Telling the Story of Colonial Women

Kristen Spivey reveals some surprises about 18th-century women and their role in history.

Learn more: Colonial Families


Lloyd Dobyns: Hi! Welcome to Colonial Williamsburg: Past & Present on  This is “Behind the Scenes” where you meet the people who work here. That’s my job. I’m Lloyd Dobyns, and mostly I ask questions. For women’s history month, I’m asking Kristen Spivey, who is a program manager in public history development. My first question is “What is public history development?”     

Kristen Spivey:   Well, public history is really the study of how to present history to people in accessible fashion, so public history development is developing programs that are accessible to the public.

Lloyd:  How do you develop accessible programs for women in the 18th century?

Kristen: Well, first of all you want to know what women – and not just women, but people today – want to know about women in the 18th century.  And, of course one way of finding that out is to ask them. We do surveys, and find out what questions there are that people have. Then we develop the programming around those ideas. But needless to say – however I will say it – is that some women who work here have their own ideas about what they want to tell the public. Essentially what I do is to work with them in developing the programs that they want to present. And, thus far, we’ve proven that what we come up with is pretty popular.       

Lloyd:   What do they want to present?

Kristen: Well, for instance, we have a group of performers – and realize not everyone here is a performer – we do have people who are interpreters, who are trades people, and I will get to those, but we do have performers who do plays and scenes from plays, and so within that group of performers we have people who will be presenting scenes from 18th-century plays that speak to the roles of women in the 18th century. Some of them are dramas, some are tragedies, some are comedies – and all of that gives a view of women in their time, which is a unique aspect, I think, of that particular kind of presentation because you’re seeing how they viewed themselves when you do a written play that is then presented.

Lloyd:  Somebody – a woman, name unknown, 21st-century – that hasn’t studied history, are they stunned, shocked, surprised by what a woman’s role in the 18th century was, or do they sort of accept it and go “eh!”? 

Kristen:   Both. Always both. There are those who are not surprised, because unfortunately in the world today there are still women in certain cultures that we – at least here in America tend to be aware of – who are very circumscribed. And women in the 18th century, their roles were very circumscribed. They did not, could not vote; they were in effect “one” with their husbands, and when they got married the “one” they became was the husband – which had its advantages. It was not entirely a disadvantage. A woman who was married could not be sued in court, so her husband had to go with her if she was brought up before the court for something. He was responsible for her, to pay her debts, and those sorts of things, and it was seen as a form of protection for women. It was also true, though, that if they were not married, and this still exists – the “femme seule” – if they were a woman alone, then they did have access to the law, they could be sued in court, they could own property. There were a lot of things they could do, and actually it’s funny, many women today are not aware of the freedoms that women in the 18th century could have. They actually think they were more circumscribed than they were.     
Lloyd: I learned fairly recently that women in that period could not sue for divorce.

Kristen: Well, neither could a man. It wasn’t like…  

Lloyd: …Oh really?  [I was] wrong on that.

Kristen: It wasn’t something that women couldn’t do; it was something that just simply wasn’t available in America in the colonial period, because you could get a separation at bed and board, which meant it was a legal separation, and they could take separate households, but it did not allow for remarriage, because it was not…in order to have a divorce, a true divorce, it required going back to England, and of course, there wasn’t anybody here, for the most part, who was willing to go to the time and expense of separating themselves fully from a spouse. It was just simply not available here.

Lloyd:  Well, if you had never heard of it…

Kristen: Well, they were aware of the institution of divorce just as they were aware of the institution of matrimony, but since it wasn’t accessible to the majority of people, it just wasn’t something that you considered. They were made aware of certain protections. For instance, when a woman married, it was expected that her husband would not destroy her dower, so whatever she brought to the marriage and whatever they acquired within the marriage, he could not then destroy, i.e., he couldn’t sell it out from under her and leave her destitute in the case of his death. So if there was a piece of land that he wanted to sell, he could not just go ahead and sell it. He had to get his wife’s permission, and in order to assure she was not giving her permission under duress, she would be separately examined, which means he wasn’t there. She would be examined by magistrates from whatever court had jurisdiction, then give her consent or not. However, I think there was probably a certain amount of duress anyway, because you still have to live with the guy. So, if you say “no…”  But the court might well advise that it would not be in her best interests to have that particular piece of property sold, in which case, of course, they would than act as protection for her.

Lloyd:  How has the interpretation of 18th-century women changed in Colonial Williamsburg over the past five, 10, 15 years?   

