Nabb Research Center General Resources - People & Cultures
Women on the Delmarva Frontier
Feminine Power and Widowhood
A Case Study of Parthenia Morris
Somerset County, Maryland
by Katie Ross
Colonial society during the last quarter of the seventeenth century into the
first quarter of the eighteenth has been alternately described as a golden age and
a grim patriarchy for women. Some scholars cite such evidence as the egalitarian
effect of colonial life with its emphasis on basic survival, unbalanced sex ratios,
and the importance of the household as an economic center to corroborate the theory
of greater feminine opportunity for power. Others are quick to emphasize that
colonists, while in a new environment, did not immediately abandon deeply embedded
English customs, even if they only survived in the form of cultural offshoots.
Such customs generally were not conducive to female empowerment but rather maintained the
view of feminine weakness and inferiority. Moreover, the harshness of colonial life
and unequal sex ratios were not permanent fixtures in the New World, thus their effect
on female power was temporary at best. Regarding both perspectives, it can be safely
assumed that the truth lies somewhere between the two extremes.
While women were more
circumscribed in certain aspects of life, they also had surprising prospects for
influence. This is particularly true for widows. While the powers of daughters and
wives were limited by the fathers and husbands in their lives, widows were able to
circumvent such limitations. This certainly occurred in Maryland, as the case study of
one colonial Chesapeake woman by the name of Parthenia Morris illustrates. Raised among
several children by a successful planter, Parthenia married three times in her life. Yet
only as a widow did she truly exert her own authority. By studying the court records,
deeds, wills, and inventories of Parthenia, her husbands, and her family within the larger
context of the social and legal atmosphere of Maryland, a case can be made that the greatest
opportunity a colonial Chesapeake woman had to exert influence and power was through her
role as a widow.
On the Eastern Shore of colonial Maryland, certain factors contributed greatly to female empowerment. First and foremost,
women were a scarcity. Both Virginia and Maryland were immigrant societies that witnessed a predominance of male immigration from
England as opposed to females, thus creating an unbalanced sex ratio of nearly three men to one woman. With whole sections of
English society missing, a dispersed population, and a lack of social cohesion, it was necessary to establish homes and communities,
indicating the great need for women. Such great demand was conducive to their empowerment in seeking and choosing a mate. Indeed,
one Maryland settler described the colony as "a paradise on Earth for women." Moreover, with traditional family patterns
disrupted in their transference across the Atlantic, women were able to take advantage of their power in the domestic sphere
and assume great responsibilities.
Yet women were needed for other duties beyond creating and raising families.
In an atmosphere of generally high mortality rates, rapid population turnovers, and
continual migration, productive and healthy hands were scarce. Such rugged conditions
predisposed colonists to suspend ingrained ideas of gender roles and to regard women as simply individuals who could contribute to an agricultural economy.
Women were able to exploit such disruptions in gender distinction to their advantage as sheer
demand provided an impetus for emphasizing their economic value. Indeed, the division of
labor based upon sex was fairly fluid while the household system necessitated the enlargement
of a woman's contribution beyond the domestic sphere. Given the rural and agricultural nature
of the economy of the Chesapeake, women were not given the opportunity to remain predominantly
in the house. They were also called into the fields. Moving out of a gender-specific
sphere tended to provide more diverse opportunities for power.
Still, it should be understood that the colonies did not provide an Eden of freedom
for women. Indeed, this was hardly the case. Despite the mitigating effects of regional
adaptation, colonial Chesapeake society and customs were still a product of English minds.
