Women in Early America and Pennsylvania

Across early America the story for women remained very much the same. Rights were limited, American society was fiercely patriarchal and women were considered second class citizens. However this does mean that women were not granted any rights or did not fall out of the borders of what a new Republic wanted them to be and fight to be different. While there are many famous examples of women who did exactly that, the majority of them women still lived in such a way that society expected them to. Pennsylvania was no different in this sense that its religious groups ideologies and state laws reflected the thoughts of the men that created them when it came to a woman’s place in society and at home.

Single Women

AN 18th century woman breastfeeding her child.

While it is often believed that once a woman reached a certain age that meant she would automatically find a mate and get married (even in the 1780’s this was ideal) many women remained single into their adult years. In urban areas, such as Philadelphia, there was a large portion of the population that consisted of unmarried women. There is the probable argument that the rate of single women was higher in urban areas rather than rural areas due to the job prospects in domestic, service and retail fields that gave women a sense of freedom even if due to their sex were often paid very little. There is also a popular belief that these single women in urban and rural areas were virgins or refrained from sexual activity until they were married. On the contrary, during the 18th century in early America, there was an increase in premarital pregnancy never seen before. In many respects women did not face the same discrimination that they often faced within other parts of their lives concerning having children out of wedlock. For the most part if a single woman became pregnant she was not ostracized by society and did not have a problem quickly finding a husband if she did not end up marrying the father of the child.

Married Women

For many women, being single was not an option they were willing to take since the life of a single woman did not necessarily provide stability even if it gave them freedom that they would not experience in their married lives. While it was ideal for a woman to get married marriage rates varied depending on race, ethnicity and especially social class. Among the elite, there was a higher percentage of women that did not marry or married later than their poorer female counterparts. Once a woman did decide to wed, unlike single women who had property rights that were protected, married women lost their independent control of their property to their husbands. On the one hand while a married woman lost many of her rights she hoped in return she would gain stability. Under Pennsylvania law, a husband would be required to support their wives as long as they were married in order for these women to not become a financial burden to their friends and families, themselves and society.

Divorced Women

In early America women did have a right to leave their husbands if they were unhappy with their marriage but only under strict grounds was this allowed. In 1785, Pennsylvania enacted a new divorce law named the Pennsylvania Divorce Act which authorized the Pennsylvania Supreme Court to grant divorces. When this law was passed it was recorded that women filled out a higher number of divorce petitions than men did. But just because a large amount of women filed petitions there were strict rules that denied many Pennsylvanians, both men and women, from getting divorced. For example, on the grounds for absolute divorce which permitted a spouse to get remarried, included men and women who committed adultery, bigamy, and desertion for a period of four or more years. It was further detailed that if a wife committed adultery she was by no means allowed to marry the lover even if the husband did grant her a divorce. However if a woman did get divorced and did not remarry she ended her feme covert status (feme covert is the legal term for a woman who is protected due to her married status) and could once again conduct business and her life as a single woman.


There was always the chance that a woman was forced into the single life even if being married is what she desired. Many times after the husband had died, widows began working and picking up where their husband left off by either maintaining their business ventures or farms. If they indeed did keep the family farm they often had another man in the form of a relative take over the farm in terms of labor and as extra help. But if a widow could not work and depended solely on her husband than often times she would be provided for by her family, neighbors and friends. If the widow did not have resources to fall back on that included family and friends then she had to rely on the charity of strangers and in  a worst case scenario end up in an almshouse with other widows, poor married women or single women who were not able to provide for themselves. Unlike divorced women and widowers, widows remarried much less often and less quickly.

Famous example of widow remarrying. George Washington courting Martha Dandridge Custis at her home.

Works Cited:

Eldridge, Larry D. Women & Freedom in Early America. New York: New York University Press, 1997, p. 212, 216, 220.

Kerber, Linda K. Women of the Republic. Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 1980, p. 120.

Smith, Merril D. Women’s Roles in Eighteenth – Century America. Santa Barbara, CA: Greenwood/ABC-CLIO, LLC, 2010, p. 35.

Wulf, Karin. Not All Wives. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2000, p. 7, 12-15

Picture Sources:

Woman breastfeeding (1st picture)

George and Martha Washington (2nd picture)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *