Gender roles in Colonial America Hartman 1
During the late seventeenth & early eighteenth century in Colonial & English
America, the roles men expected of women followed a strict guideline. Those guidelines
kept women in certain boundaries. Women had no defined legal identity as an individual.
Women grew to resent being repressed socially and legally with the constant law changes
restricting the liberties permitted to their gender. Their only outlet was gossip, allowing
them to have a degree of control over their own lives and the lives of others. The fine
nuances found within idealistic womanhood could contribute to the tensions generating
suspicions among the female gender.1
Freedoms of speech permitted to women could be
considered a catalyst of the Salem Witch trials in 1692. The results of the Salem trials
proved the greatest preventive of any future outbreaks in the court system.2
the law realized the errors made during Salem, and pardoned the victims of the afflicted
girlsâ€™ cruelty. Evidence from various trials and writings of the time period during the late
seventeenth century show a gender bias, due to the records being kept by men, and the
legal proceedings being led by men. The authorities, judges, and jury were made up of
males. It could be considered that that were very few writings which display the
experiences of Colonial-era women.
Evidence from the writings of Samuel Sewall, Robert Calef, Thomas Hutchinson,
and Deodat Lawson suggest that many writings in the seventeenth century, such as trial
records, diaries, and testimonial transcripts have a gender bias. Most of the documents are
written from the male point of view during the Salem trials3
. Research seems to depend
on assumptions which are accepted because they suit the researcherâ€™s prejudices of
It can be expected to remain wary of trial transcripts; women were condemned
whether or not they followed the â€˜scriptâ€™ according to the legal expectations society held
for them. Governor Thomas Hutchinson agreed with Robert Calefâ€™s More Wonders of the
Invisible World, where Calef blamed the outbreak in Salem on a â€œparcel of possessed,
distracted, or lying wenchesâ€ and continued about bloodthirsty ministers and magistrates
encouraged these liars with â€œbigoted zeal.â€5
Hutchinson concluded that innocent people
Garret, Clarke. Women & Witches: Patterns of Analysis. Signs, Winter 1977. pg 467.
Roach, Marilynne K. â€œThe Salem Witch Trials: A day by day chronicle of a community under siegeâ€ Pg.
Roach, Marilyene K.
Holmes, Clive. â€œWomen: Witnesses and Witchesâ€ Past and Present, No. 140, August 1993, pp. 145-78. 5
Calef, Robert. More wonders of the invisible world. London: Nathaniel Hiller and Joseph Collier, 1700.
Gender roles in Colonial America Hartman 2
had died because of lying, self-indulgent girls, cowardly adults, afraid of accusation, and
credulous judges and juries: â€œfraud from start to finish.â€6
The authorities who were in
charge of the prosecutions were men. Defenders of the accused were men, the judges
were men, and the outcome was controlled by men. Even though the men seemed to be in
charge, the men have been a neglected subject in analyses of witchcraft prosecutions.7
After the trials, later generations found it easier to dismiss the unenlightened colonists of
the seventeenth century who were stupid enough to even consider the possibility of
harmful magic, while at the same time never believing the charges that they supposedly
always lied about for material gain: land, prestige, or adulterous opportunity.8
Carol F Karlsen argues that an older view of women as a necessary evil had been
only superficially outdated by a new view of women as a necessary good.9
Bever, Clarke Garrett, Karen Green and John Bigelow take a new approach by dissecting
the role of women during the Salem trials. The role that gender in Salem played is an
important one, depicting an unhealthy imbalance during the trials. Karen Green, John
Bigelow, and Edward Bever argue that the idea of witch-prosecutions reflected a war
between the sexes must be discounted, because the victims and witnesses were
themselves as likely to be women as men. Due to their severe limitations, women utilized
the only mouthpiece available: the courtroom.10
Gender has many definitions, but the main definition of gender in this case
involves the meaning that a particular society and culture attach sexual difference.
Gender can be integrated in legal, economic, and social interactions.11 Those approaches
are the main focus of what seems to be an answer to the age-old question of gender in
colonial America. Court records depict the legal and social outlook on gender roles.
Those legal documents provide a strong foundation on the gender roles expected of men
and women by Puritans during the eighteenth century. Historians have learned that
The Hutchinson Papers, MHS collections, 3rd ser. 1(1825): 1-52.
Green, Karen & Bigelow, John. â€œDoes Science Persecute Women? The Case of the 16th-17th Century
Witch-Huntsâ€ Philosophy, vol. 73, No. 284, April 1998, pp. 195-217.
Hale, John. A modest enquiry into the Nature of Witchcraft. Boston: Benjamin Eliot, 1702. 9
Karlsen, Carol F. The Devil in the shape of a Woman: The Economic Basis of Witchcraftâ€ Womenâ€™s
America, pg. 83.
10 Kibbey, Ann. Mutations of the Supernatural: Witchcraft, Remarkable Providences, and the power of
Puritan men. American Quarterly, pg. 128.
11 DeHart, Jane Sherron & Kerber, Linda K. â€œGender and the New Womenâ€™s Historyâ€ Womenâ€™s America,
Gender roles in Colonial America Hartman 3
gender is a social construction; at issue are not just personal identities of individuals but
the larger social order. It seemed a threat to the social order if any changes were to
happen, especially in the roles concerning gender.
In the late 1670s and 1680s, Gender roles had begun to diverge. The growth of
the economy and trade had an impact on women. As the boundaries of the colonies grew,
womenâ€™s economic circumstances became more complex, and they became less involved
and informed about economic matters. The contribution made by women in Salemâ€™s
economic production was no longer needed. Salem became a bustling mercantile town,
different from its beginning as a small farming community. The economy relied less on
agriculture for substance, turning to the increasing demand for trade specialization. In this
period of time, women began losing many of their traditionally separate spheres of labor.
They continued to engage in production but increasingly fell under the supervision of
men. Even though women could tend animals, produce or market food, harvest, spin, and
assist husbands, their work continued to be generally unrecognized based on the slow
economic changes, making it difficult to pinpoint a clear or sudden shift in the condition
of womenâ€™sâ€™ lives.12 Attitudes that control martial behavior changed slowly as well,
changing the marriage relationship in the same way that womenâ€™s experiences changed in
other spheres. During Salemâ€™s early years, if a woman was unhappy with her husband,
she could fight back if he abused her. As time passed, women became more likely to
appeal to the court or to friends than to fight back. The instances of martial misbehavior
from the Essex country records displayed instances of greater female subjection and
passivity during the later years of Salem. The imbalance in the gender ratio delayed the
emergence of this pattern of diminished differentiation of roles. 13
The gender system upheld strict sexual standards for women. Women
were judged primarily by their interactions with men. Womanhood, in essence, was
defined by what the greatest value in a wife was: sexuality and economic usefulness. A
womanâ€™s sexual nature acquired more ideological prominence and women were accorded
less respect than in societies where women were ranked in other ways. It was mainly
women who were restricted by the high moral standards established by the social
12 Hemphill, C. Dallett. Pg 173.
13 Bloch, Ruth A. 244.
Gender roles in Colonial America Hartman 4
expectations of their time. As vessels of many biological mysteries such as menstruation
and lactation, women were mistrusted as creatures of sexual passion. As mothers, women
are trusted implicitly with the nurturing and preserving of society through their children
and families.14 There were also beliefs concerning their biology; the traditional view had
been that the women had more difficulty controlling their irrational impulses and were
prone to extreme behavior. Assertive and aggressive women challenged the patriarchal
order of Puritan society. This theme can be seen through the witchcraft prosecutions.15
Women in the seventeenth century were excluded from formal participation in public life.