As a result, the patriarchy of England was maintained in the colonies where the view,
reinforced by scripture, that women were intrinsically inferior, held sway. After the initial
demographic, social, and economic disruptions of settlement, sex ratios balanced out and life
began to resume something similar to tradition. Colonial and religious institutions, based
upon English models, continued to relegate women to the home, making their status subordinate
to men. Males continued to dominate the private as well as the public sphere. Women had no
access to the political arena nor were they given the opportunity to exercise authority in
matters regarding religion. Female education was woefully inadequate and usually oriented
women towards domesticity and their roles as wives and mothers. In addition, with the
introduction of the staple crop of tobacco, followed by the increased use of slaves in the
1680's, the need for women working in the fields dwindled. Thus, colonial Chesapeake
society represented a dichotomy of opportunity and limitation for women. Those who were
able to take advantage of the former situation and circumvent the latter were those who
exercised the most power in their respective families and communities.
One such woman was Parthenia Morris. By examining her life in the context of Chesapeake
society already discussed, it is possible to trace in the various stages from her youth to
her death the development of feminine power with its fullest expression in widowhood. Such
a development began accordingly with a study of family and role of the daughter.
As previously discussed, only a fraction of the mechanisms of English society were
transferred to the New World. Due to high mortality rates, the lack of women, and
constant migration, it was difficult to establish stable familial and communal ties. By the 1660s and 1670s, nearly forty percent of Maryland's population consisted of middling and small planters as well as tenant farmers. The focus on plantation agriculture and the incidence of continual immigration tended to impede the spread of urbanization. Thus, there were no towns and a majority of settlers lived somewhat isolated lives in the countryside. Neighbors lived a few miles apart from one another. Most dwellings were usually one-story high with rooms that served multiple functions and afforded little privacy. Furniture was fairly spartan and luxuries rare; practicality was the objective.
In such an unstable situation, the community of the surrounding neighborhood served as a foundation for unity, support, and companionship. Individual families were the basic units of society around which larger communities were created. These communities often contained houses within a two-to-five mile geographical range of each other. Members were more often neighbors and friends than kin though settlers increasingly relied on a created web of both formal and informal relationships between them to survive. Settlers forged economic and trade links as well as social ties. They arbitrated disputes, gathered together to worship, acted as witnesses to each other's wills, appraised each other's estates, tended the sick, and lent money and tools to each other. Furthermore, they also intermarried, creating complicated circles of in-laws. Marriages served to "knit families together," embedding them in social networks of friends and neighbors. Moreover, frequent remarriages "served to strengthen ties with the locality and create ever-widening circles of relations in the neighborhood." Thus communities of households reinforced by ties of marriage and mutual aid provided structure, friendship, stability, and a way of life for colonial settlers.
The intricacy of social networks is evident in Parthenia's own family. Parthenia was the daughter of William Ennis, Sr., a prosperous planter who had come to the colonies from England in 1635. She had four brothers, William, Nathaniel, Samuel, and Cornelius; and two sisters, Francis and Percy. The Ennis family moved to Somerset County from Virginia by August of 1674 where William enhanced his reputation by becoming a justice of the peace in 1677. The Ennis family also enhanced its social connections by marrying into several prominent families. Samuel, Cornelius, and Percy all married into the Smith family while Francis married the wealthy Thomas Poynter. The Ennis children also remarried, often among the same families. For example, when Samuel Ennis died, Mary Smith married Thomas Morris. This same Morris was later to become Parthenia Ennis' third husband.
Yet there was more to social networking than marriage ties. Family members often interacted
concerning legal matters and exchanges. For example, John Smock, Parthenia's first husband,
purchased a parcel of land called Cannarnee [sic] in 1679. This land was adjacent to
land owned by Parthenia's father, William Ennis, Sr. A year later, John assigned the land
to Parthenia's brother Nathaniel Ennis. Such interaction indicates that marital ties could
be reinforced by ties of land. Moreover, the geographical proximity of relatives and their
spouses maintained the overall unity of family, both nuclear and extended. Other ties
included acting as legal witnesses, as with the will of Edward Smith, Jr. Married
to Percy Ennis, Edward included his "brother Samuel Innis" who was married to Edward's
sister, Mary, as well as to Nathaniel Ennis, who acted as executor in his will. Furthermore,
in 1694, an indentured was struck between Thomas Morris, Cornelius Ennis, and their wives,
Mary and Elizabeth Smith involving the sale of land that had belonged to Edward Smith,
Sr. Such documents are evidence of interactions that reveal the complexity of the social,
economic, and legal ties connecting colonial Chesapeake families.
In such social networks the role of the daughter was essential for it was through her that
profitable connections could be made. In this regard, marriage was similar to a business
transaction in which long negotiations occurred concerning issues such as dowry. As
head of the household, a father often had the last word considering his daughter's education
and marriage. The two usually went hand-in-hand. Education itself was not very formal. Many young children were simply taught at home. A daughter's education emphasized her future role as a wife and mother. Literacy rates were not very high; it was enough that girls learned to read, or more likely to memorize, various passages from the Bible. Sometimes they were also taught to write. However, a daughter essentially learned practical wifely duties concerning household tasks. The provisions that one North Carolina father made for his daughter's education serve equally well to illustrate the view of fathers in the Chesapeake: "I will that my daughter be taught to write and read and some feminine accomplishments which may render her agreeable; And that she be not kept ignorant as to what appertains to a good house wife in the management of household affairs."
Thus, colonial Maryland daughters remained under their fathers' control until their
marriages when they passed into their husbands' care. That is not to say that daughters were merely seen as commodities conditioned to earn a profit. Indeed, fathers did love their daughters and wanted them to be prosperous and happy in life. For this reason, among others, they included them in their wills. However, a father's will reveals just how circumscribed a daughter could be. Ultimately, a father expected his daughter to marry. With this expectation he rarely saw a need to provide extensively for her in his will for it was up to her husband to take responsibility for her. As a result, daughters were at a disadvantage when compared to their brothers, frequently receiving much less than their male siblings. This was due in part to the tradition of patriarchy. A father continued his legacy through his sons only. Once a daughter married, she lost the ability to carry on the family name. The result was that sons usually received most of the father's land, maintaining it within the family. Daughters usually received personal and household goods, or cash legacies. The little the daughter did receive in her father's will indicated a tacit understanding that she would marry and thus not have any real individual authority. Indeed, sometimes fathers simply gave daughters marriage portions as opposed to any mention in their wills. This further emphasizes the fact that women were not seen as wielders of power in colonial society. Their main focus was to find a husband in whose identity they could vicariously live.
William Ennis, Sr.'s will follows the pattern of most fathers' wills. Dying
around November of 1684, Ennis was a very prosperous man. His inventory cited his worth
at one-hundred twenty-five pounds, twenty-six shillings and six pence, quite a substantial
amount for the times. His goods included leather chairs, pewter, feather beds, a looking
glass, and various amounts of livestock. Judging from the items in the inventory, it would
seem that his house had more than one room, possibly a kitchen and a bedroom in addition
to rooms of more general use. Yet Ennis' most valuable property was his land and livestock
which he bequeathed to his sons. Nathaniel and Cornelius received the six-hundred acres
of land on which Ennis lived including use of the lumber and orchards found thereon.
Furthermore, the brothers received some furniture and kitchen items such as pots, chests,
and Russian leather chairs. Moreover, William Ennis, Sr. willed that his stock of horses,
swine, and sheep be divided among his four sons. Obviously several clauses of the will
were dedicated to the Ennis men.
Yet there were only two clauses bequeathing specific items to his daughters, Percy
and Parthenia. Both received personalty; Parthenia got a feather bed and Percy received
a feather bed, some curtains, a chest, and leather chairs. Although they were entitled
to a division of their siblings' shares if one of them died, there is no mention of either
female receiving property or land. This was probably because both were already married.
This is certainly the case with Parthenia for she is mentioned in the will by her married
name of Smock. Thus, by the time of the writing of William Ennis' will, Parthenia was a
married woman living in her husband's home. William had clearly passed responsibility for
her on to her husband and no longer needed to provide for her.
