Nasty Women: Gendered Expectations versus Reality Regarding Sexuality and Law

Dublin Core


Nasty Women: Gendered Expectations versus Reality Regarding Sexuality and Law


Gendered expectations, sexuality, Colonial America, Philadelphia, Connecticut, Virginia, law, court


Hoarding on ships, a variety of men, women, children as well as African slaves entered this new world for the first time, bringing old familiarities and ideologies with them. From the multitude of Europeans that came, forts and permanent residences were built, creating cities and towns. Brought to these new towns, forts and cities, ideologies such as gender ideology created a platform for the society within the colonies. With the fragility and instability of the young colonies, gendered expectations from this ideology were highly defined and needed to provide some form of consistency in an otherwise male-dominated society. Despite these expectations, the branching sexuality of women and men stretched beyond the stanch social rules and laws. Within early colonial North America, there is a clear separation of gendered expectations and reality regarding sexuality within the culture of different colonies. The division of expectations and reality within colonies such as Connecticut, Virginia as well as Philadelphia resulted from a combination of factors such as the ratio of men to women combating with the individual and residual cultures in the colonies. However, despite the differing cultures within the three different colonies, the gendering of laws and cultural expectations resulted overall in unequal treatment in the comparison of women and men over time.

            The remaining patriarchal ideology as well as the need for families in the English colonies secured women’s place in society as wives. In the case with the Virginia Company, the lack of women in the majority male population made laws regarding women and marriage licenses more strict in nature. Especially with female servants, guidelines in their servant contract prevented them from outside marriage. In July 1619, legislators acknowledged the significant lack of wives and women within the colony. One of the two shipments to Virginia carried over 90 “marriageable” women, provided with lack of provisions to confirm their occupation as wives.[1] This assumption was based off of the common connection with women to wives and gave them dependent legal status under their husband.[2] Within more religion-oriented colonies such as Connecticut and Philadelphia, marriage and the family household was the most important social unit in colonial life as well as providing income for small families. The need for families in the English colonies drove women initially in the more male-dominated profit colonies such as Virginia as well as the more religion oriented Middle and New England colonies such as Philadelphia and Connecticut.

            The ideal of a chaste, domestic wife was the expectation of a colonial woman at the time. In Literature, such as in The Fortunes and Misfortunes of Moll Flanders as well as the American Almanac in Philadelphia give an accurate of expectations and what was frowned upon in colonial society.  In the first instance of print culture in Philadelphian colony, the American Almanac was filled with comedic stereotypes of good wives, terrible wives or the gender relations within marriage. From these comedic stories, it provided comedic relief as well as acknowledged the patriarchal overtones in marriage. Tales such as of The Fortunes and Misfortunes of Moll Flanders by Daniel Defoe perpetuated this idea of the advantageous sexual woman. In the tale, Defoe introduces his character “All the exploits of this lady of fame…stand as so many warnings to honest people to beware of them, intimating to them by what methods innocent people are drawn in…and by consequence how to avoid them.”[3] In this quote, Defoe introduces his tale of this scandalous woman as an example of what not to do in society. From this negative portrayal of Moll Flanders, it secures the ideology of the “good wife” and what is to be expected of them. However, some aspects to colonial life went against the print gendered expectation of a subservient and good wife. The female ideal of a chaste bride With the high mortality rates in colonial living, adultery in the need of a securing a future spouse was not uncommon. In the account of Marie Drew of Virginia, who used her sexuality to her advantage while her husband was away, secured future husband prospects in likely case that she became a widow. In the court documents, it mentioned that: “her husband should chance not to come home or dye then he (the suitor, ‘young Powell’) was able to make her amends.”[4] With the high mortality rates, adulterous actions such as Marie Drew’s were not uncommon. In comparison, these high expectations of women and wives were not always met in a desperate environment such as Colonial America.