Women commanded a limited domain, but they were neither isolated nor selfsufficient. Women gained a benefit with their opportunities outside of the home, such as
working in their husbandsâ€™ or fathersâ€™ business establishments. In addition to the
common household chores, women could take in othersâ€™ laundry to earn some extra
money or produce. Nursing and midwifery were considered â€œwomenâ€™s workâ€ for the
most part. Beyond their familiarity with economic affairs, court records show that it was
acceptable for women to act for their husbands when they were away or busy with other
matters.16 The womanâ€™s environment was the family dwelling and the land surrounding
it. Karlsen shows how the women of Salem knew about the property, contractual
obligations, and financial ventures of their neighbors and others through gossip. If their
daily experience did not lead women to feel that their character differed greatly from
menâ€™s, the ideal for a submissive, dependent, and passive female behavior might seem
particularly ill fitting. The disparity between the ideal behavior expected of women and
their actual performance probably did cause frustration and possibly resulted in dissent
within the gender system, since they were not the ones devising the system. Women
couldnâ€™t have any rights unless they were married or had a male guardian; there were a
lot of expectations for women that society placed on their shoulders.
Though â€œlarge politicsâ€ were closed to them, women formed their own weapons
to utilize in order to maintain their social and political positions. Gossip was an essential
tool for the female gender, advancing and protecting their interests. Whatever power
14 Garrett, Clarke. Women & Witches: Patterns of Analysis, Signs, 1977, vol3 no 2. pg 466
15 Bloch, Ruth A Untangling the Roots of Modern Sex Roles: A Survey of Four Centuries of Change, Signs,
1978. Vol 4 No. 2 pg 241.
16 Hemphill, C. Dallett. Women in Court: Sex-role differentiation in Salem, Massachusetts, 1636-1683.
William and Mary Quarterly,
Gender roles in Colonial America Hartman 5
women exercised was confined to their domain: the home environment. It could be
considered whatever power women had would be based on personal relationships formed
outside the hierarchy of the village authority. By the 1650s, the most serious dissenters
were women. During the 1670s, aggression methods did not differ between the sexes. In
1671, the Quarterly Court of Essex County, Maryland changed the law concerning
defamation, limiting the charges to apply only to government officials or officers of the
court. The new law denied defamed women access to the court system, giving women no
forum to air their grievances or exercise what little legal and civil rights they held. The
last two suits involving women were filed in 1673. 17
The colonial community was male-dominated and corrupt in a few ways, as
money bought freedom for many accused women. A woman, who had no male heirs, was
particularly vulnerable to accusations once she became a widow or did not have a male in
her household. The accused woman was from a wealthy family unless they were single or
widowed. The targets were usually families with large estates or with a high place in
society. Those wealthy women could be fairly confident that any accusations would be
ignored by the authorities or deflected by their husbands through suits for slander against
their accusers.18 An example is made of the 1632 treatise in English on the legal status of
women: The Lawes Rosltions of Womens Rights which explained: It is seldome, almost
never that ha marryed womean can have any action to use her writt onely in her owne
name: her husband is her sterne, without whom she cannot doe much at home and lesse
abroad.â€19 Under proper practice of the time, a married woman should not have
appeared by and for herself alone in court, as either a plaintiff or a defendant; her
husband should have joined her in the suit. Marriage afforded a defamed woman certain
advantages. Women were successful in court simply because of their representation by
their husbands.20 Any independent woman was a threat to male domination, or the
patriarchal structure of the Puritan society of New England. The Puritan community was
17 Norton, Mary Beth. Gender & Defamation in seventeenth-century Maryland, William & Mary Quarterly,
18 Karlsen, Carol F. â€œThe Devil in the shape of a woman: The Economic Basis of Witchcraftâ€ Womenâ€™s
America, p 84. 19 The Lawes Resolutions of Womenâ€™s Rights: (London, 1632) 204, 212.
20 Norton, Mary Beth. Pg. 33
Gender roles in Colonial America Hartman 6
unforgiving to women, who failed to serve the needs of the men in their hierarchical
A woman with independence differed from the expectations of a standard Puritan
household. Without a male presence, money and property immediately went to the
woman, which was a situation men wanted to avoid. However varied their backgrounds
and economic positions, as women without brothers or women without sons, they stood
in the way of the orderly transmission of property from one generation of males to
another.21 All personal property, such as inheritances or possessions, a woman brought to
the marriage became her husbandâ€™s property. Income generated by married women
belonged by law to their husbands.22 Since married women were not allowed to own
property, they could not make any legal decisions without their husbandâ€™s permission
until they became widows or died themselves23. No statue was more important to women
than the laws protecting their claims to dower. Normally, courts were scrupulous about
assigning the widowâ€™s portion, or â€œwidowâ€™s thirdâ€; the right of a widow to use one third
of the real estate and/or personal property her husband held after the debts were paid. As
time passed and the economy became more complex, womenâ€™s rights to dower was more
laxly enforced, and women were put into an increasingly vulnerable position as Katherine
Harrison found herself into.24 People at the time didnâ€™t seem to like the idea of a woman
becoming independent, with money to her name, since her position didnâ€™t mesh with the
position â€œmadeâ€ for a woman. The males of the community wanted to make certain they
would take possession of her money and property as seen in the attempts in the
Katherine Harrison was a Healer in Hartford, Connecticut. She was not formally
accused of any witchcraft crimes until after her husbandâ€™s death in 1666, which left her
one of the wealthiest, if not THE wealthiest woman in town. Unlike many widows in
colonial New England, Katherine Harrison chose not to remarry. Her neighbors said they
suspected her of killing as well as curing, during 1668-69, when she was first tried as a
witch. Clearly she was acquitted, since she was indicted in the Court of Assistants in
21 Karlsen, Carol F. p. 94.
22 Karlsen, Carol F, p 84.
23 DeHart & Kerber, pg 13.
24 An Act Concerning the Dowry of Widows, 1672.
Gender roles in Colonial America Hartman 7
Hartford on May 25, 1669 on the same charge. A petition was filed by thirty-eight
townsmen complaining about various issues they had with her, seemingly to want her put
to death. One of the signers was one of the townâ€™s most prominent citizens, John Chester,
who was involved in a legal controversy with Harrison concerning the vandalism of her
estate since her husbandâ€™s death. The Court of Assistants also seems to have been
unsympathetic to another petition Harrison submitted in fall 1668, where she complained
that the actions of the magistrates themselves were depleting her estate, when they fined
her 40 pounds for slandering her neighbors, a fine greatly in excess of the normal
punishment in such cases.25 Harrisonâ€™s petition was a peculiar mixture of justification for
her actions, concession to the magistratesâ€™ insistence on deference in women, and
desperation in attempt to salvage her estate for herself and her daughters. The experiences
of Katherine Harrison are common for a woman found in her position during the late
eighteenth century. 26
It was not unusual for women like Katherine without male heirs to be accused of
witchcraft shortly after the deaths of fathers, husbands, brothers, or sons.27 The fact that
accusations of witchcraft were rarely taken seriously by the community until the accused
stopped bearing children, took on a special meaning when it was connected with the
anomalous position of inheriting women or potentially inheriting women similar to
Katherine Harrison in New Englandâ€™s social structure.28 â€˜Womanâ€™ had to be defined as
qualitatively different from men in order that any kind of social or political power would
be kept out of womenâ€™s reach.29
Laws were even established in New England requiring the placement of all single
persons under the authority of a family head. Upon marriage, the wife would lose her
civil identity that defined her as an individual. In the legal sense, the man and woman
were understood to be one person. The old law of domestic relations began from the
principle that after consummating the marriage, the husband controlled the physical body
of the wife. If he controlled her body, then he could easily force her into agreement with
25 Karlsen, carol F. pg. 89
26 Karlsen, Carol F. 88.
27 Karlsen, Carol F. p. 93
28 Karlsen, Carol F. p.92
29 Harvey, Karen. The century of Sex? Gender, bodies and sexuality in the Long eighteenth century, The
Historical Journal, 45, 4 2002. pg. 902
Gender roles in Colonial America Hartman 8
him on every other aspect of their lives. Gender and Defamation in Seventeenth-Century
Maryland brings up the issue that married women were covered with her husbandâ€™s legal
identity for virtually all purposes except crime. When it came to crime, the women were
essentially without the support of their spouse. It seems that men did not want to have a
negative association with their name or reputation. .