Marriage was the exalted state for women, a duty for all daughters of Eve. The
title of "good wife," insinuated that a woman was respectable and domestically employed,
indicating that she was a productive citizen in the social order. Indeed, single
women and spinsters were social anomalies. The colonial view of women was expressed
quite succinctly as "all of them are understood either married or to be married...".
Due to the initial scarcity of females, girls married fairly early in their lives,
between the ages of fifteen and nineteen. As wives, they were expected to bear and
raise children, to run the household, and to supplement the family economy by occasionally
working in the fields or tending a garden. Women also did most of the sewing, cooking, cleaning,
and doctoring. It was a strenuous life, fraught with the toils of labor and the dangers of childbirth and illness.
However, colonial society did not have a precise concept of femininity in
terms of strict gender stereotypes. There were no clearly defined ideas of maternal
instinct or female sexual purity. Rather, masculinity and femininity were ill-defined in
early Chesapeake life. Nonetheless, society was hierarchical and the view of females as generally weaker and inferior to males relegated them to a subordinate position in that hierarchy. A wife was modest and supportive of her husband who in turn publicly acknowledged her and their children and provided discipline and supervision of the household.
Legally, marriage signaled the "civil death" of the wife. Colonial Maryland
still adhered to the English common law which propagated the legal theory of unity of
person in man and wife. Marriage was to be a legal partnership, though a very unequal
partnership. Once married, a woman became a femme covert. She was not allowed to create
contracts, to bring suit, to sue, to administer estates, or to execute deeds as an
independent legal entity. Instead, her rights were incorporated into those of her husband. Her husband also gained control over any property she inherited and was able to take possession of any personalty to which she became entitled. However, a wife was protected partially by law. Her husband was not allowed to sell property that she had inherited unless she gave her consent. This consent was ascertained as free and willing through a private interrogation of the wife. Furthermore, if a husband and wife jointly appeared on a deed for land, neither could alienate the property without the consent of the other. Thus the law, while treating a wife as a veritable legal nonentity, did afford her some small protection and influence.
Parthenia married three times in her life. Her first husband was John Smock.
Smock had started his life in the Chesapeake as an indentured servant to Charles Ratcliff
in Accomack County, Virginia. Throughout the 1670s and 1680s, he obtained several
hundred acres of land and became a constable for Boquetenorten Hundred. Holding
the position of constable was a mark of high status, demonstrating that Smock was a prominent
figure in his community. His marriage into the Ennis family confirmed his reputation.
Yet Smock was dead by 1693 and Parthenia married a second time to Henry Read. Henry
left very few records during his marriage to Parthenia although the two did have a
child, William Read, in 1695. When Henry died by 1704, Parthenia married for
the third and last time. Her husband was Thomas Morris. Morris had been previously
married to Mary, the widow of Parthenia's brother, Samuel Ennis. Evidently, when
Mary died, Morris married Parthenia. Thomas was always referred to as a planter in
colonial records, indicating his respectability. However, he was also occasionally
referred to as a surgeon or doctor in land patents. Thus, he had some rudimentary
knowledge of medicine, although the extent of his expertise is unknown. When Morris died
in 1714, Parthenia did not remarry.
It is interesting to note that the records indicate a great deal of social
interaction and networking among Parthenia's family and husbands. In a petition to
the courts in 1683, the following names all appear: William Ennis, Sr., Nathaniel Ennis,
John Smock, and Thomas Poynter. Thomas Morris and John Smock both signed a petition
requesting aid against property damaged by Indians. Furthermore, in 1690, Thomas
Morris and John Smock were named as administrators and appraisers of Samuel Ennis
while later that year in October, Morris took William Ennis, Jr. to court for
commandeering and abusing one of his horses. The case ultimately did not hold
up in court. Such records are very significant because they indicate the complexity of
interaction among members of society. All of the men mentioned were somehow related
by blood or marriage. Since there were no towns and communities were small and widely
dispersed, people knew each other very well and worked together frequently. Thus
it is safe to conclude that not only did Parthenia know each of her husbands before
they ever married, her husbands knew each other as well.
