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When looking back on the records of the past, the lives of women, particularly non-elite women, are sometimes barely visible. The Plymouth Colony Court Records, however, contain a multitude of references to women. The majority of these references deal with unusual occurrences rather than the daily lives of women, and thus give an interesting view onto the lives and roles of women in the society of the Plymouth Colony. In general, women of Plymouth Colony had fewer rights and responsibilities than men.
Married women in particular were not allowed to hold positions of authority, land, Married women Plymouth free goods Thompson However, as Demos points out, women of the Plymouth Colony did have more rights than their counterparts in seventeenth-century England Furthermore, the rights and responsibilities of women changed once they were widowed.
Because widows had a somewhat ambiguous role due to their responsibilities as both mother and father, as well as husband and wife, they were expected to act in both capacities Conger As widows, women were allowed to control money, land, and other resources from their deceased husband's estate.
Widows often wielded this power subtly to ensure both their own well being and that of their children Conger The following paper is an attempt to bring together and analyze the references to women in the first four volumes of the Plymouth Colony Court Records. In reviewing the references extracted from the records I found I could divide them into the following 13 :.
References to women as the executrix or beneficiary of a will. References to a woman's death or the execution of a widow's will. References to women acting as a witness to legal proceedings. The references in each of these helps define the dual role of women in Plymouth society, and demonstrate the shift from a position of little power and few rights as a married or single woman, to a position of intermediate power as a widow.
However, due to the unsystematic nature of human interaction as demonstrated in the references in the court records, these are somewhat arbitrary, and some references may overlap or belong to more than one category. References to the taxation of a woman. There are two references to women being taxed in the first four volumes of the Plymouth Colony Court Records. All the women who are "rated for publick use" by the government of the Plymouth Colony are widows, and owe from twelve to nine shillings, payable in corn. Since widows were the only women within the colony that were allowed to hold any substantial amount of property, they were also the only women within the colony that could have their property taxed.
The property of married women was turned over to their husbands upon their marriage, and therefore married women did not directly hold any property and could not be taxed. The records also demonstrate that widows were taxed fairly in relation to men.
Men were usually taxed more than widows, but men generally owned more taxable property. The practice of taxing widows evidences the ambiguous gender roles widows fulfilled within the Plymouth Colony. Since widows owned property and were viewed as both husbands and wives, their property could be taxed unlike other women who held little or no property.
References to sexual offenses. The involvement of women in sexual offenses was one of the most abundant of references in the first four volumes of the Plymouth Colony Court Records.
There were 64 references total, with most occurring in volumes three and four. The majority of these references concern consensual sex before marriage, but there are also cases of adultery, incest, attempted rape, sex between a master and servant, and sex between servants. Sexual offenses were punished in a variety of ways, including sitting in the stocks, payment of a monetary fine, being whipped, finding sureties for good behavior, or wearing a badge.
The punishment of wearing a badge sometimes carried a further conditional punishment. For example, in the case of Mary Mendame, if she was found without her badge, she would be further punished by being "burned in the Married women Plymouth free w the a hott iron" PCR 1: All of these punishments could be inflicted upon either the accused males or females. For the most part, both the man and the woman involved in the offence were punished equally.
However, there are a select few cases in which the punishment of the woman was lessened or retracted due to her good behavior or penitence PCR Dorothy Temple's punishment was reduced from two whippings to one PCR Monetary fines were also reduced or remitted for good behavior PCR 4: Furthermore, in these cases the sentence inflicted upon the woman was less harsh than the punishment of the man involved in the sexual offence.
Although the punishment administered to a woman in cases of sexual offenses was sometimes reduced, dismissed, or less harsh than the punishment of her male partner in crime, women were accused of sexual offenses more often and more readily than men, as a double standard of sexual morality existed in the colony. There are no cases of married men being explicitly accused of adultery, whereas married women were often accused of and punished for adultery.
