The Experience of Women in New York in The Colonial Period

New York had, from the beginning, ” the cosmopolitan air ” associated with a heterogeneous society with many different racial, religious, and language groups; individual lives were constructed culturally, and influenced by the experiences of immigrants from different European traditions. Thus, women in New York had unique experiences in its diverse society, compared to the other colonies.

New Amsterdam was established as the most important trading port by the West India Company. Most of the immigrants who were attracted by the colony were more interested in becoming fur traders and merchants than agricultural labors. Unlike Chesapeake colony, therefore, most women in New Amsterdam didn?t work in a field.

In New Amsterdam, women were playing roles of wives, mothers, and even businesswomen. Most important, women could have their own businesses in their society; they were associated with trade and commerce. Compared to English laws and hierarchical societies in Plymouth family, Dutch law and society didn?t distinguish too strictly between male and female capacities for economic activity. Dutch women were not forced to choose between marriage and marketplace; they were allowed to pursue success in both. ( Berkin, 83 ) Even if they married, they could continue to function as sellers and buyers of goods and property. Marriage in New Amsterdam was considered as a partnership of equals; ” ( Dutch ) …. carried the logic of marriage as a [ commodity of goods ] and considered marriage partners equally responsible caretakers and developers of family wealth.” ( Berkin, 84 ) Partners had equal claim to their combined wealth, and the claims were made good by the custom of mutual wills. ( Berkin, 84 ) On the death of husband or wife, the widowed partner was entitled to half of the entire estate and had the right to administer the remaining half for the hairs. ( Berkin, 84 ) As a result, there were some women who made excellent use of their husband?s properties and businesses when their husbands died. What made New Amsterdam be such a environment where women were given appropriate rights?

Berkin remarks in the book, ” First Generation ” as follows;

By the late sixteenth century, the Dutch had a remarkable transformation, Amsterdam was the center of an aggressive global trading network, and the Dutch Republic became the greatest trading nation in the world. The West India Company which acquired the rights to exploit the North America was more interested in the profits to be made from their monopoly in the West African trade. ( Berkin, 82 )

The West India company necessarily put the priority on their business; they allowed all settlers to have proper rights under Dutch law in order to attract business opportunity. Therefore, marriage was also regarded as an economic partnership in terms of the Dutch “usus” marriage contract. In Short, the reason why women in New Amsterdam were given appropriate legal rights is because the West India company thought much of the profits made from trade and commerce.

However, in 1664 the arrival of English changed such a Dutch tradition. English law was the one which just limited a women?s financial activity and her position within a family structure. Under English law, woman was simply recognized as her husband?s mate rather than his partner. ” English marital laws confirmed women as dependents upon their husbands, placing their material well-being and their property into their husband?s hands and making their husbands responsible for their maintenance even in widowhood.” ( Berkin, 84 ) As a result, they could no longer purchase or hold any property in their own names.

As the English population grew; intermarriage between Dutch and English became more common; Dutch husbands and fathers began to adopt English patterns; children learned English, all women within the family began to feel a disadvantage based on gender. By the early eighteenth century, the practice of mutual wills disappear among Dutch New Yorkers. By the mid eighteenth century, her widow?s share had become not one-half but one-third of her husband?s estate. Under English laws, Dutch woman?s status was declined regardless she was single or married. As a result, like all other colonies, a family structure in New York consequently became a hierarchical structure; each family was represented in the outside world by men; women?s classes depended on their husbands?.

However, the impact of the American Revolution gradually changed women?s consciousness. Women still had the responsibility for households, but they started to take over their husbands? businesses because of the absence of men. In addition, they participated in politics by taking a position to boycott British Goods. The Revolution caused women to become interested in politics and their education.

On the whole, In the early days women had unique experiences which were affected by the Dutch tradition, laws, and their priority – trade and commerce. Unlike other colonies, Dutch women were allowed both financial activities and legal identities. Under English law, their status – equal status as men – was remarkably limited so that forced to be dependent on their husbands like other colonies. Finally, however, the impact of the Revolution brought women the chance to seek their own identities. Women?s lives in the colonial period of New York, were very unique and quite varied greatly influenced by the geographical factor, the rulers and the historical events.

Writen by Seigo Dobashi, Baruch College History Department, 1997.


Berkin, Carol. First Generation; Women in Colonial America. New York; Hill and Wang, 1996.

Norton, Beth. Marry. Liberty?s Daughters; The Revolutionary Experience Of American Women, 1750-1800. Boston; Little, Brown and Company, 1980.