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Colonial America

Women's Roles

The lives of women during colonial times were different than from today. Women were expected to get married, have children, work in the home, and obey their husbands. Despite the limitations put on women, they played an important role in the growth and survival of the American colonies. In many ways, it was the backbreaking hard work of women that the United States was built upon.

Colonial woman spinning cloth in the kitchen
A Woman Spinning
Source: A Brief History of the United States

Most women received very little formal education. Although some learned to read and write, many were illiterate. Girls typically learned the skills needed to manage a home from their mother. It was thought that a woman didn't need an education as she was supposed to work in the home.

Maintaining the Household

The main job of the woman during colonial times was to manage the home. They were responsible for raising the children, cooking meals, sewing clothes, weaving cloth, and keeping the house in order.


Women worked extremely hard during colonial times. There was always something to do to maintain the house whether it was preparing meals, mending clothes, making baskets, doing laundry, preserving food for the winter, tending to the livestock, making candles, dyeing cloth, or working in the garden. Women worked from sun up to sun down every day.

Rules and Legal Status

Colonial women had few legal rights or freedom. They were expected to obey the man in their life whether it was their father, brother, or husband. Women were not allowed to vote or hold public office.

A married woman's legal identity was represented by her husband. They could be beaten by their husbands and even forcibly returned to their husbands if they tried to run away. Married women could not make a will or own property.

Widows and unmarried women had more rights than married women. They were allowed to buy and sell property, make a will, and sign a contract. Widows received one-third of their husband's property when he died. Sometimes widows took over the husband's business.

Enslaved Women

Enslaved women had the toughest lives of anyone in colonial society. Not only were they enslaved, but they were also women, giving them no rights whatsoever. Enslaved women who worked in the fields were not only expected to work all day in the fields, but also to raise children (for more enslaved) and take care of their own family's household.

Wealthy Women

The wives of wealthy plantation owners and merchants had very different lives from the average farmer's wife. They still had few legal rights, but they didn't have to work nearly as hard. Most wealthy families had a number of domestic enslaved workers to do the work around the house. Wealthy women were responsible for managing the help and seeing that the house was properly maintained.

Women in the City

Women in the city were able to lead different lives from those on the farm. In the city, women were able to socialize with other women outside of their home and family. They also sometimes worked jobs outside of the home such as seamstresses, innkeepers, midwifes, or nurses.

Interesting Facts about Women's Roles in Colonial America
Activities To learn more about Colonial America:

Colonies and Places
Lost Colony of Roanoke
Jamestown Settlement
Plymouth Colony and the Pilgrims
The Thirteen Colonies

Daily Life
Clothing - Men's
Clothing - Women's
Daily Life in the City
Daily Life on the Farm
Food and Cooking
Homes and Dwellings
Jobs and Occupations
Places in a Colonial Town
Women's Roles
William Bradford
Henry Hudson
James Oglethorpe
William Penn
John Smith
Roger Williams

French and Indian War
King Philip's War
Mayflower Voyage
Salem Witch Trials

Timeline of Colonial America
Glossary and Terms of Colonial America

Works Cited

History >> Colonial America

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