Parthenia's role as a wife did not singularly diverge from the norm in the colonial
Chesapeake. Although her husbands appeared in court several times concerning debts,
land exchanges, and petitions, she is rarely, if ever, mentioned. Indeed,
the only time she appears is in three land deeds, one with her husband, John Smock,
and two with her husband, Thomas Morris. Such evidence seems to corroborate the theory that colonial wives had little power and influence, particularly outside the private sphere.
The power of her husbands was a different matter, as their inventories illustrate.
Parthenia made fairly prosperous matches. While not as wealthy as her father, Parthenia's
husbands were firmly in the middle classes of society. Judging from the large amount of
livestock such as horses, cows, and sheep, as well as the large amount of agricultural
equipment recorded in his inventory, John Smock was probably a wealthy planter. He
certainly had enough money to support a family and two servants. The items in his inventory
indicate a house that probably had extra rooms, including a bedroom and kitchen. There was
also probably a barn or stable for farm equipment and animals. Henry Read's inventory
suggests he was not a planter. He did not own nearly as much livestock as Smock and the
only equipment he seems to have had was for maintaining a garden, such as various hoes.
However, he did have an interesting array of clothes, from a wig to breeches, hats and
gloves. Perhaps Read was a gentleman merchant. Thomas Morris had even less livestock than
Smock and Read and less elaborate clothing. As was indicated earlier, Morris may have
been some type of doctor. Perhaps he earned money by tending the members of his community. Yet since he was also referred to as a planter, he probably supported his household mainly through agriculture.
Parthenia did not really rise or descend in social status once she married. John Smock's inventory cited his worth at twenty-seven pounds, two shillings, and eleven pence while Henry Read was worth approximately forty pounds and Thomas Morris' inventory indicated his worth at fifty pounds, fifteen shillings, and eight pence. If one takes into consideration a certain amount of inflation over the years, the men seem to have been fairly equal in wealth. Yet their wealth was not as important as the manner in which they distributed it in their wills. Indeed, Parthenia's husbands provided her with more freedom by their deaths than they ever did with their lives.
Since mortality rates were fairly high in colonial Maryland along the Chesapeake,
marriages were short and remarriages common. On average, marriages endured only seven
years. This led to rather small families of only two-to-three children. Moreover,
wives were twice as likely to survive their husbands as the other way around. The
result was that women remarried quite frequently, usually within a few weeks or
months of their late husband's passing. Indeed, it was not uncommon to have as
many as three-to-five different spouses during one's lifetime.
Being a widow gave colonial women a surprising opportunity for power and influence.
A femme sole once again, a widow was neither under the power of her father or
her husband. She could again create contracts and deeds, file suit, and administer estates.
Since most children in colonial families were still minors when their fathers died, wives
were usually recognized as the new household heads. As such, they were granted
tremendous power through their husbands' wills. As a widow, a woman had more economic,
legal and social responsibilities than many wives. She was given full custody and control
over her children, reflecting her husband's high regard for her competence and capability.
She was also entrusted with the responsibility of acting as the executrix of her deceased
husband's will. This meant she had the legal and economic authority to pay off her husband's
debts, to carry out personal requests, and to dispense legacies. Such responsibility translated
into a substantial amount of power.
Widows also had power over property. By law, widows in colonial Maryland received
one third of the realty and one third of the personalty of their husbands' estates as
dower. They also sometimes received personal goods such as furniture or livestock.
The rest of the estate was to be divided among the children of the deceased. The intention of the will was to empower the widow so that she could support her family and ensure the transference of the father's legacy to his heirs. As scholar James Horn explains, "widows were the crucial link in the transmission of property from one generation to another and played a vital role in safeguarding the children's estate after the husband's death."
