Out to Work: A History of Wage-Earning Women in the United States

By Alice Kessler-Harris | Go to book overview

I
Limits of Independence. in the Colonial Economy

In the early settlements of seventeenth-century America, only one group of women -- domestic servants -- could properly be called wage earners. By the end of the colonial period, the stage had been set for women to take their places in the nineteenth-century movement of people into the wage labor force. Women's transition from paid and unpaid family-centered roles to wage labor of all kinds began early in the American past. Separated from the European soil, and facing dramatically different conditions in the organization and availability of land and labor, the colonists might have reconsidered the roles of women. They had plenty of land, and in the early years they were desperately short of workers. But the colonists chose to create conditions of women's work that resembled those of Europe more closely than they departed from them. European traditions and expectations regulated women's access to apprenticeship and thus to the most lucrative skills. And in this new world, patterns of land distribution quickly confirmed old assumptions about women's place. Together, women's relationship to the land and to saleable skills permanently influenced their economic possibilities.

For free, white, male immigrants to the colonies, land provided the major source of economic independence, if not of future wealth. Even those who came to the New World with a craft relied on their land to meet important family needs. For male indentured servants, land was sometimes offered as an incentive to serve out their terms. But most white women, like black males and females and unlike most white men, did not hold land, nor did they have access to the skills that

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