Adultery was viewed as an offence not only against marriage, but against the social structure of the community as well Demos Further evidence for the double standard of sexual morality can be Married women Plymouth free in women who participated in sexual intercourse before marriage and were pushed into marriage to buffer both legal punishment and social sanctions Morgan Nonetheless, illicit sexual intercourse, especially by married men, was most certainly a common occurrence, even though married men were never accused of adultery in the court records Morgan Rather, the courts accused men of fornication, a less serious offence.
Evidence for the double standard of sexual morality present in the Plymouth Colony is readily apparent in the one case of incest present in the first four volumes of the court records. Even though he was punished by whipping, a corporal punishment, the records also state that he was under the influence of alcohol, and imply he had little control over his actions.
The mention of his drunken state partially removes blame from him, and subtly places it with his daughter for not resisting his attempts. In the 34 references to land dealings involving women in the first four volumes of the Plymouth Colony Court Records, the vast majority of the women mentioned are widows. In these cases, as before, widows have control over land and its use as allowed by their vaguely defined gender roles. The few references involving land that mentioned married women invariably mention their husbands, who had control over the land and its use as well PCR However, even widows were not always allowed full rights or responsibilities concerning the disposal of land.
For example, Jone Miller had to ask permission of the court to sell land from her recently deceased husband's estate for the benefit of their daughter PCR Even though Jone Miller was probably not the executrix of her husband's will, and did not have full control over his property, as a widow, she should have been allowed to dispose of it as she saw fit. In the end, the court allowed her to sell the land, but only for "the releife of her said daughter," and not for her own benefit. References to women as executrix or beneficiary of a will. There are 56 references in the first four volumes of the Plymouth Colony Court Records to women acting as the executrix or beneficiary of a will, the majority of which are in volume four.
Most of these references are fairly simple and straightforward, such as the one on June 3,which states "Lres of adminnestration is graunted vnto Mirriam Wormal to adminnester on the estate of Josepth Wormall, deceased" PCR As executrix, the widow settled debts, and provided for the distribution of her late husbands estate, which usually went to their children Richter In such cases, widows were granted power over land and other property that she could not have held as a married woman.
During married life, a woman's husband exclusively controlled their property, but the unclear gender role of a widow allowed her to gain and keep control over property and other resources. Sometimes, the power of a widow over her late husband's estate was reduced, if a son, brother, or court appointed official was made t executor with a widow.
This often occurred because both men and women did not feel that women could adequately handle economic affairs without assistance Thompson Thus, although some widows controlled the disposal of the estate of their late husband, often this control was reduced by a male figure of authority. References to women's deaths and the execution of women's wills.
There are 15 references to the deaths of women in the first four volumes of the Plymouth Colony Court Records. In these cases, generally the husband or son of the deceased woman was appointed to administer her estate. For the most part, this involved the presentation of an inventory Married women Plymouth free the woman's "goodes and chattels" to the court, which were then disposed of to sons, daughters, or other family members.
Only if the woman was a widow when she died, did she leave a will to provide for the distribution of her estate to her children, especially unmarried daughters. Widows were the only women who left wills, as they were the only women that could own property.
This is the case for Mistris Jone Swift, whose "last will and testament" was executed by Mr. Hinckley after her death PCR Also included in this category are references to s of women's deaths. Rebeckah Sale "hanged her selfe in her owne hiered house" PCR Later in the records, there is also a reference to the death of Mary Totman, who apparently mistakenly ate a poisonous root. Each of these deaths were investigated by a court appointed panel, who then witnessed the court proceedings explaining Married women Plymouth free death.
The records only made reference to examining unusual causes of death. References to provisions made for widows and children. The first four volumes of the Plymouth Colony Court Records contain 26 references to the provisions made in a deceased man's will for his widow or children.
By law, widows were due one third of the estate of their deceased husband, but children had no rights to their father's property Thompson Consequently, if a widow remarried, her new husband had the power to take over any property left to her beyond the original one third of her husband's estate, leaving her children penniless. To prevent this occurrence, the wills of men often provided for the distribution of money and other resources to their children, payable when they reached a certain age or were married ThompsonMarried women Plymouth free
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