MO Bicentennial Minutes: The Role of Women in Missouri at Statehood
The role of women in 1821 varied with ethnic and economic status. Women in French settlements held a dominant role in the family. The matriarch often made decisions about running the household. French wives had the primary role in training and discipline of children, often because of long absences by fathers who were fur traders, miners, or merchants. Girls could marry at age 14, boys at 17, and marriages were a business arrangement requiring parental consent.
Women in American settler families played a more submissive role. Frontier families experienced high infant mortality, and thus families were larger in more settled regions. In rural areas, the wife had to manage nearly all household affairs. They did the food processing; cooking; sewing, including spinning, weaving, and making clothing; fire-building; cleaning; and child rearing. One woman from Callaway County wrote in a letter, “The men and dogs have a fine time but, the poor women have to suffer. They have to pack water [up to] a mile, and do all the cooking and washing.”
In different households, the role of pioneer wives varied from helpmate to servant. Literacy was lower in women as well. Legally, women had inferior status. While single women or widows could own property and conduct financial affairs in some cases, they could neither vote nor participate in public life. Once they married or remarried, their legal role was subservient to their husbands. In some rare cases, pre-marital contracts protected property held by some women.
Religious services and events provided relief from the daily pattern of life for women, as did community chores turned into entertainments such as house raisings or quilting bees.