More importantly for women, however, was the fact that for the first time in their
lives they had power over landed property. Fathers controlled their daughters'
inheritance which then passed straight into their husbands' hands. As a widow, a
woman was neither a minor nor a wife and could thus fully exercise her right as femme
sole over property. As writer J.C. Spruill observes, "a large majority of colonial
women probably never knew what it was to have actual control over property at any time
except possibly during a few months of widowhood." Still, such power could be
circumscribed. During the 1690s, England began limiting dower to only personalty.
However, in the Chesapeake, both Virginia and Maryland resisted such change, with Maryland
as late as the 1750s.
Yet colonial Maryland husbands could use other methods to limit their widows' powers.
One method was the use of "for widowhood" and "minority only" clauses. "For widowhood"
clauses meant that any personalty or realty bequeathed to the widow beyond her dower
could revert to her deceased husband's other heirs once she remarried. "Minority only"
clauses gave the widow authority as long as her children were still under age.
Essentially this meant that widows had to act before they remarried if they wanted to
influence the transference of property. This was usually achieved by a deed of gift.
A deed of gift was a share of the deceased husband's estate deeded to his children by
his widow before she remarried. The widow did this in an attempt to protect the
inheritance of her children from previous marriages. The fact that widows were given
this opportunity and wholeheartedly took advantage of it speaks volumes about feminine
authority in society. The power it entailed, essentially the ability to circumvent the
male-dominated system of land exchange, was not available to daughters or wives, only to widows.
Despite some limitations, colonial Maryland offered a unique opportunity for feminine power. As scholar Marylynn Salmon notes, "women in Maryland retained absolute control over a certain portion of the personal wealth of their families," giving them significant power. Moreover, widows received more than their requisite dower in nearly three-quarters of Chesapeake wills. Usually extra provisions gave widows life estates in property or the home plantation. This was done most likely so that widows could raise their children and then pass the property onto them, though it also indicates a great amount of trust on the part of the deceased husbands, for surely they must have expected
that their wives would remarry, placing their lands into the hands of the next husbands.
Parthenia certainly took full advantage of the widow's power in the Chesapeake.
Married three times, she was also widowed three times. Parthenia was the executrix of all
three of her husbands' wills and the administratrix of their accounts and inventories.
It was their wills, however, which left her the most substantial amount of authority. John
Smock's will, probated March of 1692-3, left Parthenia two-hundred acres of land
purchased from an Edward Green and two-hundred more acres called Turner's Hall on St.
Martin's River. Parthenia and John had three children, Henry, Elizabeth, and Mary.
Since the will did not indicate that Parthenia was to have custody of them, it can be
assumed that they were already of age. In Henry Read's will, however, Parthenia, the
sole legatee, was named the guardian of their son, William Read, who was only about ten
years old. Thus, Read's will supports the theory that colonial Maryland husbands gave their wives a large degree of control over their children.
More interesting perhaps is the fact that Parthenia was the administratrix of the
inventory of a man who was not her husband. In July of 1706, she oversaw the administration
of the inventory of Patrick Reed. Since she was named to such a position, she clearly
must have been a close relative; Reed was possibly her brother-in-law or stepson. It is also clear that there must have been few surviving relatives besides Parthenia to handle the situation. Regardless, her role concerning Patrick Reed's inventory indicates the degree to which women had to take responsibility and resolve the issues that surrounded them, thus leading to wielding of their authority.
