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  • Writer's pictureFrances Stratford

The Price of Progress: Women's Work and Wages in the Colonial Era

Updated: Apr 20

In Colonial New England “Most rural women born before 1730 could not write, read others’ writing, or do arithmetic above the simplest level”. Additionally, limited property rights meant that a woman in 1721 could only sell twenty bushels of corn to her neighbor “on Condition her husband will allow it” and, in 1777, female tailors made only thirty-seven percent of the salary that her male counterparts did for the same work.

These facts will sound backwards to a modern reader, but the fact that women were working outside the home at all represented an expansion of their sphere of influence. In the years prior, many women were largely confined to the “same tasks as younger boys – they helped hay, hoe, weed, harvest crops, and husk corn.” Furthermore, “in and around the home they earned income from tasks that males assiduously avoided: cleaning, cooking, sewing, spinning, washing clothes, nursing, and caring for children.” The later list of tasks makes it clear that in addition to physical capacity, roles within the home were determined largely by gender.

The Graves Family Case Study

The case of John Graves family of East Guilford is illustrative. Five daughters and four sons survived infancy; all of them appear in his accounts at one time or another credited for a day's or a week's work. Of the eighty-nine work occasions he recorded between 1703 and i726 (the year he died), he identified daughters on twenty-one occasions and sons on sixty-eight. Thus, sons appeared more than three times as often. Graves hired occasional male help in addition to his sons and kept a young servant named Thome for two years when his younger boys were too small to hoe, make fences, or mow hay. Meanwhile, his girls did chores-but never farm work-for his neighbors. They sewed, spun, nursed, and kept house.

While a clear divide between the sexes was absolutely present, some of the gender lines were, to some degree, permeable. Both men and women participated in the milking cows with some regularity, there are records of both genders “doctoring,” and teaching.

Thus, when nominally feminine tasks became important to household income, men undertook a share of the responsibility, even if only to keep track of the profits. Male account keepers commonly listed payments due from boarders and lodgers but never credited the work by their wives that made the hospitality possible. On the other hand, some male-dominated occupations were always open to women. Retail trade was perhaps the most common, although before 1740 such opportunities arose in only a few commercial areas. Most women in retailing were widows who had taken over a deceased husband's shop, although one Mary Johnson of Boston, who was not identified as a widow, owned shop goods worth over two hundred pounds, according to the i669 inventory of her estate. Helen Hobart ran a shop in Hingham in 1682 with her husband's approval. By the late colonial period, such opportunities had spread deeper into the interior. In Worcester County in 1760, for instance, twelve out of 267 licensed dispensers of spirituous liquors (4.5 percent) were women. Though women had always acted as midwives, nursed the sick, and disbursed homemade remedies, a few also "doctored."

Women as Physicians Case Study

The administrator of the estate of David Clark of Wrentham listed payment to Mary Johnson, "Doctoress" for "Physick and Tendance." William Corbin, minister of the Anglican church in Boston, willed his medical books to Jane Allen of Newbury, spinster and daughter of the Honorable Samuel Allen, Esquire. In 17 58 the Reverend Ebenezer Parkman went to see the widow Ruhamah Newton, who had broken her leg in a fall. Friends had called a Mrs. Parker to set the leg, and the time it took her to get her apparatus in order and carry out the operation delayed the diarist's return home "till night."

Even in these permuations, though, some kind of gender barrier frequently remained. Men may have milked the cows, but they rarely churned butter. Men taught older children while women taught the younger children for less pay. A disparity was even seen when it came to the making of apparel since “men normally tailored coats and breeches, and women sewed shirts and gowns.

This divide is not shocking because, traditionally, the preindustrial economies of the western countries and their colonies featured “religion, custom, and law combined to reinforce patriarchal authority over the household”. With this in mind, even seemingly more equitable breeches into women’s spheres (like with dairy) may have been male attempts to keep tabs on the activities and incomes of their wife’s, rather than a progressive trend.

Colonial town and provincial governments also intervened in women’s (and men’s) earnings to impose ceilings on wage rates in an attempt to quell inflation. The regulations passed in 1670 actually make no mention of female workers which is quite telling. The 1777 maximum wages, however, do make mention of female laborers. The maximum salary for a woman was far below that of a man, but notably “women had joined the paid labor force in numbers sufficient to warrant placing ceilings on their wages” alongside the men.

As such, it would seem that during this century-long gap there was an increase in demand for labor and women began to fill roles outside of the home. They may have only “earned about 37-42 percent of what men did,” but “if these ceiling rates, and the inferences drawn from them, represent the economic realities of their time and region, then labor productivity was far higher in New England on the eve of the Revolution than historians previously thought”.

While “it remains true that few women in rural New England engaged in business transactions on a scale or of a nature that required them to record their transactions in a systemic way,” the assumption that women’s exclusion from many account books means that they did not participate in trade is simply false. Factors such as oral agreements and informal borrowing and lending likely constituted a majority of women’s transactions and such a conclusion is supported by diaries kept by women later in the century.

Admittedly the wage maximums, diaries, and such all show that the value placed on women’s work in the colonial era varied significantly, but one thing is clear: “New Englanders rated women’s work more highly compared to men’s work in the colonial period than they did in 1815”. In fact, around the Seven Years’ War there was an increase in women’s pay while men’s wages were relatively stagnant. This shift helped to, at least temporarily, narrow the earning gap.

The “rate of women’s appearances in the account books also rose substantially.” Furthermore, “compared to earlier years, almost three times as many girls and young women appear on the record as working for someone other than their parents in their parents in the closing decades of the colonial period”.

Overall, the ups and downs of women’s participation in the economy clearly demonstrate that even small economic changes can significantly alter family life. Interestingly, a “loosening the bonds between parents and their grown children" can be attributed not only to sons emigrating or enlisting in the military, but also to “daughters [who] found work outside the home”.

Ultimately, although “women would not gain politically or legally from American Independence, and equality was never even a prospect... in the decades before 1776 they had won a little liberty and comfort is no small thing”.



Gloria L Mann. “Gender, Work, and Wages in Colonial New England.” The William and Mary Quarterly 51, no. 1 (1994): 39–66.


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