A good example of a Puritan male trying to maintain a good reputation in spite of
his familyâ€™s misfortune is the experience of Thomas Putnam. Since Putnam made the
accusations of witchcraft in his family, it suggests that important changes happened in the
cultural experience of fathers and husbands in the late seventeenth century.30 Changes
seemed to make the doctrine of affliction so implausible that Putnam refused the selfinterpretation it offered him. Instead, Putnam chose to defer to the older explanations of
events as a sign of witchcraft. The assertion that his family members were â€œafflictedâ€ by
witchcraft was also an indirect confession of Putnamâ€™s own lack of power as a Puritan
father. Perhaps that aspect of his accusation had something to do with the positive
response he received from the legal authority. Using the â€œafflictionâ€ of his wife, daughter,
and ward, it was possible for him to â€˜save faceâ€™ and not seem as powerless as he
imagined himself to be under the circumstances. He could disassociate himself by
dehumanizing women, making it easier to prosecute them as witches. Using a witch as a
scapegoat, he presented the idea that a witch was causing the problems in the family, and
the witch should be dealt with. In the end, it was Ann Putnam the younger, Mercy Lewis,
and Ann Carr Putnam who ended up with a negative reputation instead of Thomas
The Puritans viewed the household as a power base. The more children one had
and the more property a male held, the higher the status that family held in the town. If
any misfortune struck the family, the male head of the household was considered at fault,
or a scapegoat was found. The laws from the seventeenth century show how few
restrictions applied to white men. On the other hand, women had very few legal rights
and liberties as individuals as well as heavy cultural expectations for their gender to
fulfill. Women had no rights as individuals- they were not viewed as people, only as
30 Kibbey, Ann. Pg 143.
31 Kibbey, Ann. Pg. 147.
Gender roles in Colonial America Hartman 9
extensions of their husbandâ€™s household. Such treatment would be a very good reason for
a woman to feel powerless and oppressed.32
With the arrival of the eighteenth century, gender roles and expectations for the
roles for each gender had been completely changed from a century earlier. Anxiety was
present in gender identities of British North Americaâ€™s occupants during the late
seventeenth century. The anxiety men had concerning their gender resulted in a strong
Puritan masculine ideal. The Puritan man was encouraged to take up sporting activities
such as walking riding, fishing, fowling, hawking, hunting, wrestling, shooting, etc.
Womanly weakness and effeminacy were condemned in men who wore their hair long; in
fact, in 1649 the Massachusetts General Court ordered church elders to ensure that menâ€™s
hair was kept short; six years later Harvard enacted a similar restriction.33 The Puritans
objected to plays because of effeminizing effects of men playing womenâ€™s parts. Men
shared a profound fear of femininity in its various presentations, which resulted in an
inherently anxious hyper masculine gender identity for men.34 Changes in the law
implemented by male authority figures divested women of many traditional sources of
authority during the late seventeenth century. The goal seemed to be reducing the threat
of a man losing his â€˜masculinityâ€™ by having a woman challenge his authority. Women
were measured against the same standard as men, restricting them to a position one rung
beneath a male, perhaps making women into lesser human beings.
Family roles were an important part of society in colonial America. Many people
during that time period were dependent upon the structure of the household and their role
in it. The English settlers of the seventeenth century viewed their households as a mirror
to the gendered political and religious hierarchies of their communities. Men and women
each had a place within the household, although boundaries could overlap.35 In the
traditional roles of gender that the English colonists brought to America, the male was
understood to be the representative of their family in their dealings with the world. The
Puritans based their hierarchy as found in their religion, with a patriarchal structure. The
32 Hemphill, C. Dallett. Women in Court: Sex-Role Differentiation in Salem, Massachusetts, 1636 to 1683
33 Talley, Colin L. pg. 404
34 Talley, Colin L. Male same-sex erotic behavior in British North America, 404. 35 Plane, Anne Marie. Creating a Blended Household: Christian Indian women and English Domestic Life
in Colonial Massachusetts. Womenâ€™s America, pg 29.
Gender roles in Colonial America Hartman 10
position required women to be submissive to the male in all worldly matters.
Ruth Blochâ€™s writings have indicated that manhood in seventeenth century New
England rested in large part on the social and political role of husband and head of
household. The anxiety facing the construction of gender identity in Colonial America
resulted in a puritan masculine ideal. In 17th-century America, Protestantism, combined
with the conditions of the frontier, further emphasized the importance of family life and
re-enforced the paternal role.36 While the formal structure of most families remained
nuclear, they were not at all â€œnuclearâ€ in the sense we usually understand the term
today.37 Puritan men considered their family a source of their social power they held.
Men believed that the state of their soul relied on their wives and children; behavior,
health, education, and welfare. Every state their child or wife found themselves in was
considered a reflection on the state of a Puritan maleâ€™s soul.
Sewall, being an average upper-class pious Puritan man, realizes that his power
lies within his family. Five years after 1692, he had several deaths in his family, a couple
of them his own newborn children. Such events led him to believe that he had to do the
most important thing in his life. In the context of events in a Puritan manâ€™s life, such as
Sewallâ€™s, the death of his child became one more index to the state of his soul.38 On
January 14, 1697, Judge Samuel Sewall went to church as was the duty of a Puritan man.
He handed a letter to the parish minister to read on his behalf, as he stood before the
congregation. He desired to take the blame and shame of it, and his apology was by far
earth-shattering. The Puritan had a tendency to support old English tradition by following
the belief that God had ordained the class structure, which could be compared to the
belief Puritan men held about their family being the source of their power. The classstructure beliefs meant that people should stay at approximately the level where God
placed them at birth. A good example of this belief in practice is the case of Francis &
36 Bloch, Ruth A. pg 245
37 Bloch, Ruth A. Untangling the Roots of Modern Sex Roles: A Survey of Four Centuries of Change,
Signs, 1978. Vol 4 No. 2 pg. 243.
38 Kibbey, Ann. Mutations of the Supernatural: Witchcraft, Remarkable Providences, and the power of
Puritan men, American Quarterly, pg 140
Gender roles in Colonial America Hartman 11
Rebecca Nurse of Salem, Massachusetts.39
The Nursesâ€™ self-sufficiency was resented; the Nurses were considered
â€œoutsidersâ€ who moved to Salem from Ipswich. After the Nurses bought property from
Rev. James Allen in 1678, the property was still considered â€˜The Allen propertyâ€ in
1692, with six years left on payments for the property. The Nurses had prospered, never
defaulting on a payment; a clear sign of their eventual ownership. The Allens wanted the
land back into their family, instead of selling it to strangers. The Allenâ€™sâ€™ reluctance made
the purchase process difficult for the Nurses. The Allens still considered the property
being Endicott property by right, through marriage to an Endicott woman. Talk spread
among the residents that the Nurses were getting above themselves after a conflict incited
by the Allens. In the Allen claim, they drove the Nurses off a small wood-lot, which the
Nurses were still making payments on. The battle of the wood-lot, and the lawsuit
resulting of the confrontation at the wood-lot, was old news by March 1692.40
. Due to the Nursesâ€™ self-reliance and success with the property they had bought
from someone elseâ€™s family, some people such as Thomas Putnam and the Allens
resented the Nurses for taking the property out of itsâ€™ â€œproperâ€ hands, the hands of the
Allens; such thinking can be shown in the way the community still called the Nursesâ€™
property â€œThe Allen Placeâ€. Francis and Rebecca disrupted the community mentality, so
they should make amends for their ability to move beyond their original station in life.