Perhaps Parthenia's greatest power came through her relationship with her third husband,
Thomas Morris. Before she married him, Parthenia prudently wrote a deed of gift for her
children by John Smock and Henry Read. She bequeathed her goods, chattels, and movables
to her two sons, Henry Smock and William Read. William also received the two-hundred acres
known as Turner's Hall which Parthenia had received from John Smock. To Henry, she bequeathed
the plantation that she was living on which had been John Smock's as well. To her daughter, Elizabeth Smock, Parthenia bequeathed a feather bed. Thus through this deed of gift, Parthenia assured that her children would get their inheritance regardless of her marriage to Thomas Morris. Indeed, the deed shows a great deal of intelligence and foresight on Parthenia's part as well as a lot of power. It is interesting to note that she had enough control over the land bequeathed to her by Smock that she could deed it to her son by Henry Read.
In Morris' will, he divided his property into thirds, one of which was to
be Parthenia's personalty. Parthenia also received the house in which she lived in with Morris.
The rest was divided among his five children, most of whom were from his previous marriage.
Morris also left two tracts of land known as Hoggs Norton and Bawmarriss [sic] to John
Burbage provided that he pay Morris' debt to John Hampton of twelve-thousand pounds of
tobacco. If Burbage failed in his obligation, Morris stipulated that Parthenia had the
right to confiscate the land and sell it to pay the debt. This was quite an impressive
delegation of economic and legal power for a colonial woman. Parthenia wielded that power
well. She appeared in court twice as a defendant in 1714 to settle her deceased husband's
debts with John Cavenough and John Henry. As a femme sole she could legally appear
in court but her responsibility and were still quite substantial. More importantly, Parthenia was only able to wield such power as a widow.
Parthenia Morris died in 1721, probably in her fifties. Her will stipulated,
among other things, that her son, William Read, was to have the land of Turner's Hall
while her daughter Parthenia, by Thomas Morris, received the residue of her mother's estate.
Parthenia also mentioned four granddaughters, including Mary Ratcliff, Parthenia Keenat,
Sarah Smock, and Elinor Reed, who were to receive their grandmother's estate if her daughter
Parthenia did not survive. Her inventory totaled thirty-one pounds, five shillings, and ten
pence. Thus she avoided the abject poverty that affected some widows. Among her last
possessions were three feather beds, furniture, a bedstead, a frame, some trunks, and some
chests. She also had two spinning wheels as well as some books and various knick knacks.
Clearly, Parthenia knew how to sew. More importantly in terms of power, she knew how to read.
This was more than some women ever achieved. Moreover, she could write, as was evidenced
by the fact that she signed her full name on documents rather than using a mark. Thus,
Parthenia used her obvious education to take advantage of the opportunities colonial society
Yet her inventory seems to contain mostly personal items. She did not own a great
assortment of cooking utensils or furniture that would have indicated a household of
several members. Perhaps she lived alone. It is curious that her inventory states "no
near relations or creditors are appearing." It would seem that Parthenia died without
family. This is simply not true as her will indicates. Moreover, the same inventory
that claimed there were no relatives was signed by two of Parthenia's own children,
Elizabeth and Henry. Perhaps the statement was a tin discrepancy. Regardless, it does
not alter the impressive character of Parthenia. The fact that she possibly lived alone
and was still able to support herself without her family's aid is a remarkable achievement.
Though considering her history it is certainly not surprising.
Thus, colonial society in the Maryland Chesapeake was neither a grim patriarch
nor a golden age for women. Rather it was a combination of limitation and opportunity.
Daughters and wives passed the majority of their lives under the control of another
person, usually their fathers or husbands. The only condition in which a woman could
escape the constraints of masculine domination was widowhood. In the Chesapeake, widows
had more rights to the estates of their deceased husbands than in most other colonies.
This afforded them the unique ability to influence the twin hallmarks of patriarchy:
property and authority. For the briefest of moments women had access to true power.
Parthenia Morris was living proof that such power when wielded appropriately could produce
impressive results. Seen only through the records of her husbands during her marriages,
it was as a widow that Parthenia was able to exercise her own intelligence and ability.
Indeed, it was only as widows that women such as Parthenia were able to step out of
their husbands' shadows and truly illustrate the feats of which they were capable of accomplishing.