Excerpt from America's Women by Gail Collins, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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America's Women

Four Hundred Years of Dolls, Drudges, Helpmates, and Heroines

by Gail Collins

America's Women
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  • First Published:
    Sep 2003, 556 pages
    Paperback:
    Sep 2004, 592 pages

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Most of the single women who came to the southern colonies, however, voluntarily sold themselves as indentured servants. They paid the cost of their passage with a term of four or five years in service. At the end, they were supposed to receive food, clothing, and tools to give them a start in life, then emerge into a world filled with wife-hungry young men and take their pick. That really did happen in many cases. Some women were even luckier and married their employers, or they met men with enough resources to purchase their freedom for them. But many others had fatally bad luck. A quarter of the indentured servants died before they gained their freedom. Those who lived often got pregnant before their term of service was up--a study in one Maryland county showed that 20 percent of the women who arrived as servants during the second half of the seventeenth century wound up in court for bearing illegitimate children. Some of them must have been seduced or raped by the master of the house, but they were still punished as if they had chosen freely. Their service was extended to repay their master for the labor lost to childbearing, and if a mother was still under indenture by the time the baby was weaned, her child was bound out as a servant, even though still a toddler. The legislature reasoned that servants who were impregnated by their employers could not be allowed to go free because "it might probably induce such loose persons to lay all their bastards to their masters."

The court records reveal terrible stories of women found "beaten to a jelly" or infected with fatal cases of syphilis by rapacious masters. A Maryland couple, Captain and Mistress Bradnox, were infamous for their treatment of servants. When one of them, Thomas Watson, died from an apparent beating, another servant, Sarah Taylor, testified in court that she had seen Thomas confined without food and water and forced to drink his own urine. Sarah's outspokenness did not endear her to the Bradnoxes, who beat her with a knotted rope. When she ran away and took shelter with a sympathetic local planter, the county commissioners made her benefactor ask Captain Bradnox's forgiveness in open court, and Sarah was required to apologize to her master and mistress on her knees. But Sarah's story went on, through more beatings and assaults, until she finally appeared in court, asking for protection and showing the commissioners her scars. A witness testified he had seen the captain hit Sarah with a stool when he found her reading, crying, "You dissembling jade, what do you with a book in your hand?" The court decided to free Sarah from service for her own safety. We can only hope she cleared out of the county fast, because Mrs. Bradnox contested the decision to the governor, who compelled each of the merciful justices to pay her 220 pounds of tobacco. It's not likely they showed similar charity in the future.

An indentured servant's fortune depended very much on who her master and mistress were, and canny émigrés opted for a system that allowed them to travel to America first and then barter with prospective employers for a contract that would repay the ship's captain for their passage. But even women who managed to avoid getting tied to psychopaths or sex criminals must have found the work harder than they anticipated. "What we unfortunat English People suffer here is beyond the probability of you in England to Conceive," moaned Elizabeth Springs, one of the few indentured servants who was able to read and write, in a letter to her family. "Let it suffice that I one of the unhappy Number, am toiling almost Day and Night . . . what rest we get is to rap ourselves up in a Blanket and ly upon the Ground, this is the deplorable Condition your poor Betty endures."

"PERFORM THE MOST MANFUL
EXERCISES AS WELL AS MOST MEN"

The women who did survive in the early southern colonies found themselves in a place where the old gender rules had been, if not abolished, at least temporarily suspended due to emergency conditions. It was a raw country, and the first generations of colonial women did things that their granddaughters would have found unthinkable. A "modest Gentlewoman" named Alice Proctor ignored officials' urging that she abandon her home during Indian raids and move to the safety of Jamestown. She stuck to her farmhouse until worried neighbors threatened to burn the place down. Well-born women labored like field hands and made their way through the roadless countryside on horseback or by waterway. "Many of the Women are very handy in Canoes, and will manage them with great Dexterity and Skill, which they become accustomed to in this watry Country," reported a traveler in 1700. William Byrd described an acquaintance who lived on the Virginia frontier as "a very civil woman" who could nonetheless "carry a gunn in the woods and kill deer, turkeys . . . shoot down wild cattle, catch and tye hoggs . . . and perform the most manful exercises as well as most men in these parts."

From America's Women by Gail Collins. Copyright © 2003 by Gail Collins. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form without written permission from the publisher, HarperCollins Publishers.

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