V. Women's Lives in England
As bad as life was in Virginia, opportunities for women in England were worse. Most of Jamestown’s female settlers came from the London area, which was crowded with the poor and offered only a limited range of employment to women. Most jobs open to them were as servants hired by wealthy households. The work was hard, the hours long, the pay low, and sexual abuse was rampant. Being forced into part-time prostitution was not unusual, and many young women were understandably eager to get away.
Emigrants to Jamestown were mostly unmarried and from the lower classes. Some of the women were young widows who, when their husbands died, had no way to support themselves. Most were girls whose impoverished families could not support them. Women who accepted the Virginia Company’s offer usually had no reliable male figure in their lives; as they lacked supportive fathers, brothers, and husbands. With no one to provide for them or to protect them in the dangerous life of London’s slums, they made the voyage to America.
Starting in 1618, the Virginia Company offered headrights to all settlers who could pay for their own voyage. A headright was a tract of land, usually fifty acres, given to anyone over age fifteen – male or female -- who settled in Virginia. This opportunity to own land was a key motivation to impoverished people in England. Headrights for women, however, soon were revoked after the Virginia Company discovered that if a woman held her own land, she was less likely to be willing to marry. Marriage -- and the production of children who would be Virginia citizens from birth – was much more important to investors than the promotion of opportunities for independent women. The women who availed themselves of the headright during its brief existence, however, demonstrated their independence and willingness to pursue options other than the traditional ones that society assigned them.