Kristen: It’s come into existence...(laughs)  

Lloyd:  Okay…
Kristen: That’s the big change… that it is acknowledged that when you present history you are not automatically presenting the entire story.  We’ve gone through cycles, if you will, of the way in which we present history here. For a long time, of course, it was the – and you will pardon me saying this – the great white fathers. It was Washington and Jefferson, and George Wythe, Peyton Randolph, Patrick Henry – all names that should be familiar to many school children today, we hope.  But they had wives, and they had children – some of them, not all – and those wives and children were affected by the things that these men did, and we’ve gone through cycles where we’ve literally pushed aside the great white fathers, which was in itself a mistake, because they were there, too. But we’ve also come to see the importance of examining daily life, that when certain things occurred, life still went on. Babies were still born, households still had to be managed, businesses had to be kept up during every portion of history, whether it’s the Revolution, or before the Revolution, during the Seven-Years War…there are so many big events that we tend to look at in history, but the fact is that people lived before them, through them, and after them. Life literally went on. There were marriages during the wars; there were babies born, and people died from things other than wounds or anything else.  

Lloyd: Actually I was reading some history and was surprised at the number of women who died in childbirth and then going back through the medical history, not surprised at the number of women who died in childbirth. It was really often fatal.   

Kristen: Yes, and actually during women’s history month this year, we’ll be examining some of that. We have two programs, one of which deals with fashion and health presented by both our millinery shop and apothecary shop in a dual program. It won’t be presented at either of those sites but instead taken to another site in the Historic Area.They are joining together; they also happen to be sisters so it makes it really nice.  They’ve developed a special program, and it deals with fashion. I haven’t seen the program yet, so I can’t speak to exactly what it is, but I have seen other things that dealt with the idea of fashion and motherhood. How do you deal with a pregnancy when you have stays and long skirts, and after the birth, are you nursing, and how do you deal with that?  So there a lot of different things, and then how fashion can actually affect your health. This is not the 19th century we’re dealing with, so we’re not looking at these horrible contraptions that women were literally caged in, but there were still some health issues to do with fashion.

Lloyd: In the 19th century, where you had corsets and all those terrible, terrible things, you can see they were trying to make their waist as small as they could, I do not remember 18th-century fashions being that restrictive.  

Kristen: They aren’t. No, they aren’t. The shape they were attempting to achieve was done kind of within certain limitations. It’s kind of funny because we actually have examples in the museums of pieces from the 18th century, and most of them have been altered in one way or another through time, but we do have baby stays, so infants as young as six months would be put into stays, and they were meant to help them stand up straight. That was the idea; it was to help their posture.

Lloyd: At six months, you don’t stand up.

Kristen: No, you don’t, but sit up, you know when they are learning to sit up at six months, and then a baby of 18 months to two years might be put into a different style of stay, and it’s boys and girls; it’s not limited to girls, the idea being that it creates a certain shape, and then as they grow older, the way the clothing is cut is still going to have an impact – both for men and women – in the way they stand, but the men, or the boys, leave off their stays when they are breeched, whereas girls will generally keep those.And we know this because there were actually entries in parish records, and the parishes were the ones who took care of widows and orphans, and there was money set aside to provide stays, so they were not seen as a luxury or simply a fashion statement, that was seen as a necessity and nobody should have to do without it. But we have the baby stays, and then we also have stays for women who were well-endowed in every sense. So the stays were made to fit the shape of the woman instead of made to change her shape. It basically gave a cone shape, and even a very large woman could make her waist look smaller in comparison to her hips by the addition of the hoops. So if you look at some of the styles of the 18th century, yes, there were some women who were just teeny tiny little things and their gowns looked so beautiful and elegant, but there were also women who were considerably larger and yet who still looked quite elegant because the clothing and the underpinnings gave a particular shape, and it was that shape they were attempting to create with the stays and the hoops.       

Lloyd:  Okay you said two things, didn’t you? Two things you are doing different this year?

Kristen:  Well, there is another program we have with our tradeswomen. The second one is just as fashion grows up, because you can’t extricate women and children. They kind of go together. And so, we also have a program on the changing fashions for children and the idea that you have one set of clothing that a child would need – a newborn, and then that changes as they grow up. And so that’s another program that’s being taken out of the millenary context and taken elsewhere so that we can speak very directly to that particular aspect of the trade. Now, we have a returning program, too, that is so much fun. It’s women in trades, and we have a lot of women in the 21st century who are in the trades, and it’s not always… now, the millenary is a woman’s trade, but we have a lot of women in all of the trades in Williamsburg, so we have a foundry woman, we have a silversmith, a cooper, basketmaker; it is all women in the apothecary. Now, there were not women apothecaries, but these women have done the study of medicine in the 18th century. There were female wigmakers, and we have all women at the wigmaker, so there are women in trades, and they face some interesting challenges, because guests come in and may or may not expect to see a woman at that trade, but the fact is there were women in all of the trades in the 18th century, and that takes them [the guests] by surprise. Our “women in trades” program allows the women in trades to step out of their shops to come together in a panel and discuss some of those issues. The program is very open. It does not have a set number of questions and answers and that sort of thing. Instead, it’s kind of a free flow between what the guests want and what the women want to talk about.

Lloyd:  That’s Colonial Williamsburg: Past & Present this time. Check often. We’ll post more for you to download and hear.

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