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Women in Colonial Connecticutby Sarah Morin on 2021-07-13T08:55:00-04:00 in Women's History, Civil Rights & Human Rights, Courts CT, Archives, Connecticut, History | 0 Comments
Several cases in the New Haven County Court Records involved women, both as plaintiffs and defendants. Before we profile these types of cases in future blog posts, we will discuss how women were legally viewed, treated, and expected to conduct themselves in colonial Connecticut.
Cropped image from the first page of New Proverbs, On the Pride of Women, or The vanity of this world displayed (1799), courtesy of unknown engraver, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.
It is a common belief among modern Americans that women were treated as chattel or property in previous eras of Western history. However, a more apt comparison would be that European- and Anglo-descended women in early New England possessed the legal status our society currently designates for minor children. Just as parents are ultimately liable for their offspring’s actions, husbands, fathers, or other designated male guardians were answerable for the women placed under their power in colonial Connecticut. (As previously discussed, it is the enslaved people who were deemed property, as they were bought, sold, and listed in wills and estate inventories alongside other household goods.)
Puritan society was strictly hierarchal, with the expectation that children were to submit to their parents, women to their husbands, and men to their church elders and to God. As such, the overarching principle of women’s legal status was coverture, a philosophy stemming from English common law that women were under the “wing, protection, and cover” of their husbands (Cornelia Hughes Dayton, Women Before the Bar: Gender, Law, & Society in Connecticut, 1639-1789, pp. 19-20). Single women over 18 and widows were allowed to conduct lawsuits on their own behalf, but given that around 95 percent of colonial women married at least once in their lifetimes (Dayton, Women Before the Bar, p. 19), the majority of them fell under coverture. While the rights of married women varied across the different colonies, “no colony or state allowed married women, or femes coverts, as lawmakers termed them, the legal ability to act independently with regard to property” (Marylynn Salmon, Women and the Law of Property in Early America, p. xv).
This legal ideal was also known as unity of person, and it expressed the Puritans’ most deeply held values as to what the perfect marriage looked like. “According to Puritan ideas about the family, a single interest was essential... Proper Puritan matrons sought neither independence nor control in their marriages. They submitted lovingly to their husbands’ authority and decisions about property, and gave up their persons and estates to whatever fate God had in store for the family as a whole. The very idea of separate property spoke to a corruption of family life that Puritan leaders feared and sought to oppress” (Salmon, Women and the Law of Property, pp. 15, 123).
This legal principle is why investigators and researchers will come across several cases in the New Haven County Court Records in which women are plaintiffs and defendants alongside their husbands, or their husbands are solely representing them in court.
Although women in colonial Connecticut could not vote, hold office, or even own separate property (Allegra di Bonaventura, For Adam’s Sake: A Family Saga in Colonial New England, p. 89; Salmon, Women and the Law of Property, p. 122), they were expected to carry out their husband’s wishes in business matters and in court if need be. Several New Haven County Court cases demonstrate this expectation. In 1715, Hannah Hall instructed Captain Benjamin Smith to sell her husband’s personal effects upon his arrival in Carolina and purchase “two Indians male,” and her husband Richard sued Captain Smith when these instructions were not carried out to his liking. Mrs. Anna Guy served as her husband John’s attorney in five of the thirty-one debt lawsuits he filed against various people in the first quarter of the 1700s. And it wasn’t only plaintiffs who designated their wives as their attorneys. In 1703, Abigaill Atwater served as her husband Ebenezer’s attorney when he was a defendant in a debt lawsuit initiated by John Pitts.
Women acting as their husband’s attorneys was still both unusual and impressive. While the rate of literacy among colonial adult men was estimated to be an outstanding 90 percent, it would be “sharply reduced, however, if it included women” (di Bonaventura, For Adam’s Sake, p. 71). Regardless of their literacy levels, it was not uncommon for women to go to court as executors of their late husbands’ estates. Due to age gaps being common among husbands and wives, it is estimated that “perhaps 60 percent of all married women in early New England experienced widowhood. They approached it, not as a period of sudden emancipation and autonomy, but rather as an office of trusteeship and stewardship. Kin, neighbors, and probate judges expected a widow to be diligent in preserving the family estate and carrying out the instructions left by her husband” (Dayton, Women Before the Bar, p. 76).
Laurel Ulrich described this phenomenon with the phrase “deputy husband” (Salmon, Women and the Law of Property, p. 122). Though it may be surprising to see women managing their husband’s estates and serving as their attorneys in the 1600s and early 1700s, “custom and necessity often dictated that a woman act as her husband’s partner, agent, or (if he were absent a long time) competent surrogate” (Dayton, Women Before the Bar, p. 58). Women acted in these capacities not because the Puritans viewed them as equals to men, but because it was deemed their God-given role to serve as a meek and dutiful “helpmeet” in carrying out the wishes of her husband—whether he was living or dead.