The Nursesâ€™ suit brought suspicion upon the Allens, bringing suspicion upon the honesty
and trustworthiness of their reputation in Salem.
Men seemed to be most concerned about slander attacking their honesty and
trustworthiness in economic matters. If being a target for scandals was sign of oneâ€™s
importance in a society, there can be little doubt where that importance normally lay in
colonial America: in the hands of men, and both genders knew it. 41 This setup of a male
hierarchical control came with a tendency to blur many distinctions between the genders.
Women had rights in the courtroom, although very limited, and men occasionally were
admitted in the â€œwomanâ€™s domainâ€ of childbirth or nursing. Sex was another distinction
that was not clearly defined in practice. The Puritans imposed requirements on the
39 Starkey, Marion L.
40 Roach, Mariyenne K.
41 Norton, Mary Beth. Gender and Defamation in Maryland. William & M ary Quarterly.
Gender roles in Colonial America Hartman 12
sexuality of the marriage, requiring that all sexual acts performed must be in the
missionary position and only for procreation.42 The Colonists considered women
essential in the seventeenth century for the perpetuation of the race.
Colin L. Talleyâ€™s research in the publication Journal of the History of Sexuality
suggests a change in attitude toward gender roles after the Salem trials. 43 Nontraditional gender roles were fairly common and distributed throughout diverse groups in
colonial America during that time period. Non-traditional gender roles such as Sodomites
(males), the Transgendered, Sapphists (females), and Hermaphrodites were generally
accepted as long as it didnâ€™t disrupt the general structure or power base of the puritan
society. Both genders led very segregated lives, only coming together sexually to
procreate, as was decreed in the legal doctrines of the time, which were based on the
religious beliefs of Puritans.44 The males of the society seemed determined to preserve
their hyper-masculine sense of gender identity that they permitted their own male gender
to go forth unpunished, or receive less severe consequences based on physical gender.
Even though a man would dress like a woman, or have sex with other men, he was still
functionally a male. Expectations for either gender were crystal-clear. Regardless of
behavior, Males were still Males, and Males were above Females.
Puritans strove to abolish all forms of homosexuality, at that point in time called
sodomy. During the 17th century, sodomy was an aberration in the eyes of the religion of
the Europeans. Upon the discovery that the natives in their region accepted and supported
sodomy and same-sex marriage without any evidence of shame or self-consciousness, the
Europeans made it their priority to abolish such vile acts in their point of view.45 Even
though Sodomites were referred to as â€œbeastlyâ€, the characterization was rooted in the
dominative structures of Colonial society.46 Surprisingly, same-sex erotic behavior was
much more common than what has been previously assumed. Societyâ€™s reaction to it was
muted because of local conditions and the particular way that power relationships of
42 Hurtado, Alfred L., pg 58
43 Talley, Colin L. â€œGender and Male Same-Sex Erotic Behavior in British North America in the
Seventeenth Centuryâ€ Journal of the History of Sexuality, Vol. 6, No. 3 (Jan., 1996), pp. 385-408 44 Talley, Colin L. Pg. 397-398
45 Hurtado, Alfred L. Pg 59.
46 Talley, Colin L. pg. 400
Gender roles in Colonial America Hartman 13
gender conditioned sexual behavior and ideology.47 A conflict presents itself in the
power relationships of gender, men were considered dominant creatures, and there was a
psychological danger present if any dominant was to be dominated himself.48 In the
colonies, same-sex behavior was a cultural and psychological threat to the dominant
patriarchal ideology. The behavior wasnâ€™t considered a thereat to the social structure
because of conditioning in the male gender of dominance. Due to that consideration, the
behaviors of colonial men never reached the written record. In most societies in colonial
America, it was rare to find an exclusively homosexual pattern; most of the males
married and had children. Gender and sexuality were different to the colonists, and their
ideal seemed to encourage the point of gender. A man following the expectations put on
his gender by society, he would not be punished for his sexual behavior.
An example is the case of Nicholas Sension. On May 22, 1677 he was brought
before the court in Windsor, Connecticut on a charge of sodomy. Court records revealed
that he had a thirty-year history of seducing local males, and he had essentially received
no punishment. Despite his well known reputation as a sodomite, he was finally only
punished by being put on probation. Sension was behaving exactly the way one would
expect a dominant patriarch to act in his trans-generational and trans-class sexual
adventures. An explanation to the ambivalent societal reaction to Sension could be
considered that his encounters were not a threat to the social structure or the presentation
of a Puritan male. He did not divert from the role expected of him by his wealth and high
status. There was an apparent reluctance after the 1660s to enforce the harsh penalty
provided by their capital sodomy law as seen in the case of Nicholas Sension. 49 Sension
fit the mold of the ideal colonial male, and the court did not want to punish him or take
away his wealth and status. While Sension showed inconsiderate behavior of a male, he
was still considered a male and still able to have the rights bestowed upon him by the
community simply because of his gender.
The suggestion of homosexual activity did not necessarily indicate exclusive
homosexuality. Sodomy was associated only at times with a particular propensity for
same-sex sexual desires. Sodomy in colonial America was understood to be more than
47 Hemphill, C. Dallett.
48 Talley, Colin L. Pg. 401
49 Talley, Colin L, pg. 407
Gender roles in Colonial America Hartman 14
simply a sinful and illegal act if not a marker of modern sexual orientation. A sexual
revolution produced a third gender- the new sodomites. Prior to 1700, there had been two
genders of male and female. After 1700, there were now three genders; man, woman and
sodomite.50 Even if a person was considered a sodomite, he still had equal rights
applicable to a male. The Puritans wanted more males in their society- so they allowed
Sodomy to pass without punishment as long as it did not happen to be brought out in
public, disrupting the â€˜naturalâ€™ course of events in a village. If a man was â€œoustedâ€ it
made the other men seem weak, and brought a smear to the overall masculinity and
virility of the male gender in the village. So naturally, Puritan men took it seriously when
it came to proving their masculinity. A man would concern himself primarily with the
judgments of other men.51
Mary Beth Norton brings up the role gender plays in seventeenth-century
America in Searchers Again Assembled, concerning the interesting case of T. Hall, a
hermaphrodite (or intersexed) individual. Christened and raised as a girl, Thomasine had
a clear identity as a female and adopted that gender role in society during childhood.
Upon reaching adulthood, Thomasine shed the gender role of a woman and adopted the
gender role of Thomas in 1625, taking the place of a brother after his death in the army.
Upon returning to Plymouth in 1627 after his service in France, Hall resumed his identity
as Thomasine, supporting herself by using her needlework skills. Upon learning of a ship
traveling to Virginia, Hall decided to become Thomas again for the journey to the
Virginia colony as an indentured servant. A man named John Tyos took on the role of
Thomasâ€™s master by December 1627/8, showing that Hall chose to continue his role as
Thomas in Virginia. Although, court records show that Thomas chose to dress as a
woman at some point in time during his stay in Virginia. The court records are not clear
on the issue of whether or not Hall continued as a female after January 1628. John Tyos
sold Hall, legally considered a maidservant named Thomasine to John Atkins around
January 1628. The court records of Tâ€™s trial do not answer the question of what happened
to raise questions about Tâ€™s sexual identity.52 Court records show Tâ€™s answer to the
question about why T would wear womenâ€™s clothing when he was a male to be: â€œI goe in
50 Harvey, Karen.
51 Norton, Mary Beth. Gender & Defamation in Maryland, pg. 37
52 Norton, pg 70
Gender roles in Colonial America Hartman 15
weomanâ€™s apparel to get a bitt for my Catt.â€53 In the seventeenth century, it was
possible to interpret the remark made by T in crude sexual terms; T was dressing as a
woman to get sex from men. It was not clear in the trial transcripts whether or not that the
court chose to apply the sexualized meaning, or the literal meaning, to Tâ€™s trial.
