Indigenous Views: Women in Early Colonial America

The famous American historian Alan Taylor infers that “the essential role of women in building colonial societies” has recently been illuminated due to the development of complex historiography. Although this might be true, there seems to be a lack of emphasis, especially in academia, on how Indigenous women perceived the general position of all women in colonial society. In other words, few historians have devoted their time to studying the way Indigenous women viewed their own positions, as well as that of all other women in North America. For instance, Taylor fails to analyse any historical elements in the perspective of women, let alone Indigenous women. The issue of gender, of course, has always been understood from the point of view of the European settlers, who were the predominant recorders at the time. It is for this reason why it is pressing to develop a glimpse into the way women understood the problem of patriarchy, gender and femininity, not only in their own lives, but the entire colonial structure. This can only be achieved through the analysis of records written by Indigenous women. A balance must be struck in order to achieve a considerate understanding that brings justice to their end of the spectrum.Thus, the pressing questions that must be posed are: what did Indigenous women think of the broad roles and positions of women? And did they see it as an underlying issue attributed to the gender divide and patriarchy? The truth is that these question have countless answers to them because of the many differences in women ethnic, religious and cultural backgrounds across the colonial world. From the evidence available, of the few Indigenous women, it becomes apparent that, generally, they adhered to distinct views about the role of women based on the issues of gender and the way it stratified the idea of ‘position’ in the societal structure. The argument is that most indigenous women were either consciously aware of the broader ‘gender divide’ in colonial society or were simply part of it, while some deviated away from the patriarchal element. Thus, they all confirmed its presence within their own localized structures, which was connected to the overarching colonial society. This will be developed through the analysis of various Indigenous women whose direct testaments and actions show that they were consciously and subconsciously a part of the stratification of gender in colonial America, while there were other woman who partially broke through the classical notions of gender.

The idea of the “gender divide” can essentially be described as the wedge driven by patriarchy between women and men in all of colonial society. In this case ‘colonial society’ encompasses all of the people on the North American continent as a group. The fact that this subject is studied through the eyes of Indigenous women, makes it very difficult to specify the exact aspects of colonial society. The reason for this is because the amount of primary evidence by Indigenous women is extremely sparse. For instance, Calloway suggests that most of the evidence that is available has been written by European white males. However, the purpose here is to bring life to the unfiltered voices of Indigenous women. Thus, it is essential to thoroughly analyze the few existent sources in order to gain a clearer picture of how they perceived their world. One must read in between the lines in order to formulate women’s stances and views on gender, particularly because of the complexity of these sources.

Naomai Omaush, of the Wampanoag people, wrote her last will in 1749 which holds in itself a subtle hint that she viewed her world as one influenced by the stratification of gender. The fact that the will is heavily influenced by the European Christian doctrine showed her acceptance of patriarchy, but more importantly, that she was most likely aware of the position of women in the Christian faith and society as a whole. For example,the first items and perhaps the most valuable were left behind for the Minister and his wife, in Omaush’s village. Moreover, interestingly they were also placed as the first receivers in the document, before Omaush’s own relatives. At first it might seem that this was because she was not the one to write the will, but Calloway evidences that it was first written in the Algonquian language, in her Wampanoag dialect. Therefore, it is evident that the minister seemed to be influential either to her or in her village. However, the issue remains that many of her valuables which she chose to leave behind were destributed in a gender specific manner. For example, she chose to leave her female relatives dresses, while her kinsmen received blankets, pots, pans and other household goods. The items received by her male relatives were far more valuable. Calloway explains that many of them were acquired through trade with Europeans colonials. This is perhaps a testament to her own believes that different sexes in her family held different position of importance, with women at the bottom of the scale. Taylor suggests that Indigenous society was not divided by class but rather by gender, when it came to the administration of work. This was probably the case in Omaush’s household.Moreover, it is interesting how many white women, such as Mary Burton, were also forced into housework labor not only because of their class but also sex.Both Indigenouns and Europeans shared the structure of the household hierarchy based on sex. All in all, It is evident that Omaushu’s will confirms that the idea of gender stratification was inherently present in her life. Whether she was aware of this as a broader element in the colonial world remains uncertain, however she confirmed it by evidently practicing it.

The story of Mary Jemison provides an interesting aspect to the idea of the gender divide, primaraly due to the fact that she was the ultimate product of the colonial world and its process. She symbolized a blend of different people which gave her the unique ability to understand the role of women better. Although Mary Jemison was ethnically European, she was without a doubt culturally Seneca. She wrote in her narrative that after 4 years she felt part of the community and did not want to leave.Therefore, when considering her interpretation it would not be wrong to understand her as a Seneca woman as well as an European woman. Essentially, the reason this is important is because Mary provides a full description of the duties of women in the Seneca village, and compares them to that of white women. She proclaimed that Indigenous women’s labors were no different from that of white women in terms of intensity, but the only difference was in the variety of the labors. What is meant by this is that Jemison understood the gender divide that occurred in Indigenous society, as well as the one present in European society. For instance, she describes how she tended to the children and performed menial housework for her adoptive family, but also missed her home life with her previos family. Although, Mary had moved into a more egalitarian society, her descriptions seem to be quite insistent of the divide between men and women. This might have been because of her own preconceptions of the larger colonial context, which she applied to the Seneca people. However, the issue remains that Mary did not criticize the gender divide at all, in fact she probably supported it and accepted it. For example she mentions that her “situation was easy” as she did not have to actually go hunting but only occasionally carry the game back to camp. Overall, both as a Seneca and as European she seemed to accept the divide accordingly. The reason for this is most likely due to the overlap she had experienced, and the fact that she did not want to fully accommodate to Seneca society, as she said she had always been their “captive”.

