Gender, Class and Society in Early 18th Century New England

The mid-18th century saw a developed and gradual change away from previous norms in terms of class, economic development, wealth, status and gender roles that appears to have often gone unnoticed.  As these changes took place, colonists in New England adapted in various methods to new cultural expectations and purposes in ways that reflect the shifting understanding of gender, religion and status.  Some accepted this change far more gracefully than others, and there appears to have been conflict not only along gender lines, but along religious lines and understandings as well.

The article from Chamberlain highlighted the diminishing influence of Puritan religious ideologies as social distinctions between genders became more and more pronounced.  In the early days of the New England colonies, there was really little difference between public and private affairs, so when Jonathan Edwards sought to prosecute young men for sexually charged speech, it is natural that he would expect little resistance.[1]  What he found, however, was a growing disparity throughout New England between men and women, and what was considered socially acceptable for each.[2]

Changing economic relationships also highlighted the need of the clergy to try and curtail the accumulation of wealth for wealth’s sake, and to try and channel that money into charitable means.[3]  Doing so, however successful, served to dehumanize those less fortunate by focusing on the blessings and increase of charity for the sake of public piety, rather than the needs of those who were in desperate for help in a harsh and often unforgiving climate.[4]  For the ministers of the flock, however, tying economic prosperity with piety served to further the charitable leanings of society and religion, but also increased the clergy’s influence and rebounding from a gradual waning trend.[5]

Most interestingly to me, however was the view of gender and social roles studied by Kathleen Bradon in her article about Native American Women converting and becoming a part of Christianity in New England.  Though gender roles were not as rigidly defined among many Native American communities as they were thought to be in the Christian communities of New England, there did seem to be distinct differences between the roles of women and men among Native Americans.[6]  It is arguable, however that the supposed rigid gender roles in Puritan society were not quite as well-defined and dogmatic as stereotypical history would have us believe.[7]

Despite all of these shifting trends in New England society, it is clear that there was still a defined social norm for gender as well as class, and religion still had a steady foothold throughout society as the New England colonies pushed relentlessly on towards the inevitable revolution.

[1] Ava Chamberlain, “Bad Books and Bad Boys: The Transformation of Gender in Eighteenth Century Northampton, Massachusetts,” The New England Quarterly 75, no. 2 (2002): 179-203.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Christine Leigh Heyrman, “The Fashion Among More Superior People: Charity and Social Change in Provincial New England, 1700-1740,” American Quarterly 34, no. 2 (1982): 107-124.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Kathleen Brandon, “Gender as a Social Category in Native Southern New England,” Ethnohistory 43, NO. 4 (1996): 573-592.

[7] James E. McWilliams, “Butter, Milk, and a ‘Spare Ribb’: Women’s Work and the Transatlantic Economic Transition in Seventeenth-Century Massachusetts,” The New England Quarterly 82, no. 1 (2009):5-24.

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