Regardless of the context of Tâ€™s â€œCattâ€, his behavior was considered disruptive to the
community, so T had to be brought before court to explain himself.
Due to confusions about T. Hallâ€™s sexuality, he was brought to court in order to
determine what role his gender played in society. His sexuality had no revelation to the
court unless it threatened the ideals of gender the colonists held. The colonists wanted a
clear definition of Tâ€™s gender so T could be placed in the â€˜properâ€™ category and become
liable for his behaviors under whichever laws applied to his to be determined gender. Tâ€™s
situation brings to light that for the colonists, gender had two possible determinants;
physical and cultural. Physical was determined by nature of oneâ€™s genitalia, and cultural
was the character of oneâ€™s knowledge and oneâ€™s manner of behaving. Gender was one of
the two most basic determinants of role in the early modern world.54 Men and Women
each had their own role, complete with rules and expectations for their gender. A crucial
identifier of a personâ€™s role in the society of seventeenth-century America would be their
clothing. If one wore skirts and dresses, the person was clearly identified and put into the
role of a woman. T. Hall makes liberal use of either role by his cross-dressing, thus
bringing confusion to the community T was part of. The case record raises issues of
sexuality rather than of biological sex or of gendered behavior.55 T was stripped of any
rights as a human being through the process. T could not â€˜belongâ€™ to either gendered
Gender was clearly physically and aesthetically defined in the seventeenth
century. T. Hall acted like a woman and physically resembled a man; violating every
possible concept concerning masculinity and feminity in the Puritan community.
Confusion rose among the community as to what gender he was, and what role he played
out in society based on the clash of the two ideals concerning gender. After several
examinations of which probably violated Tâ€™s privacy both physically and mentally, the
53 Norton, pg. 71
54 Norton, p. 73
55 Norton, p. 75
Gender roles in Colonial America Hartman 16
court still couldnâ€™t come to amends regarding Tâ€™s physical gender. To men, Thomasine
was not a male due to the fact that her male organs didnâ€™t have the ability to function
properly. Thomasine was sterile, unable to produce children, or get a woman pregnant.
To the males of the town, T was in essence, a female, and considered to fit that role.
Women were viewed as inferior to of men, and their sexual organs were regarded as
internal versions of male genitalia. The women who examined T and were part of the trial
concluded that Thomas was male based on the presence of male genitalia. For the
women, the anatomy of T. Hall was more important than the feminine qualities presented.
It is clear that different concepts concerning the biological aspect of gender drove a rift
between the sexes during the trial.56
Throughout the trial of T Hall, many of the key questions about Hall were
couched in terms of what clothing T should wear, menâ€™s or womenâ€™s. The judges did not
declare a clear identity of gender, only directed Hall on what apparel they expected T to
wear. In a fundamental sense, seventeenth-century peopleâ€™s identity was expressed in
their apparel. Virginia, where the trial was taking place, never went so far as
Massachusetts, which passed laws regulating clothing. In an act for Regulating and
Orderly Celebrating of Marriages written in 1640, with revisions made in 1672 and 1702,
there is a passage depicting:.. that if any man shall wear womenâ€™s apparel, or if any
woman shall wear menâ€™s apparel, and be thereof duly convicted; such offenders shall be
corporally punished or fined at the discretion of the county court, not exceeding
seventeen dollars.57 In light of this context, it is not much of a surprise that decisions
about the sexual identity of T. Hall were stated in terms of clothing. Clothing was a sharp
distinction of the gender of its wearer, and gender was one of the two mast basic
determinants of role in the early modern world. People who wore skirts nurtured children;
people who wore pants did not.
In the conclusion of the trial before the General Court of the colony of Virginia on
April 8, 1629, it was surprising that the General Court accepted Hallâ€™s self-definition as
both man and woman. The male judges demonstrated their ability to transcend the
categories that determined the thinking of ordinary colonists. Due to their adamant need
56 Karlsen, pg 73.
57 The law of domestic relations: marriage, divorce, dower pg 56
Gender roles in Colonial America Hartman 17
to categorize T, they put him in his own category based on their own perceptions of both
biological and behavioral characteristics of gender. T was finally stripped of his rights as
either gender, and forced to wear both trousers and an apron, signifying the fact that he
held elements of both the male and female.58 The focus on clothing indicates that the
colonists needed a visual symbol of what gender group this individual belonged to. In a
belief system that hypothesized that women were inferior men, any inferior man; one
who could not function in sexual terms, was a woman. Identity of individuals relied
heavily on gender roles, and the judges couldnâ€™t find a better answer to the question
concerning Hallâ€™s gender. The only reason Hall was brought to court was to determine
Hallâ€™s gender and his rights as a member of the male or female gender. The court case
shows the powerful role that gender and the colonial community could play in
The lives of individuals were thrown into a sense of uncertainty with the
introduction of witchcraft into the court, which had a powerful role within the
community. Clive Holmes shows how women who became involved in the legal process
often held on to un-reported grievances and suspicions.60 In some cases, the additional
testimony offered by women deals with incidents so remote as to rouse the courtâ€™s
suspicions concerning the witnessâ€™s motives in coming forward.61 Such suspicious
motives can be applied to the accusations concerning Rebecca Nurse. Rebecca was, in the
eyes of those who knew her, the very essence of what a Puritan mother should be; deeply
pious and a devoted mother.62 Rebecca had a hearing loss, which frustrated her in
interactions with her neighbors. A recent event bringing her under scrutiny happened
when Rebecca had lost her temper over a misunderstanding with a neighbor, and the
neighbor died soon after. The wife of the un-named neighbor couldnâ€™t stop talking about
the argument as if there was a cause and effect involved in the death. The conflict
prompted an interest in Rebecca, and it was not long until the Proctors brought her the
news she had been accused as a witch by Ann Putnam the younger. The Proctors were
58 Norton, Mary Beth.
59 Norton, Mary Beth. Searchers Again Assembled, pg 69.
60 Holmes, Clive. Women: Witnesses and witches, Past & Present, number 140, pg 55.
61 Holmes, Clive, pg 56.
62 Starkey, Marion L. â€œThe Devil in Massachusettsâ€ 1949, pg 78.
Gender roles in Colonial America Hartman 18
deeply moved by the reaction of Rebecca. The Proctors began asking what God had
found in her, why she had to be punished in her old age and infirmity. Even if a woman
like Rebecca Nurse followed every expectation made by Puritan men, conforming to the
image of a perfect Puritan woman, she was not entirely safe from the courts.63
The role of village witch could bestow real power a suspected witch could gain
considerable deference by scaring people. The suspicions, rumors, and small trials
focused on a particular type of woman and specific forms of behavior, and everyone
knew who and what was suspect of such behavior. The dual focus meant that one type of
female suffered endless persecution, while other type of woman lived in danger that the
small ways in which they acted might lead to ostracism, jail, the torture chamber, or even
the stake. The power moved to the hands of the accusers, and the accused would do
anything to preserve their own lives as well as the lives of their family members.
A diabolic, sexualized image of the witch was a staple of American witchcraft
trials. This typical emphasis placed on the symbolic female witch has made it easy to
overlook the significance of the most obvious fact of witchcraft prosecution: those men
were responsible for the public articulation of the concept of the symbolic witch and for
the social fact of widespread prosecution and execution. Accusers could be women as
well as men, but since the suspects were overwhelmingly female, on balance the trials
served to diminish womenâ€™s power and strengthen menâ€™s power.64 In New England,
adolescent girls preponderate among â€œpossessedâ€ accusers. The degree of involvement of
these girls, who in their testimony reinforced academic theory, are discussed as examples
of how the Salem trials can be a catalyst of the limits the female gender faced during their
The author, John Putnam Demos, outlines a composite figure of the typical witch
through a long exercise in prosopography: studying a group of people, their appearances
and personalities within a historical context. The typical witch was a middle-aged female.
