had to quickly accustom themselves to a new and different way of life. Most survived only with the aid of Native Americans, who taught the colonists how to cope in their new environment.
Most women continued to come to America because they wanted the opportunity for a better life. In the Virginia colonies women arrived in 1619 , after the threat of Indian attack and starvation was over. They came to marry the male settlers who had arrived some years earlier. Some were indentured servants and many of these were children.
Most of the colonial women received very little education . The colonial girls who were servants in other families were given the opportunity to learn how to read in exchange for their work. The majority of girls were taught by their mothers while they learned household skills. In the later colonial period, girls who were from an upper class or if they happened to lived near an “adventure school,” did get some schooling. At these schools girls would take lessons in needle work, music ,dancing , drawing and painting. The better the penmanship the more accomplished the girl was thought to be. Social skills were taught by attending teas, country dances, and music lessons. Although literacy increased with some girls, it was still far behind literacy among boys.
The father in colonial families represented them outside the home. The father filled the family’s obligation to the community and cast their vote in elections. Men controlled the finances and supervised all household affairs. The male would refer to other family members as “my family”, and the woman of the household whose place was not equal to her spouse’s in family affairs would refer to the family as “our family”. The woman’s role with her family was a private one compared to her spouse’s public role. Women were expected to attend the hearth and find happiness there.
At home women were responsible for the preparation and processing of food. Women also took care of the dairying, feeding of animals, gardening ,brewing of cider and beer, slaughtering of animals and the smoking the meat. They were also the candle makers and soap makers. The women sewed their own clothes and quilted blankets. Quilt blocks were given specific names that dealt with the aspects of everyday life. Some influences in the naming of these blocks were trades, nature, religion, and dance, hence the names Anvil, Ocean Wave, Jacob’s Ladder and Eight Hand Round. Women in the urban areas did more spinning of yarn than those in the rural areas who had more responsibility. The men’s work cycle was considered a yearly one while the women’s was daily.
The women of colonial times were usually pregnant and caring for their young children. The second generation of colonial women had an average of about eight children. Childbirth was a fearful time for them. Death was an issue not to be dismissed with each birth. Childbirth was a communal affair attended by midwives and neighboring women.
Religion played an important role in the lives of women during the colonial period. Reading the bible was a daily practice and most colonial communities were religiously based. Although by the end of the colonial period girls were able to choose their husbands rather than have prearranged marriages, getting married was a major concern of colonial young women. Marriageable age was between seventeen and twenty-five years. If a young girl did not marry, it was probably because she was needed at home to care for a sick family member, but most women did eventually marry as was expected by society.