The two letters by Sarah Simon, and her daughter of the same name, demonstrate that their position as women was conventionally very stratified based on their gender. In 1767, Sarah Simon wrote the minister of her daughter’s school to ask for her release for a short visit, as she was ill, but finally to no avail. The next letter by Simon’s daughter, which is dated 2 years later, seems to be her own attempt at convincing the minister of her school at letting her see her mother because of her imminent death. After 2 years, it seems that she was still not allowed to leave the school , which Calloway described to be essentially a place of indoctrination. The minster completely either denied or ignored the two women’s requests, based on the desperation they both present in their pleads. Calloway describes this situation as the “pain of separation” that families felt during the time the children were sent away at minister’s school. Although, this might have been true, the manner in which they begged and plead the minister reveals that his power over the girl was beyond that of the family. This was particularly interesting because Wheelock’s school was a Charity School with not official authority at the time. Therefore, the underlying issue here is that these women could not change the system under which they were so vigorously controlled. It almost seems that Simon’s daughter became the property of Wheelock’s school, as she ended her own letter by saying that she was his “dutyfull sarvent”. The fact that this was a specific case of gender divide is best evidence by the fact that Daniel Simon, her brother, although complained in his letter of 1769 seemed to have a better relationship with Wheelock. Primarily, in the sense that Wheelock at least had probably conversed with him. In fact Calloway mentions that Daniel goes on to become the first Indigenous man to “graduate with a degree” from Dartmouth College. This case can very easily be compared to that of Mary Musgrove, whose gender was the main factor that denied her the help or attention of the Georgian authorities. Although, Sarah Simon’s case was a very localized occurrence, in the end, all three women seemed to express the same desperation in the search for attention as elements in the insistent gender divide.

Mary Musgrove’s letter to Alexander Heron, where she pleads for aid, is perhaps the most intense account of an Indigenous woman’s desperation as a result of the subjugation of the patriarchy, and the enhancement of the gender divide. Not only was she treated with hatred by her own community, but she was never given anything in return for her role in helping the Georgians’ deal with the Choctaw’s. The importance of Musgrove is the that although what she had done was ‘deplorable’ in the eyes of her community, the fact that she was a woman most likely exacerbated the way she was “abused, insulted, condemned and despised”. Mary Musgrove seemed to be the most prominent out all of the women discussed, specifically because of her position of prominence in Georgia. She could not escape the fact that she was a woman, as it becomes evident that she was all too well aware of the gender divide. More precisely, her position as a woman in her community, and the community of Georgia. However, Musgrove was also the only woman, out of all the sources, who challenged the subjugated position of women in colonial society. The reason for this is because she was essentially participating in colonial politics, and to an extent had changed the course of local history for the Chocotaw and Georgian people. Essentially, she rose above the conventional position of women in the colonies, and asserted herself with her own opinions and strengths. Something which most women at the time did not achieve, because of their inability to break the grip of patriarchy. Therefore it seems she challenged the common conceptions of the position of women.

Jane the Indian of Scarbrough” is another example of a woman whose position in the patriarchy did not seem to be part of the norm. Although, it is important to mention that it is most likely that she was unaware of this fact. Amazingly, Jane was an Abenaki landowner in 1659. The reason this is important is because not many women, specially Indigenous women, owned land in the 17th century. The only evidence that remains to suggest this is the contract of sale of her deed of the land to Andrew and Arthur Alger. Whether Jane found this extraordinary is quite uncertain, because the position of women in Abenaki culture might have quite egalitarian as Jane owned land.However, the underlying issue remains that Jane did not meet the requirements of a ‘normal’ woman in colonial America. The problem remains, that the deed provides very little detail about Jane, beside the fact that she had a brother and a mother. The only thing that can be said is that it is rather interesting that her brother was not the main owner of the deed, rather she was. Without a doubt the polarization of gender in her particular society was not as prominent based on this assumption.

Overall, these sources show that these women played an important role in the larger context of the idea of gender in colonial society. All their lives revolved around the idea of the patriarchal gender divide, and even their subjugation at the hands of colonial society. To certain degrees, most of them were aware of their positions within the structure, while some partially broke out, either by choice like Mary Musgrove, or unintentionally as Jane of the Abenaki did. They all confirmed the underlying presence of the patriarchal wedge between men and women, by either being aware of its presence or exhibiting its principles. Overall, the ‘story’ of gender in colonial America seemed to be very consistent in they eyes of Indigenous women. The reason for this was because they, like all women, were subjugated to the patriarchal misconceptions of males from the wide spectrum of the colonies. Indigenous women did not criticize the structure of gender itself, but seemed to be affected terribly by it, specially in the case of Sarah Simon. Therefore, the ‘story’ was essentially,in principle, the same for all women in the colonial period, and it was rightly so, as the human element is an universal one. However, the lack of surviving evidence to build the complete picture of their lives and how they perceived has served as a hindrance to modern academia. The direct accounts,by Indigenous women,have both never been taken as an important factor in the study of Colonial America, and most likely ‘eroded’ with the passing of time.

The importance of bringing the voices of Indigenous women to life can not be overstated, specially in the case of understanding their views on the topic of gender in the colonies. From the accounts of the five women it is apparent that they were all very much apart of the patriarchal notion of the division of the sexes, but more importantly it was their awareness and actions that must be remembered. The history of “the essential role of women in building colonial societies” should always be accompanied by the study of their perceptions, views and positions of their roles in those societies.

By Milad Doroudian

Published in The Art of Polemics, Issue 1, on June 18th, 2014.


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