She would be of English and Puritan background, married with a few children, or
childless. She would be frequently involved in trouble and conflicts with family
63 Starkey, Marion L.
64 Bever, Edward. Witchcraft, Female aggression, and Power in the early modern community. Journal of
Social History Summer, 2002. 65 Holmes, Clive, pg. 60
Gender roles in Colonial America Hartman 19
members. She might have had a previous record of accusations, usually theft, slander, or
forceful speech. She would have been in the medical profession, either a midwife or an
informal nurse. Her social position would be relatively low. Lastly, she would be abrasive
in style, contentious in character, and stubbornly resilient in the face of adversity.66 All in
all, the composite set up by Demos fits one person perfectly, and that woman is Martha
This woman was not a typical cowed Puritan woman. She faced the magistrates
on March 21, 1692 with an air of confidence, taking advantage of the opportunity to
express her opinion about current events.67 When the Reverend Nicholas Noyes had
opened the meeting with a prayer, Martha asked permission to pray; a ploy for airing her
opinion.68 The Magistrates saw what her plan was, and declined her opportunity to
express herself. Hawthorne immediately went to the point of the examination, simply
asking why she [Martha] afflicted them. Martha replied in the negative, denying that she
afflicted the children. Hawthorne continued, asking who the cause of the girlsâ€™
misfortunes was. Martha, her self-righteousness asserting itself, stated that what they
accused her of would be impossible to her status as a gospel woman. Martha also
remarked succinctly, â€œWe must not believe all that these distracted children say.â€69 The
dry reasonableness of the remark affronted Hawthorne. â€œWhatâ€™s the harm in it?â€70 asked
Martha when the girls ordered her to stop biting her lips. Outspoken as Martha was, she
had not been liked; yet until now few had connected her with witchcraft. â€œYou canâ€™t
prove me a witch!â€ cried Martha before she was led away to prison to be held for trial.71
But such a statement was beside the point. What she couldnâ€™t prove, what no one at all
accused of such a thing could prove, was that she wasnâ€™t. Gospel woman to the last, she
defiantly ignored the common prejudice against women and public speaking, â€œconcluded
her life with an eminent prayer.â€ 72
66 Demos, John. â€œEntertaining Satanâ€ 1964. pp. 94
67 Roach, Marianne K. â€œThe Salem Witch Trialsâ€ pp 44.
68 Starkey, Marion L. â€œA Devil in Massachusettsâ€ pg. 72.
69 Roach, Marienne K. pg. 45
70 Roach, Marienne. Pg. 47
71 Lawson, Deodat. â€œA Brief and True Narrative of Some Remarkable Passages Relating to Sundry Persons
Afflicted by Witchcraft, at Salem Village which Happened from the Nineteenth of March, to the fifth of
April, 1692â€ pg. 3
72 Roach, Marianne K. â€œThe Salem Witch Trialsâ€ pp. 300
Gender roles in Colonial America Hartman 20
A few examples are well defined in Boyer & Nissenbaumâ€™s Salem Possessed,
elaborating the perilous position some people found themselves into during 1692. There
were vulnerable villagers whose arrival or presence had a disruptive social impact. The
first three women to be accused could be seen as â€œdeviantsâ€ or â€œoutcastsâ€ in their
community, the kinds of people who are deemed by scholars to be privy to such
accusations.73 This pattern can be found among the accused of Salem Village, but the
variety of forms can be revealed in Sarah Osborneâ€™s case, a bedridden old woman, yet
better-off than the usual puritan woman.74
Sarah Osborne was born Sarah Warren, who married a Salem villager named
Robert Prince in 1662. Robert Prince had purchased a 150 acre farm next to Captain John
Putnam, his sisterâ€™s husband. Upon the death of Robert Prince in 1674, he left his land in
a trust to his wife with the stipulation that it eventually be left to their two sons when they
came of age. To the Puritans, an â€˜outsiderâ€™ disrupted what would otherwise have been the
uneventful transfer of land from one generation to the next. Soon after her bereavement,
the widow Prince brought into the village a hired man named Alexander Osborne, who
quickly moved into her barn and later, her own bed. When the two were married, they
began to gain full and permanent legal control of the Prince lands, in direct defiance of
Robert Princeâ€™s will. The meaning of Sarah Osborneâ€™s death in Boston prison on May 10,
1692 becomes clearer upon considering the idea of how Sarah Osborne must have been
viewed in Salem. The crucial issue was the way she and her second husband had
threatened established patterns of land tenure and inheritance. Significantly, it was Sarah,
accused in the light of being an insider, who betrayed her own sons and in the process,
the structure of the village itself.
Events causing any deviation in the family structure tended to be attributed to
witchcraft. The witchcraft-possession diagnosis, explaining odd behavior or deaths, was
eagerly embraced by family members.75 The cases concerning George Burroughs and
John Proctor show the mirror image in negative form of the powers of Puritan fathers and
husbands. Burroughs was a particularly apt example to project the power attributed to
73 Boyer & Nissenbaum, p 31.
74 Boyer & Nissenbaum. Salem Possessed 1974. Pg.194 75 Holmes, Clive, pg. 62
Gender roles in Colonial America Hartman 21
adult men by the deity of remarkable providences. John Proctorâ€™s case implies a
punishment or revenge, for expressing disdain of the power the court held over the
people. After Burroughs was charged, accusations increased rapidly. These cases seem to
focus on the power of adult men in relation to the deaths of family dependents. However,
many men such as Sewall may have believed that the deaths of their dependents were the
intentional consequences of their own sins; within a secular view, it was impossible for
such a thing to actually occur. Life changes through circumstance, in the course of lives
characterized by economic flux.76 An example is made of John Proctor, who was hanged
August 19, 1692. His mistake was bringing attention to the troubles of the Putnam
family, and he paid for it with his life.
John Proctor and his family held a high place in the esteem of the community.
John Proctor first came into Salem in 1666, establishing himself in one of the largest
farms in the area. His interests diversified upon the death of his father, when he inherited
the standard one-third share in an estate, allowing him to gain a notable level of
prosperity. Significantly, in 1668, when he was first granted his tavern license, his name
was not prefixed either by the sparingly used honorific of â€œMr.â€ or the militia rank
â€œCaptain,â€ showing his status as a rising aspirant not yet fully accepted into the social
elite of Salem. 77
John Proctor gave voice to some very strong and very public remarks about the
â€œafflictedâ€ girls. â€œThey should be at the whipping-post!â€ he said. â€œIf they are let alone we
should all be devils and witches.â€ In his eyes the wrong people were being called to the
stand. If one must have witches forsooth, look for them not among decent women of
good reputations but among the obviously bedeviled, the girls themselves. â€œHang them!
Hang them!â€ shouted honest John Proctor.78 You canâ€™t say things like that. Not in public,
not in Salem Village of 1692. Proctorâ€™s reasoning was like blasphemy to the magistrates.
It was logic, admitting of only one reality, the affliction of these girls and their testimony
as to its cause.
On April 4, 1692, Judge Samuel Sewall became directly involved with the Salem
76 Boyer & Nissenbaum, 199.
77 Starkey, Marion L.
78 Starkey, Marion L. â€œThe Devil in Massachusettsâ€ pg. 87.
Gender roles in Colonial America Hartman 22
trials when the arrest warrant was issued that day for Rebecca Nurseâ€™s sister, Sarah
Cloyse, and Elizabeth Proctor, the wife of John Proctor. Elizabeth Proctor held a distinct
position in the community as the wife of a substantial property owner in the district.
During a trial, one of the accusers didnâ€™t recognize her â€˜perpetratorâ€™ by appearance and
had to be prompted by a man who was propping her up as she writhed â€˜in pain.â€™ She said,
â€œthe man told her so.â€79 The girlâ€™s confession can show that the man holding up the girl
was prompting her, giving her instructions. Instead of dealing firmly with this admission
of bad faith, the magistrates sent everyone outside while they consulted privately. The
situation caused deep unease to Sewall, who was recently appointed to the tribunal.
Sewall wrote in his diary afterward that â€œâ€˜twas awful to see how the afflicted persons
were agitated.â€ In the margin he wrote, â€œVae, Vae, Vae, [Woe, woe, woe,] Witchcraft.â€
80Shortly after that entry was made, an interesting occurrence comes to light during the
trial of Elizabeth Proctor.
One of the â€˜afflictedâ€™ girls became a victim of her peers. Mary Warren was
pushed out of the safe camp of self-professed witchcraft victims by her furious master.
The question was put to her: â€œYou were a little while ago an Afflicted person, now you
are an Afflicter: How comes this to pass?â€ It is no surprise that her response was so
schizophrenic, given the fact she had been on both sides of the divide. This was not an
explanation that could be accepted at this stage by the authorities. The accused were liars;
if not, their accusers were would-be killers. Mary Warren could not remain both an
accuser and the accused; even if her mental anguish gave light to the double role she
played yielded the real secrets of the terrible tragedy that was overtaking the community.
Mary was left to resolve her problem alone. She resumed her role as an accuser,
incriminating everyone she could, bearing witness against seven people, who were
eventually executed. She had confessed to avoid torture and hanging. Her choice to
confess freed her from prison and saved her from the rope.81
Accusation in 1692 was not limited to people who had been beneficiaries of a
changing market. By March that year, a new pattern began to emerge. By the end of
79 Ibid, 144.
80 The Diary of Samuel Sewall, ed. M. Halsey Thomas, 2 vols. (New York: Farrar straus & Giroux, 1973),
81 Starkey, Marion L, pg 102
Gender roles in Colonial America Hartman 23
summer, some of the most prominent people in Massachusetts and their close kin had
been accused if not officially charged. None of these persons of quality was ever brought
to trial, much less executed. Nevertheless, the overall upward direction of the accusations
remains clear. It seems that the accusations were orchestrated through the â€˜afflictedâ€™ and
spread like wildfire through Salem, inciting some doubt among certain people of the
community such as Judge Samuel Sewall, upon the accusation of a man of the cloth,
George Burroughs. It was a daring display of the fact that now, no one was safe.
The reverend George Burroughs was accused of witchcraft, and if he were to be
convicted, it would preserve the Putnam name within the community. Unfortunately, the
community was more than aware of the circumstances caused by Putnam that brought
Burroughs back to Salem. If the charge of witchcraft was proved, they would be exposed
as those most responsible for bringing witchcraft to the village. The information about the
witchcraft charges came from Ann Putnam the younger, the niece of the vindictive John
Putnam. Burroughs was accused of causing deaths in the town where he currently
resided, and the deaths of his two wives, of both who were only visible to Ann Putnam,
who went into convulsions upon the â€˜appearanceâ€™ of the â€˜wivesâ€™ and had to be carried out
of the courthouse. One of the witnesses was Mercy Lewis; a girl who Burroughs and his
first wife had took in during their stay in Salem. Mercy was a sly girl who would listen at
doorjambs and gather information through nefarious means for a puritan girl. Burroughs
had left her with the Putnams; Mercy was gifted at spying, and kept it up while
Burroughs was gone.82 From her actions in the courtroom, she was influenced by the
The accusation of George Burroughs was similar to another event occurring in
1683 upon Burroughsâ€™s departure of the pulpit at Salem. The warrant under which John
Putnam had Burroughs arrested upon his departure was connected with the death of
Burroughsâ€™s wife, though the charge had been no more serious than failure to settle
incidental expenses connected with the funeral. Fortunately, Deacon Ingersoll had come
forward with proof that Burroughs had paid the fine, making the Putnams appear
ridiculous.83 Clearly, it was the wrong thing to do to a Putnam. Burroughsâ€™ return would
82 Starkey, Marion L. A devil in Massachusetts, pg. 127.
83 Starkey, Marion L. The devil in Massachusetts, pg. 125
Gender roles in Colonial America Hartman 24
establish the witchcraft outbreak as a social and political threat. The magistrates were so
reluctant to add a man of the cloth to the list of the accused; they waited two weeks after
Ann Putnamâ€™s accusation to bring in Burroughs for a trial.
The day George Burroughs and John Proctor were executed at Salem on 19
August 1692, Sewall made an entry in his diary for the day from the observations of
Cotton Mather, since Sewall was in another town. In the margin, at the beginning of the
entry where he named the executed, Sewall wrote, â€œDolefull! Witchcraft.â€84 From that
entry, it seems that the seed of doubt was planted into Sewallâ€™s mind about the Salem
trials. Sewall concluded the entry with the fact that Burroughsâ€™ speech, prayer,
protestation of his innocence, did move everyone: â€œwhich occasions their speaking
hardly concerning his being executedâ€85 During the events surrounding Giles Corey,
Sewall seemed to become anguished in his diary entry: â€œâ€¦but all in vainâ€ 86 relating to
Giles Corey calling the bluff to their threat of peine forte et dure, piling heavy stones on a
condemned man while he lay prone upon the ground until he couldnâ€™t breathe. Such a
punishment guaranteed death, if not by suffocation, by internal injuries from the weight
on the victimâ€™s chest.
A very influential person in Salem seemed to notice the problems Sewall was
having with his conscience during the trial of Giles Corey, and that person was Thomas
Putnam. Thomas was the father and husband of the two chief accusers: Ann Carr Putnam
and Ann Putnam the younger. Thomas chose to send Sewall a letter the day after Giles
Corey was pressed to death, the second time he had directly intervened with the
witchcraft courts. He explained that on the eve of the execution, his daughter Ann was
being tormented by witches, who were threatening to press her to death in the manner
Giles Corey had been. Ann was next visited by a man who stated that Corey had
murdered him. Putnam pretended to grapple with the mystery of why this past record had
not previously come to light. Putnamâ€™s effort might have gone to waste if he had not
recalled that in 1675 Giles Corey had beaten his servant, who died a few days later
without incriminating Corey for his death, and Corey was only charged with abuse and
84 Diary, 295.
85 Diary, 295.
86 Diary, 295.
Gender roles in Colonial America Hartman 25
fined. Putnam knew that if he brought it directly to the judgesâ€™ attention, his own
vindictiveness would be clear. Dressing it up with the special torments of his daughter
and modifying them to fit the recent events, he could use the information to keep Sewall
in line; reassuring him the punishment was appropriate.
Putnam was giving Sewall what he needed, and Sewall swallowed the whole lie,
so eager to alleviate his conscience, he misread Putnamâ€™s letter where the specter of a
non-witch gave the â€˜informationâ€™ to the younger Ann Putnam. Such an event can
implicate a foundation of doubt which led Sewall to write an apology for his participation
in the unfortunate events of Salem during 1692. Through his marginal notes, he displays
a growing sense of disquiet with events surrounding him. He applies that disquiet into his
personal life, and he comes to a conclusion that he has to apologize for his involvement
with the Salem trials to gain forgiveness and regain his status in the community. There
had been apologies before his, but in 1706 the last confession was made by the then- 27
year old Ann Putnam [junior]. Annâ€™s apology was the last in a long healing process. Ann
was careful to put emphasis on her youth, her status as a member of the Putnam family,
and to the religious belief that the Devil had fooled her into making the accusations.
The accusations made by the girls at Salem didnâ€™t solely concern those considered
as â€œoutsiders,â€ disrupting the perceived structure of life in New England. Gender came
into play as well, as the figures shown by John Putnam Demos87. The ratio of accused
was roughly four women to one man. Even using these figures, of the twenty-two men
accused, eleven were associated with a woman. Going deeper into the figures, it is shown
that nine of those eleven were the spouses of accused witches, and the other two were
religious associates. Judging from the pattern of accusations and figures shown by
Demos, it is only by guilt of association, or reckless behavior, that men had come under
the microscope of the community. Of the rest of the eleven men, five were young men
prone to â€˜reckless and boastful talk of boastful power.â€™88 Four other cases brought against
men of witchcraft were implicated in part due to a quarrel or grievance someone had
against them. Twenty of the male witches were rendered suspect either by association
with an accused woman or else in a distinctly limited way as part of a larger sequence of
87 Demos, John. â€œEntertaining Satanâ€ 1964.
88 Demos, John. Entertaining Satan. 1964. pg. 60.
Gender roles in Colonial America Hartman 26
hostilities. In a sense the charges against all of these men were secondary.
The rule in early New England was: witches were women. The threat of being
charged as a witch could be a constraining factor in the behavior of women. Those who
asserted themselves too openly or forcibly could expect a summons to court, risking the
ultimate sanction of death itself. Hence the dominance of men could be underscored in
both symbolic and practical terms. Male dominance was the assumed principle in
traditional society in New England. Certainly the uneven distribution of witchcraft
accusations and their special bearing on the lives of women were consistent with gender
roles in general. Gender roles in Salem seem to conform to a traditional, patriarchal
configuration. They were also indistinct in relation to the ownership and control of
property. A large portion of witchcraft charges were brought against women by other
women. It could be determined that due to the restrictions put upon the female gender in
puritan society, the women took the opportunity of the Salem witch trials to have some
control over their lives and the lives of others within the community. â€œIt was for sportâ€
one of the afflicted girls had admitted to the Proctors.89 The situation ignited skepticism
and doubt in onlookers to the episode between the Proctors and an unidentified â€˜afflictedâ€™
girl. Onlookers accused the girl of lying, and her reply was the same: â€œIt was for sport.â€90
The statements indicate that the girls are using their present status as â€œthe afflictedâ€ to
maintain a status level within the community that they ordinarily could have not had.
The girls were a pack of undisciplined children who had somehow beguiled an
entire community into playing a wicked game with them.91 The Salem Witch trials came
along as an opportunity for the often-overlooked female gender to express themselves,
and such an event got out of hand. A few women such as Mary Warren and the 27-year
old Ann Putnam [junior] forward with apologies for their part in the trials. Mary
Warrenâ€™s sense of interchangeable views was corroborated by the reversal of legal
opinion in 1711, when the legislature formally exonerated most of those who had been
convicted in 1692. By the declaration of the Legislature, the official authority changed
sides and decided to put the responsibility of Salem on the principal accusers and
89 Starkey, Marion L. â€œThe Devil in Massachusettsâ€ pg. 92
91 Starkey, Marion L.
Gender roles in Colonial America Hartman 27
witnesses who caused a prosecution to be had of persons of known and good
People still did not agree on what to make of the Salem Trials. Massachusetts
courts handled only a few suits brought by widows, in distant areas from Salem, against
gossiping neighbors. The Salem witch trials have been remembered not as a historical
event, but as a stereotype and symbol.93 Without accepting a literal reality of what they
studied, some scholars concluded that beliefs about witchcraft had been quite useful to
preserve social order. Others viewed witch-beliefs as the projection of a societyâ€™s own
deepest fears and forbidden desires upon innocent scapegoats. The Salem outbreak can be
described as a societyâ€™s reaction with repressive authority. Men feared the women
suspects because of economic envy or because of religious anxiety. Through all of the
trials and tribulations surrounding the Salem witch trials, it all comes down to the
conclusion that the suppression of the female gender led to the chaos during the Salem
witch trials, and innocents paid with their lives for the amusement of bored village girls
experimenting with their sudden authority in the community.
92 Kibbey, Ann. Pg 126
93 Roach, Marilynne K. Pg. 578.
Gender roles in Colonial America Hartman 28
1. The Lawes Resolutions of Womenâ€™s Rights: London, 1632. pg. 204, 212.
2. An Act Concerning the Dowry of Widows, 1672.
3. The law of domestic relations: marriage, divorce, dower, Womenâ€™s America, P.
4. Lawson, Deodat. â€œA Brief and True Narrative of Some Remarkable Passages
Relating to Sundry Persons Afflicted by Witchcraft, at Salem Village which
Happened from the Nineteenth of March, to the fifth of April, 1692â€
5. The Diary of Samuel Sewall, ed. M. Halsey Thomas, 2 vols. New York: Farrar
Straus & Giroux, 1973.
6. Calef, Robert. More wonders of the invisible world. London: Nathaniel Hiller and
Joseph Collier, 1700.
7. The Hutchinson Papers, MHS collections, 3rd ser. 1(1825): 1-52.
8. Hale, John. A modest enquiry into the Nature of Witchcraft. Boston: Benjamin
9. Bever, Edward. Witchcraft, Female Aggression, and Power in the Early Modern
Community, Journal of Social History, Vol. 35, No. 4 (Summer 2002) pp. 955-988
10. Talley, Colin L. Gender and Male Same-Sex Erotic Behavior in British North
America in the Seventeenth Century Journal of the History of Sexuality, Vol. 6,
No. 3 (Jan 1996) pp. 385-408
Gender roles in Colonial America Hartman 29
11. Green, Karen & Bigelow, John. Does Science Persecute Women? The Case of the
16th-17th Century Witch-Hunts Philosophy, Vol. 73, No. 284 (April 1998) pp. 195-
12. Hemphill, C. Dallett. Women in Court: Sex-Role Differentiation in Salem,
Massachusettes, 1636 to 1683, The William & Mary Quarterly, Third Series, Vol.
39, No. 1, The Family in Early American History and Culture (Jan 1982) pp. 164-
13. Roach, Marilynne K. â€œThe Salem Witch Trials: A Day by day Chronicle of a
Community under siegeâ€ 2004.
14. Holmes, Clive. â€œWomen: Witnesses and Witchesâ€ Past and Present, No. 140,
August 1993, pg 145-78.
15. DeHart, Jane Sherron & Kerber, Linda K. â€œGender and the New Womenâ€™s
Historyâ€ Womenâ€™s America., pg 1-22
16. Plane, Anne Marie. â€œCreating a Blended Household: Christian Indian women and
English Domestic Life in Colonial Massachusetts,â€ Womenâ€™s America, pg. 29-38
17. Bloch, Ruth A. Untangling the Roots of Modern Sex roles: A survey of four
centuries of change, Signs, 1978. Vol 4 No 2 pg 241
18. Karlsen, Carol F. â€œThe Devil in the shape of a woman: The Economic Basis of
Witchcraft.â€ Womenâ€™s America, pg. 83-96.
19. Harvey, Karen. The Century of Sex? Gender roles and sexuality in the long
eighteenth century, The Historical Journal, vol 45, no 4 (2002)
20. Kibbey, Ann. â€œMutations of the Supernatural: Witchcraft, Remarkable
Providences, and the power of Puirtan men,â€ American Quarterly,
Gender roles in Colonial America Hartman 30
21. Demos, John. â€œEntertaining Satanâ€ 1964.
22. Starkey, Marion L. â€œThe Devil in Massachusettsâ€ 1949
23. Boyer & Nissenbaum, â€œSalem Posessedâ€ 1974.
24. Norton, Mary Beth. Gender & Defamation in seventeenth-century Maryland,
William & Mary Quarterly.
25. Ulrich, Laurel Thatcher. â€œThe Ways of Her Householdâ€ Womenâ€™s America, pg.
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