            However, in comparison of the acknowledgement of existing promiscuity and sexual relations, the punishments tended to more favorable towards the man. In relation to sexual crimes committed during this time period, the treatment of women in court varied; often the court punished and judged a woman’s testimony more severely if against a man’s.  In the New England colonies as well as replicated in others, women who had fornicated and had a child, dealt with the punishment of the crime more severely than their male counterpart. In case of Sarah Hines 18 years old from Connecticut, she bore a child out of wedlock with Joseph Nettleton in 1723. Both went to court over ‘the sin of fornication’; Hines pleaded guilty where as Nettleton pleaded not guilty and was able to appeal his punishment.[5] From this common case in Connecticut from 1723, the double standard involving sexual crimes such as fornication favored more towards the man and his dignity rather than the woman who had no husband. The case from the Connecticut references the vulnerability of single women especially female servants, who were poor, lacked domestic skills and/or were migrating alone. They were most susceptible to attacks against their sexuality as well as were punished more severely.[6] In comparison, married women were treated more respectable in court cases and attacks because as a married woman, their husband’s actions are tied with them as well as his honor. However, regardless of marriage status, husbands publicly punished their wives, if they suspected that they were unfaithful. For example, in the Philadelphian colony, husbands would publically outcast their wives for suspected behavior as well as not even performing sexual misconduct of a wife was presented in 8% of the advertisements placed by Philadelphia husbands between 1726-1760.[7]  Overall, women, regardless of marriage status, were treated unequally in punishments in comparison to the men, who committed the same crimes.

            With the creation of the New World colonies, the same old patriarchal ideology lingered into the newly founded English colonies. Based off of gender, colonial women succumbed to harsher punishments and more defined expectations. Despite those expectations and punishments, history has proven that the sexual exploitations of men and women were equal in nature, proving that the laws and societal norms did not hesitate several women in doing what they wanted sexually.


[1]  Kathleen M. Brown, Good Wives, Nasty Wenches & Anxious Patriarchs: Gender, Race and Power in Colonial Virginia (Chapel Hill and London: University of North Carolina Press, 1996), 80-81.

[2]  Karin A. Wulf, Not All Wives: Women of Colonial Philadelphia (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2000), 89.

[3] Daniel Dofoe, The Fortunes and Misfortunes of Moll Flanders.

[4] Brown, Good Wives, Nasty Wenches, & Anxious Patriarchs, 96.

[5] Cornelia Dayton, Women Before the Bar: Gender, Law, and Society in Connecticut, 1639-1789 (Williamsburg: University of North Carolina Press, 1995), 157.

[6] Brown, Good Wives, Nasty Wenches & Anxious Patriarchs, 98.

[7] Clare A. Lyons, Sex Among the Rabble: An Intimate History of Gender and Power in the Age of Revolution, Philadelphia, 1730-1830 (Williamsburg: University of North Carolina Press, 2006), 26; PG, Aug. 29, 1745 Judith and Bryan Kennedy (Philadelphia) 



Beverley, Robert, Susan Scott Parrish, Daphna Atias, Helen C. Rountree, and Culture Omohundro Institute of Early American History &. 2013. The History and Present State of Virginia: A New Edition with an Introduction by Susan Scott Parrish. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2013.


Brown, Kathleen M. Good Wives, Nasty Wenches, and Anxious Patriarchs: Gender, Race, and Power in Colonial Virginia. Chapel Hill, University of North Carolina Press, 1996.


Dayton, Cornelia Hughes. Women Before the Bar: Gender, Law, and Society in Connecticut, 1639-1789. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1995.


Defoe, Daniel. N.d. The Fortunes & Misfortunes of the Famous Moll Flanders. Champaign, Ill: Project Gutenberg, n.d. 


Hening, William Waller. 1823. Statues at Large: A Collection of the Laws of Virginia, from the First Session of the Legislature, in the Year 1619. Published for the Pursuant to an Act of the General Assembly of Virginia, New York.


Lyons, Clare A. Sex Among the Rabble: An Intimate History of Gender & Power in the Age of Revolution, Philadelphia, 1730-1830. Chapel Hill: Published for the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture, Williamsburg, Virginia, by the University of North Carolina Press, 2006.


Wulf, Karen A. Not All Wives: Women of Colonial Philadelphia. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2005. 


Laura Pepper


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University of Memphis




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Collection Items

The Fortunes and Misfortunes of the Famous Moll Flanders
Fictional account by Daniel Defoe regarding the criminal entrepreneur Moll Flanders and her escapades in Colonial America

Statutes at Large: A Collection of All the Laws of Virginia, from the first session of legislature, in the year 1619.
Collection of Laws of Virginia, beginning with the start of the Virginia Company in 1619

"Portrait of a Woman"
Portrait of a colonial woman by Wenceslaus Hollar, a famous portraitist at the time
View all 3 items