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Gender Roles in the United States vs. Europe

Although gender roles of European women were generally characterized as being divided into the domestic and public sphere, the experiences of English, Dutch and French female populations were different culturally. Differences in the colonies made it difficult for early settlers to establish as strong a patriarchal system as the what existed in England (DuBois, 49). However, women were subordinate to their husbands. He held complete legal control over her, their children and any property which she brought to the marriage. Religious beliefs of Puritans held that women and men were equal in the eyes of God, however they were still effectively subordinate to their husbands (DuBois, 59).

Dutch women enjoyed greater legal rights and economic authority than women in the English colonies. Dutch husbands and wives viewed their property as communal and women could maintain her own legal identity. Laws established that upon death, both male and female children would inherit equal parts of their parents’ estate. Women could establish, manage and maintain their own businesses and many several became successful traders (DuBois, 70).

Settlers in New France were almost entirely male. French men rapidly realized that their best defense on the frontier was the company and expertise of a native woman. In relationships between French man and native women, women maintained relative autonomy and could leave the relationship at any time. Contrary to English prohibitions against mixed relationships, in New France these marriages connected European traders with native cultures and wares (DuBois, 73).

Generally, Native American women had more power and freedom in sexual relationships than European women. They significantly contributed to the economic production for the tribe’s in which they lived (DuBois, 11). Europeans who encountered native women consistently commented on this fact and perceived it pejoratively. Because of their importance in providing for their respective tribes, a certain level of political power was wielded and sexual relationships were relatively egalitarian. Native women were not expected to remain in unhappy or abusive relationships for economic security like their English counterparts. Unlike English women, native women, especially in matrilineal cultures, could maintain her own possessions (private ownership of possessions was not an established concept for native cultures) even upon “divorce.”

A striking difference noted by Europeans was a fluidity in gender roles, crossing of gender lines and two people of the same sex living together (DuBois, 13). Later anthropologists have posited that transgendered people played a specific spiritual role and held special powers within the tribe. This is in direct conflict with the binary gendered roles of European society.

Despite the considerable equality enjoyed by Native American women in marriage and sexual relationships and the importance of their economic contributions, they had relatively little official political power. However, women wielded significant influence especially in tribes which relied on consensus decision making, distribution of goods to members and as healers.

Despite differences between English, Dutch and French culture, generally European women were bound to strictly defined gender roles. Regulated to the domestic sphere, European women had little power, freedom or independence compared to Native American women.

DuBois, Ellen Carol and Lynn Dumenil. Through Women’s Eyes: An American History with Documents. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2016.

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