Yes, gentle reader, if an unwed pregnant woman or new mother was reported to the authorities she was in big trouble in early America. We all remember The Scarlet Letter? The Puritans had a letter for every sin in the alphabet. Other colonies treated the matter differently, but punishment was dished out all the same. Remember, before the Revolution, Colonial America wasn't into separation of church and state yet, so it was a moral and a legal offense to give birth out of wedlock. A fine was placed on the woman's head, which if she couldn't pay (and she couldn't) resulted in a public lashing. Most of these unfortunates were servants, possibly indentured, and not wealthy women.

Accounts of such lashings are recorded in the antiquated book entitled The Annals of Augusta County, a neighboring Virginia county to my home in Rockingham. A lashing involved stripping away the woman's clothes so that her back and sometimes her breasts were bare for all to see. Shame as well as pain.

If the father of the child acknowledged his part (most were married so this wasn't kewl) and came forward to pay her fine, she was released with a warning. I read of one noble man coming forth to pay the fine and rescuing a young woman from such a harsh fate. Good for him!

I'm guessing, if at all possible, unwed mothers secreted their pregnancies. Bear in mind that
this punishment was meted out to the less fortunate unprotected women. Isn't that the way? If a young lady had family who took her in and kept her secret or beat up anyone who threatened her, that was another matter. But that sort of family also likely saw to it that she was wed before the pregnancy became obvious. The mistress of a prominent man was not likely to be at risk either. Although many times a mistress had the title Mrs. in front of her name in the event that she needed a husband either absent or present to pin the pregnancy on. And thus it was...

Contributed by Beth Trissel, author of upcoming Wild Rose release Enemy of the King
www.bethtrissel.com
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17 comments

  1. Beth Trissel // May 19, 2008 at 11:48 AM  

    I wouldn't make this stuff up, folks.

  2. C.J. Redwine // May 19, 2008 at 11:56 AM  

    It always saddens me when moral laws are applicable only to the less fortunate.

    It's a fascinating peak into our past. :)

  3. Beth Trissel // May 19, 2008 at 12:02 PM  

    True and thanks, CJ.

  4. Pamela K. Kinney // May 19, 2008 at 12:12 PM  

    Sad, many horrible things happened to unfortunate poorer women. A man could rape the woman anf if she didn't take her life from shame, well, terrible.

  5. rssasrb // May 19, 2008 at 12:15 PM  

    Very interesting and informative Beth. I never knew this.

  6. Beth Trissel // May 19, 2008 at 12:20 PM  

    Life has always been more difficult for unfortunate women than men.

  7. Diana Cosby // May 19, 2008 at 1:56 PM  

    Interesting facts, Beth. Thank you for sharing.

    Diana Cosby
    www.dianacosby.com

  8. Lise // May 19, 2008 at 3:42 PM  

    Very intriguing - albeit sad - information about how women were consistently treated differently by the law and by society. Do you have any information about how the men responsible (should they admit it) were treated? Were they liable or punished? The cynic in me says, probably no.

  9. Beth Trissel // May 19, 2008 at 3:56 PM  

    As far as I know the men were not punished. At least, not from what I read. However, if someone 'told' on a man for searing they could be hauled into court and fined. They would then go and beat the living day light out of the tattle tale which was fine.

  10. Beth Trissel // May 19, 2008 at 3:57 PM  

    Ok, that should have been 'Swearing'

  11. Nightingale // May 19, 2008 at 4:31 PM  

    The poor generally suffer more than the wealthy. This article almost made me weep for the atrocities of the past.

  12. Beth Trissel // May 19, 2008 at 4:55 PM  

    Yes, and yet, there is still much suffering for women in many parts of the world.

  13. Mary Marvella // May 19, 2008 at 5:21 PM  

    That old double standard works more than one way! Men could screw around, women couldn't.

  14. Helen Scott Taylor // May 19, 2008 at 6:19 PM  

    Fascinating Beth, and just typical that men are often the culprits and get away without punishment. The really awful thing about this is that although we're now lucky enough to live in societies that realise this is grossly unfair, there are still many women in this world who suffer this same treatment. I can never understand why on one hand men want to be seen as the strong providers and protectors but on the other hand can be very quick to blame women for their own weaknesses!

  15. Gerri Bowen // May 19, 2008 at 9:14 PM  

    Very interesting post, Beth.

  16. Beth Trissel // May 19, 2008 at 10:56 PM  

    Thanks ladies for your interest. This sort of stuff always fascinates me and then I think of stories I could weave.

  17. Pat McDermott // May 20, 2008 at 11:16 AM  

    Eyeopening post, Beth. Thanks for reminding us it's good that we live now instead of then!