The Library of Virginia >> Exhibitions >> Working Out Her Destiny
  Working Out Her Destiny


Shaping Public Opinion

Women's Organizations



Service to Country

Votes for Women


Where are the Women:
Examples from the LVA Collections



Related Resources

Although some English women traveled to Virginia during the decade after 1607, the colony remained largely a male outpost. Many of the colonists, in the words of the Virginia Company's records, were "enflamed wth a desire to returne for England only through the wants of the Comforts of Marriage without wch God saw that Man could not live contentedlie noe not in Paradize." The Company's officers attributed some of the colony's difficulties to the absence of women: "Hence have sprunge the greatest hinderances of this Noble worke." The men "uppon esteeminge Virginia, not as a place of habitation butt only of a short sojourninge: have applied themselves and their labours wholly to the raysinge of present profitt, and utterly neglected not onlie the Staple Commodities, but even the verie necessities of Mans liffe."

Between 1619 and 1621 the Virginia Company sent about 250 young English women to Virginia, explaining, “Wee therfore judginge itt a Christian charitie to releive the disconsolate mindes of our people ther, and a spetiall advancemt to the plantation, to tye and roote the planters myndes to Virginia by the bonds of wives and children.” [Virginia Company Records, 16 July 1621, Ferrar Papers, Magdalene College, Cambridge University]

They hoped to convert the colony into a functioning civil society. The presence of women would change everything.

The first books and articles on the history of Virginia's women focused on elite white women in the home, as wives and mothers, educators of children, and supervisors of households. Newer scholarship, beginning with Anne Firor Scott's significant work The Southern Lady: From Pedestal to Politics, 1830–1930 (1970), investigates the intersections between women's personal, professional, and public lives. The new scholarship also treats African Americans and white women from lower classes, identifying many ways in which women transcended stereotypes. The recent works exhibit the wide variety of experiences of Virginia's women and how they changed over time.

Virginia women were involved in many aspects of public life long before gaining the right to vote in 1920. Women were influential leaders and diplomats in the Powhatan chiefdom. Their voices were heard even without the franchise—in the seventeenth century, Lady Frances Berkeley made Green Spring the headquarters for burgesses and councillors who opposed the Crown’s policies, and in the eighteenth Hannah Lee Corbin boldly proposed that women who paid taxes be allowed to vote.

Women were energetic volunteers and able fundraisers, sewing clothes for the needy, raising money for orphanages, and supporting female missionaries. They petitioned the General Assembly seeking legislative action, financial aid, and divorce. As early as the 1840 presidential election, they were active in political campaigns and participated in debates on the most important issues of the day—among them slavery, the public debt, and education. They penned letters to the governor requesting pardons, appointments to office, and assistance.

It is no coincidence that after women won the vote in 1920, city, county, and state governments in Virginia created or expanded social service agencies, developed public health departments, enlarged educational opportunities, and began to break down the class and racial lines that had divided Virginians.

Image of Book cover: We Mean to Be Counted

We Mean to Be Counted
(Elizabeth Varon)