This expectation of widows did decrease somewhat in later generations. In the mid- to late-eighteenth century, women were named executors of their husband’s estates less often, due to a “growing tendency of men and probate judges to appoint as estate administrators sons, lawyers, or male kin, not wives. Women themselves might often have asked not to serve” (Dayton, Women Before the Bar, p. 62). In addition, the culture of New Haven County had changed since the Puritans originally established the colony in the seventeenth century. As the eighteenth century progressed, the ideal woman was no longer so much a competent helpmeet as she was a “virtuous ornament... [of] gentility and leisured motherhood” (Dayton, Women Before the Bar, p. 65).
Divorce Petition of Sarah Welsher, September 10, 1723, New Haven County Superior Court, Papers by Subject, Divorce. She sought a divorce from her long-gone husband Peter, complaining that every enterprise that he launched failed and that he left her and her children penniless.
In light of the colonists’ emphasis on complete and total feminine submission to men, as well as our common preconceptions of the past, it may come as a surprise to learn that colonial Connecticut had some of the most liberal divorce laws in the Western world at the time.
The Puritans of Connecticut believed that absolute divorce (divorce a vinculo matrimonii) with the right to remarry should be allowed for “adultery, desertion, fraudulent contract, and seven years’ absence without word” (Salmon, Women and the Law of Property, p. 61). Unfortunately, it remained extremely difficult for women to divorce on grounds of cruelty alone. Women who were abused by their husbands—but not deserted through abandonment or adultery—had little recourse other than attempting to petition the courts for a guarantee of peace. “Connecticut’s late-colonial divorce policy, despite its generous terms, moved in the direction of reinforcing male authority in the household” (Dayton, Women Before the Bar, pp. 62, 107).
The reason Connecticut allowed absolute divorce at all was because the Puritans who founded New Haven colony refused to countenance the half-measures of divorce a mensa et thoro (separation of board and hearth only) that England and several of the other colonies preferred. For the judges and lawmakers of Connecticut, it was a ridiculous notion to keep couples in the limbo of being detached but not entirely free of their bonds—if a marriage was invalid, it ought to be dissolved entirely. This dissolution could be accomplished without risk of damnation, for the Puritans viewed marriage as a civil contract rather than a sacrament (Salmon, Women and the Law of Property, p. 61).
However, divorce still remained a rare phenomenon, as “autonomy frightened most women in the colonial and early national periods. In many instances, it was only when husbands proved abusive or wasteful that women sought to control their own financial affairs” (Salmon, Women and the Law of Property, p. 13). Apparently, divorce in Connecticut was so uncommon that court officials felt the need to document it in their records. In 1733, Hannah Hall sued Stephen Barnes for debt, and her status as a divorcee is noted at least twice. Hannah “was wife of Samuell Hall, but now Lawfully Devorced" per the promissory note from Barnes, and she was “formerly the wife of Samuell Hall of s[ai]d New Haven, but now lawfully divorced from him” per the writ issued by Warham Mather, Justice of the Peace.
Consequences of Enforced Dependency
As one might surmise, the requirements for absolute submission and legal dependency on men that colonial women were forced to endure led to several hardships, particularly for single women and widows. Women who did not have husbands or whose families either could not or refused to support them often found themselves begging the courts for relief. “Far too often impoverished widows without family connections simply could not get along. They needed public assistance. In many communities, widows and single women living alone constituted the largest segment of recipients of poor relief” (Salmon, Women and the Law of Property, p. 184).
While judges and lawmakers felt some obligation to protect widows with meager options and wives whose husbands abused their authority, their paternalistic mindset prevented them from granting much in the way of real relief. “In short, the rules of law adopted in Connecticut... assumed that families would be loving, considerate, and interdependent. Protective strategies for wives and widows could be reduced because they were viewed as unnecessary, restrictive, and perhaps even destructive of family harmony” (Salmon, Women and the Law of Property, pp. 8-9). Unfortunately, when laws are formulated according to philosophical ideals rather than how humans actually behave in given situations, this often results in a great deal of suffering for the people whose personal situations do not fit the model.
In an environment where females were utterly dependent on the strength of their familial and communal connections to survive, women were highly concerned with maintaining an unimpeachable reputation, and did not hesitate to initiate lawsuits defending themselves against slander. Unlike men, who sued for economic defamation that damaged their credit and their good name as traders, women sued for slander of character that cost them the respect of their neighbors, their prospects for marriage, and their overall social status (Dayton, Women Before the Bar, pp. 316-317).
The next blog post will discuss just such a case that occurred in the New Haven County County Court in 1742, where a widow sued a man in her community for slandering her as a witch.
The Connecticut State Library would like to thank the National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC) for their generous support of this project.
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