Good Wives, Nasty Wenches, and Anxious Patriarchs: Gender, Race, and Power in Colonial Virginia

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Gender, Race, and Power in Colonial Virginia

In Colonial Virginia in 1661, Rebecca Nobles was sentenced to ten lashes for bearing an illegitimate child. Had she been an indentured servant she would also have been ordered to serve her master an additional two years to repay his losses incurred during her pregnancy. After 1662, had she been an enslaved African woman she would not have been prosecuted, because in that year the Colonial government declared children born to slave women the property of their mother's master. A child born to a slave brought increased wealth, whereas the child of an indentured servant brought increased financial responsibility. This evolving legislation in Colonial Virginia reflected elite planter
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Men in England held authority over women in patriarchal households and specifically controlled women's sexual and domestic labor. This patriarchal model also provided a metaphor for royal and church authorities. When English men sought to expand their economic power in overseas trade, they justified their new claims within the gendered terms that described authority at home. For example, English writers depicted new lands as feminine enclaves ripe for the picking by virile English men. When describing the people who lived on these lands, writers also continued to draw on common understandings of gender to demonstrate a relationship of domination. Colonial officials and planters also drew on this ideology as they established their authority in Virginia. As settlers encountered Indians and Africans, their concepts of race became infused in their gendered language of authority. Thus, the evolving concepts of gender and race in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were very much interconnected.

One of the earliest institutionalized definitions of race bolsters colonial economic power and redefined womanhood. In 1643 the Colonial Government of Virginia passed the first law to legally define race difference. This new law categorized African women as "tithables" or laborers subject to taxation. Traditionally, only male workers were categorized as "tithables" and paid a tax on their labor in exchange for exemption from military service. Women classified as

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