The founding of Jamestown in 1607 has long been a mandatory topic in American history courses. The story has been romanticized and retold in movies and books that popularized the names of the most famous characters – John Smith, Powhatan, Pocahontas, and John Rolfe. While the founding and subsequent struggles have assumed epic proportions, storytellers have largely ignored the women of Jamestown. These forgotten women and their crucial role to the success of Jamestown are the focus of the National Women’s History Museum’s (NWHM) newest Cyber Exhibit – Building the New World: The Women of Jamestown Settlement.
The NWHM exhibit begins with a look at the role of Native American women in the tribes that already inhabited the Jamestown area. These women had much more power and more prominent roles in their societies than did their English contemporaries. The story of Englishwomen in Jamestown begins in 1608 with one woman and her maid. The Virginia Company of London actively recruited women who were regarded as essential to establishing permanent settlements. The female population in Jamestown grew as more women migrated as indentured servants or prospective brides for the male settlers. Women were always outnumbered by men. The women of Virginia enjoyed greater opportunities to improve their condition in the New World compared to their contemporaries who remained in England, although married English women had very few legal rights.
Once in the harsh environment Jamestown, women began the colony’s transformation from its first days, which were marked by starvation and disease, to the urban capital city of Jamestown and surrounding plantations and farms. Before women colonists arrived, responsibilities associated with women such as food production, cleaning, and nursing were largely ignored as men focused on pursuit of treasure and growing tobacco for profit. Amid primitive conditions, women produced children who, if they survived childhood, labored on farms. Women’s work expanded as their domestic chores only increased as their families grew and indentured or enslaved workers were added. The presence of women in Jamestown lent social stability to the colony, which allowed for its eventual permanence and success.
NWHM Board Member, author, and professor Doris Weatherford, who served as historical consultant on the project, commented: “The experience at Jamestown demonstrated that no permanent civilized society can survive without women, but historians have too long excluded women’s vital roles.” NWHM President Susan Jollie said: “This online exhibit demonstrates why we need a national museum in our nation’s capital to pay proper tribute to the crucial roles women have played on our history.” Building the New World: The Women of Jamestown was curated with the assistance of intern Kristin E. Tremper. To visit Building the New World: The Women of Jamestown, please visit the NWHM homepage (www.nwhm.org).