Women Wanted: Gender, Race, and the Origins of American Plantation Societies

Sackett, Emily, History - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Edelson, Scott, As-History, University of Virginia
Taylor, Alan, As-History, University of Virginia

During the first generation of English settlement in Carolina, every settler had a price. Under the headright system of land allocation, every freeperson, servant and slave warranted acreage to settle and plant in the new colony. The system worked according to the principle that a settler’s land grant would corresponded to his or her ability to work the land. For women, the system presented a unique set of opportunities. In Carolina, the colony’s founders made the crucial decision to value free white female settlers as equal to men. The colony’s founding documents promised arable land not only to male heads of house, but also “as much to his wife if hee haue one And to every freewoeman that already is or shall arrive into said County with a Sarvent or Sarvents to plant.”

In proprietary-era South Carolina, white women could accomplish much more as mistresses and landowners than as decorative wives. Proprietary land policies gave all free women, married and unmarried, a stake in the colony’s social structure. Their status as landowners ensured that they would remain socially relevant within a project slave society in which traditional women’s work fell increasingly on the backs of unfree women. The position that free white women occupied within Carolina’s social hierarchy, as secondary masters rather than wifely subordinates, ordained all unfree labor as the product of free white management and doubled the number of potential masters whose participation reinforced colonial power structures.

MA (Master of Arts)
colonial America, early America, women's history, gender history , South Carolina
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