Living as an “empowered weak”: 17th century women in the Chesapeake and gender norms


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The 17th century Chesapeake region allows for a complex study of women’s roles within a broader demographic, economic, and political shift in the region. For most women living as feme covert, their power rested in making household decisions with their husband. If they became widowed, Chesapeake women with means became feme sole and dictated, at least for their lifetime, what happened to their inheritance. Even with this limited power, wealthy widows did not upset the gendered hierarchy of inheritance. As an “empowered weak”, wealthy widows continued the tradition of granting land to their sons and personal property to their daughters. Indentured women living “on the fringe” of society tried to increase their social standing by forming relationships with men who would be able to pull them out of indentured servitude. Even in these illicit relationships, women were more often and more harshly punished than their male counterparts in fornication and bastardy cases. For free African women, their role in relationships was further reduced based on the free status or race of their partner. For free women marrying a slave, they had to be indentured for a time and their children became slaves. As more women migrated to the Chesapeake from England, women’s power within the family continued to shrink in the 18th century; the small window of opportunity that the 17th century gave women in the unorganized colony disintegrated with the change in population and increased racial and gendered legislation of the 1700s.