In partnership with the Maine Memory Network Maine Memory Network

Women in Colonial Economies

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Once Rachel Atkins married, however, the British legal principle of coverture curtailed her rights. Coverture stipulated that married women’s legal identities were subsumed under those of their husbands. While coverture’s consequences were varied and uneven in daily life, its ramifications were clear within property law. Married women could not purchase property, and husbands acquired custodial powers over property that their wives owned prior to marriage. Thus, after Rachel Atkins married James Berry in 1687, she could no longer independently consent to decisions regarding her land. In 1716, James Berry and Rachel Atkins Berry jointly sold the land to the Pejepscot Proprietors. James signed above Rachel on the land deed, exemplifying the intertwining of husbands’ and wives’ economic fortunes through marriage.(4)

Overall, coverture’s limitations on women’s ability to contract meant that women made up a small minority of White landowners in early Maine, both before and after the formation of land companies. Most women landowners were widows who inherited such property from their late husbands. Gendered divisions of economic activity, moreover, meant that women landowners did not participate in companies’ day-to-day decision-making or shareholders’ meetings. Instead, they appeared in the record primarily when land titles required their signatures.(5)

While a small number of White New England women owned property, many others facilitated the settlement of early Maine. As colonists moved to the region both as squatters and titled landholders, wives and daughters helped their families to survive and grow within a rugged and sparsely populated region. Involving extensive physical labor indoors and out-of-doors, women’s daily work included gardening, dairying, food preparation, spinning, weaving, clothes-making, laundry, and childcare. Women also traded with nearby households, and wives assumed financial and legal responsibilities both in their husbands’ absences and within routine divisions of household labor.