“Deputy Husbands”

The sentiments of an American woman. Courtesy of the Library of Congress, Rare Book and Special Collections Division.
The Sentiments of an American Woman. Courtesy of the Library of Congress, Rare Book and Special Collections Division.

The role of women in America in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries was not confined simply to matters within their households, as some have popularly believed. Historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich has come up with the term “deputy husbands” to describe women’s potential role in the colonial household. In some cases, women “shouldered male duties,” Ulrich writes. “These might be of the most menial sort—but they could also expand to include some responsibility for the external affairs of the family.”1

A wife could act as a surrogate for her husband, even in legal matters, in times of necessity.2 The necessity might arise because of a husband’s absence—if, for example, his occupation required him to spend a great deal of time away from home. Some men were frequently away at sea, as noted by Crèvecoeur in Letters from An American Farmer: “As the sea excursions are often very long, their [fishermen’s] wives in their absences are necessarily obliged to transact business, to settle accounts, and in short to rule and provide for their families.”3

A wife might also be thrust into the role of deputy husband when her husband was away at war. A 1780 broadside written by “An American Woman” addresses this topic, averring that women are up to the task: “On the commencement of actual war, the Women of America manifested a firm resolution to contribute as much as could depend on them, to the deliverance of their country. Animated by the purest patriotism . . . they aspire to render themselves more really useful; and this sentiment is universal from the north to the south of the Thirteen United States.”4

Sometimes it wasn’t the husband’s occupation but rather an illness or disability that led a wife to step forward and engage in business. An example is found in the proceedings of the Salem Quarterly Court of June 1672. When Philip Cromwell, “having taken a cold in his head, his hearing was then very bad,” he expressed trust in his wife to undertake his affairs. According to the other parties in a trade, Cromwell claimed: “Whatsoever his wife doth ingage, he would make it good.”5 Mrs. Cromwell remains somewhat anonymous, as her first name is never given—which was generally true in such cases. As Ulrich notes, “As deputy husbands, a few women . . . might emerge from anonymity; most did not.”6

Perhaps Ulrich’s most salient point is that the “role of deputy husband reinforced a certain elasticity in premodern notions of gender. No mystique of feminine behavior prevented a woman from driving a hard bargain or chasing a pig from the field.”7 Notions of clearly defined gender roles were sometimes overridden by a need for wives to perform activities traditionally attributed to their husbands for the good of the family.

 Notes

1 Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, Good Wives: Image and Reality in the Lives of Women in Northern New England, 1650-1750 (New York: Knopf Doubleday, 2010), p. 9.

2 Ibid.

3 J. Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur, Letters from an American Farmer (1782; reprint, Carlisle, Mass.: Applewood Books, 2007), p. 205.

4 Also depicted in online exhibit, “A Woman’s Work is Never Done,” at the American Antiquarian Society, americanantiquarian.org/Exhibitions/Womanswork/waryears.htm.

5 Records and Files of the Quarterly Courts of Essex County, Massachusetts, Vol. 5, (Salem, Mass.: Essex Institute, 1916), p. 57.

6 Ulrich, Good Wives, p. 36.

7 Ulrich, Good Wives, p. 50.

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About Zachary Garceau

Zachary J. Garceau is a former researcher at the New England Historic Genealogical Society. He joined the research staff after receiving a Master's degree in Historical Studies with a concentration in Public History from the University of Maryland-Baltimore County and a B.A. in history from the University of Rhode Island. He was a member of the Research Services team from 2014 to 2018, and now works as a technical writer. Zachary also works as a freelance writer, specializing in Rhode Island history, sports history, and French Canadian genealogy.

6 thoughts on ““Deputy Husbands”

  1. Just like the “women religious ” were the backbone of the American Roman Catholic Church, likewise these New England colonial women were the backbone of their communities — however both cohorts were subjected to the same male dominated rulings and are still largely writing off the history books and town journals. And the outcome is that the social progress of the United States has suffered and is continuing to do !

  2. Good topic, Zach. The histories of Nantucket are full of tales of wives who learned to more than cope while their sea captain husbands roamed the world in search of whales.

  3. In New Netherland, at a time overlapping Ulrich’s book, the law allowed women much more freedom than in the English colonies, since Dutch law in the homeland gave women more freedom. For instance, women retained their own names on marriage (making the genealogist’s task easier!), they could own businesses in their own name even after marriage, inherit property on a much more equal basis, and were more likely to be educated beyond bare literacy than in New England. It was by no means full equality, but there were some remarkable businesswomen who left their mark on the colony. When the English took over New Netherland in 1664, these legal rights of women disappeared, though gradually. Still, women everywhere have had to learn to cope when their husbands were absent or incapable, and calling them “deputy husbands” is an interesting way of giving them credit for their contributions even when they remain somewhat shadowy figures because their first names may be unknown to us.

    1. This was true of New France as well. The Acadian women and those in Quebec held a much more equal status than that given to the women in British North America. They were the true brokers of much of New France’s colonial history, at that time.

  4. One of the best and most easily accessible examples of this was Deborah (Mrs Ben) Franklin. She took care of all of her husband’s affairs while he was having his own affairs (ironic, isn’t it?) in London and Paris. His most recent bio has an excellent account.

    Also worth noting that in New England, the only time in her life a woman had any power over her property was as a widow. One theory in play about the Salem witch trials concerns townsfolk trying to “get rid of” these women of property. Also, early voting rules in NE allowed only property owners to vote–property-owning widows were included, landless men were not.

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