You may or may not be aware of the recent article in The Guardian reviewing the new historical television drama, Jamestown. This article has garnered a lot of criticism in the historical world, and for good reason. If you don’t want to read the article, then the main summary points are this:

  • The women portrayed in the show have “laughably liberal values for their day” and “slap men’s faces, joke about their sexual failures and campaign for tougher sentencing for sex criminals – and all in 1619”
  • The women are vocally anti-rape, and campaign against sex crimes, which they shouldn’t be at that time
  • They are too “feisty, cheeky and rebellious” for their time
  • The Jamestown brides are akin to Jihadi brides for ISIS, or arranged marriages
  • The show makers only made the women characters strong because modern people wouldn’t want to watch the reality of submissive women, and are therefore making the historical reality “seem more palatable than they were”

Now, after I did a good old fashioned Facebook rant about this article to my friends, I decided my next blog post should be on this topic, to enlighten those who may not know much about the period, or women’s history in general, and thus believe what seem to be valid arguments from the article.


An imagining of colonial Jamestown.

My first broad stroke point is that as much as school tends to teach us that women of the past were submissive, accepted their position in life quietly, and sat by the sidelines making babies until the Suffrage movement magically sprung up in the 1900s, this is far from the truth, from all across time and in different cultures. In Europe specifically, women had been rulers all across the medieval period – and at the time that the Jamestown drama was set, England had only recently lost their monarch of nearly 50 years, Queen Elizabeth I. Women throughout the medieval period and into the early modern wrote pieces defending the female sex, and extolling what women could bring to society. Noblewomen ran their own estates, and held positions of local esteem, whilst working class women worked and brought in money to support their families. I could list a thousand reasons why this picture of women across history in general is very incorrect, but I’m going to focus this post on those early Colonial women that Jamestown focuses on, and show why these women were some of the fiercest around.

When European powers decided to not just plunder the Americas, but to conquer and settle there, the first groups who were sent out tended to be young, unmarried men. They had no ties to England, they were promised money and land in exchange for going, and they had the physical strength required to create these new settlements. It is important to remember that these settlements were created from scratch – land had to be cleared, trees felled, buildings made from scratch. However, there were two problems with this, and both related to women. Firstly, to sustain the new settlements, women eventually had to populate it, in order to create children; they couldn’t perpetually send endless streams of men over to replace those that died. Secondly, the men themselves wouldn’t be too happy with living in a hostile land for decades on end with no women or wives.


An 1882 illustration depicting the arrival of the first women to the Jamestown colony

However, women had shown themselves to be unwilling to come to the colonies because of reports of famine and disease. As such, the Virginia Company treasurer, Edwin Sandys, proposed advertising women to come over with the specific intent of marrying the men already in Jamestown. This would keep the men settled in the colony, and provide more of an incentive for women to join. The women were offered clothing, furniture, free transportation, and a plot of land in return for coming to America. And, contrary to the idea that Mark Lawson portrays that they were stolen, forced to marry men that were picked for them, the women were able to choose which man they wanted to marry when they arrived, and were provided with temporary food and accommodation whilst they made their decision, so they did not have to be pressured into it. In this way, they had just as much choice as they may have back home in England (as most women didn’t marry outside of their town anyway unless they were members of the upper classes), and instead of having to gather their own dowry, one was provided for them. For many poorer women, this was quite an appealing choice.

There was another appealing plus-side to moving to the colonies. In the seventeenth century, the colonial government offered female colonists legal freedoms that many women living in England did not enjoy. In English law, once a woman was married, she was essentially legal property of her husband. He took control of any of her lands and assets, and women could not alter or dispose of property without their husband’s consent, even if they held it in their own right such as through inheritence. However, the land that the Jamestown women were given upon arrival remained strictly theirs, and land that was set aside to be given to new colonists was divided up into land for both men and women so that women were able to hold it in their own rights. Moreover, due to the generally short lifespan of those who lived in the colonies, widows were amply looked after – they almost always inherited more than the lawful one-third of their deceased husband’s estate that women in England received. This meant widows felt a lot less pressure to remarry, as they had the financial means to look after themselves.


The women disembarking into Jamestown on the show.

Due to the colonial women’s wealth, they had a stronger say in society. Women in England often could not exert much power outside of the domestic sphere, because they didn’t have land and money that was exclusively theirs. As women in the colonies could control their own fortunes, they had a greater say in how their life was run. For example, there runs the story of a Virginia woman named Sarah Harrison:

She was “recorded as refusing to go along with a crucial portion of the marriage ceremony. According to witnesses, when the clergyman asked for her promise to “obey,” Harrison answered, “No obey.” When the question was repeated, she gave the same response. After the third refusal, the reverend acquiesced to her demand and performed the ceremony with no mention of the promise to obey.”

So, that already feels like one of article’s arguments disproved – these women were certainly feisty, and were not afraid to stand up to their colonial male counterparts – and their wealth certainly aided this confidence.

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I would also like to argue another point in favour of these women being brave, confident, and unafraid to assert their rights, that perhaps doesn’t exactly have direct historical quotes I can draw upon, but more common sense. The journey to the colonies could take anywhere between 47 to 138 days by ship, a journey that was not only long, but dangerous. Ships could sink, be raided by pirates, or be attacked by other European nations, not to mention being harbourers of disease. If the women survived the journey, they then had to settle in a land that had only recently been settled. Times were hard, and if famine set in there were not as many safeguards as in England to deal with this – you couldn’t just ask the neighbouring city to provide some extra food, as there were no neighbouring cities. On that vein, there were not the amenities available that existed in larger settlements in England – theatres, public baths, taverns, a variety of shops, and various systems of government. Depending on where abouts the women travelled to, there was also the possible threat of attacks by Native Americans. Life there was tough, and the women travelling there were under no illusion that it was otherwise – as mentioned, women had been refusing to go for a long time for good reason. In the winter of 1609-10, three quarters of Jamestown residents died of starvation. The type of women, therefore, that agreed to go over and marry a man were already going to be confident, powerful, hardy women. It is not hard to imagine in a television drama, therefore, that they would be vocal and clear on their rights.


These women would have had to have worked hard in the new settlements. Sweetwater (Rest Stop at the Sweetwater), by Harold Hopkinson.

I hope I have given enough evidence to prove to those who may not know much about this period that the women in Jamestown certainly would have been “feisty, cheeky and rebellious” – I could go on much longer, but am aware that already this is one of my longest blog posts and I do not want to lose interest. As such, I would like to end just on a very brief note with some evidence relating to all of the comments to do with sexuality and sexual crimes the article mentions. I definitely plan to do a more detailed piece on its own about these issues, but here are just a few examples that show that women were not always prude, polite, and happy to have men abuse them.

Women of this time certainly swore, and certainly openly spoke about the sexual lives of men and women, often in a slanderous way. There are plenty of examples of medieval and early modern depositions for defamation, and a big proportion of the time when it was woman against woman, it was because someone at some point called someone else a whore. For example, in 1544, Griselda Coke and Agnes Hewett of Walmer sued each other for defamation:

“Griselda deposed that she had called Agnes ‘arant hoore [whore] bycause she [Agnes] had called her hore [whore] and sayd further that she had folowed a knave’s ars’. It sounds as though Griselda was not seriously accusing Agnes of sexual misconduct, but merely trading insults on a tit for tat basis” [from Gender and Petty Crime in Late Medieval England: The Local Courts in Kent, 1460 – 1560, Karen Jones]

With regards to sexual failures, women were not shy to sue for a marriage annulment if they judged their husband to be impotent, and again there are plenty of examples in court rolls across the medieval period of this happening. This could often be humiliating for the man, as not only was his inability to perform sexually being made public, but in order to prove the woman’s claim and grant an annulment, a man would be tested for his impotency. This example from Impotence and Virginity in the Late Medieval Ecclesiastical Court of York by Bronach Christina Kane demonstrates what the typical test would involve:

“Examined in October 1441, Joan Savage recounted the impotence test which she and several other women performed on John Marche in the guildhall kitchen of the fraternity of St John the Baptist. Agnes Gray and Joan Rande, her fellow witnesses, palpated John Marche’s penis, while ‘embracing him around the neck and kissing him.’”

This was fairly mild by some standards – there are many examples of the men being tested by groups of prostitutes, where women would lift their skirts or get naked in front of him in a further attempt to ‘excite’ him.


Medieval women would test men for impotence in court cases (image source unknown)

Finally, a short example of medieval and early modern attitudes towards rape. It is true that men accused of rape very often got away with it with little to no punishment, and that the punishment could often be avoided by marrying the woman they raped. However, this is not necessarily because people did not believe rape was a bad thing; in 1285, rape was made a capital felony, meaning a rapist could be executed – certainly not taking the offence lightly. However, there were similar issues convicting rapists as there are today – proving consent (or a lack of), and a lack of witnesses often made it hard to prove the crime happened. Moreover, all-male juries were often reluctant to pass a death sentence on a man, especially for a crime they couldn’t necessarily be sure he committed. This is shown by the fact that in the English Midlands between 1400 and 1430, of 280 rape cases, not one led to a conviction. However, whilst punishments may have been very lacking, this still highlights the important fact that rape was not viewed as acceptable, and people were willing to go to court over it – it does not, therefore, seem so laughably modern and liberal, as Mark Lawson argues, that a female character in Jamestown may exclaim that rape is not acceptable “in this day and age”.

So, there you go. I hope I have managed to keep you interested this far, I apologise that this piece was a lot longer than my posts usually are, but I feel like it deserves it! Perhaps it is a topic I will revisit some time soon, to add the plethora of extra evidence I would have liked to! So, whether you end up watching Jamestown or not, I hope you can now appreciate the bravery and great personalities of the colonial women who would have lived in Jamestown and beyond in the early seventeenth century.

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6 thoughts on “Feeble or Fierce? Colonial Women of North America

  1. I’d seen several mentions of the Guardian article, criticising it, but this was a very useful summary. I wish I’d known about the court testing of male impotence 12 months ago – I would have loved to have done my dissertation on that.


    1. Glad it was helpful! And oh yes, it’s a very interesting concept – whilst prostitutes were often used, they weren’t always, usually married women or widows of the community (who were “experienced”) would test the male and then if he was found lacking an annulment would be procured – a very interesting concept for a society that has generally been perceived as prudish!

      Liked by 2 people

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