Women: Overview

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Women: Overview

In the period from 1754 to 1829, virtually every facet of women's lives—from politics to the economy to their own sexuality—underwent dramatic change. Although women's historians have long debated whether these changes benefited women, the developments were complex and ambiguous, and

they affected different women in different ways, especially when one takes into consideration class, race, and region.

education and intellect

Nowhere was the change for women more dramatic than in the realm of education. Enlightenment thinkers asserted that man was a creature of reason, and although they often meant males rather than humankind more generally, there was enough ambiguity in their discussions to allow others to assert, more explicitly, that women had the same intellectual capacity as men. "Will it be said that the judgment of a male of two years old, is more sage than that of a female's of the same age?" the Massachusetts author Judith Sargent Murray (1751–1820) asked rhetorically. If women appeared less learned than men, advocates of women's education argued, it was only for the lack of opportunity, not innate ability. In order to remedy this deficiency, almost four hundred female academies were established between 1790 and 1830, in the North and South both. Indeed, a higher percentage of women were enrolled in female academies than men in academies and colleges both. Among the most important of these institutions were the Young Ladies' Academy of Philadelphia, chartered in 1792 but training women for perhaps a decade before that, and Sarah Pierce's Litchfield Female Academy, begun the same year.

The advances in women's education were stunning. By 1850, the literacy gap between white men and women was closed in New England and narrowed in the South, and at the female academies, women received advanced training as well. Yet if the academies trained a generation of women and made many of them, as Mary Kelley has argued, not only active readers, but truly learned, they also illustrate the limitations of Enlightenment notions of female

equality. Enlightenment optimism was undercut by a pervasive fear that too much education would make women "pedants," unfit them for their domestic duties, and make them unattractive to men.


Like men, women were drawn into the political conflict that led to the American Revolution (1775–1783). Women actively participated in the boycott of tea and other goods taxed by the Townshend Act of 1767. Indeed, because women were avid consumers of just the sorts of luxury goods that were the focus of this and subsequent colonial boycotts, the boycotts could not have succeeded without women's involvement. Moreover, such boycotts were part of the process of political mobilization that helped colonists see themselves as Patriots and devote themselves to the Revolutionary cause. Women, such as the fifty-one women in Edenton, North Carolina, who in 1774 pledged to do "everything as far as lies in our power" to support the "publick good," played an important part in this effort, as did the many women who, during the Revolution, raised funds to support the effort and rioted to protest what they considered unpatriotic price gouging.

Republican thought, one of the sources of Revolutionary ideology, placed a premium upon self-sacrifice for the common good and imagined the paradigmatic citizen as male. In the Revolutionary maelstrom, however, republicanism lost some of its historically misogynist elements. Both women and men committed themselves to the patriotic cause, and Revolutionary thinkers began to carve out a gendered role for female Patriots. Benjamin Rush, the Philadelphia physician and Revolutionary, suggested that mothers could instruct their children in "the great subjects of liberty and government." He also noted that "the opinions and conduct of men are often regulated by the women," and that "the principal reward" for male acts of valor was female "approbation." Magazines and novels encouraged young women and men to marry only those who were the living embodiments of republican virtue. It is not clear that such injunctions actually shaped behavior: curricula at the female academies placed more emphasis on Enlightenment principles and sensibility than republican concepts of domesticity, for example, and there is little evidence that suitors sought out Patriots for their mates. Nonetheless, such discussions drew women into Revolutionary discourse as both participants and subjects, and there is abundant evidence—from their attendance at political events, their support of nascent political parties, and their letters and journals—that many women were deeply interested in the Revolution and the political affairs of the new nation.

Revolutionary ideology drew from liberal notions of equality, and they, too, would affect thinking about women. So pervasive was the doctrine of equality that most Revolutionaries seemed to take it for granted that women were in some measure equal, but just what that would mean in practice was problematic. Revolutions by their very nature raise questions about established patterns of authority. We can see this process at work when Hannah Lee Corbin asked her brother, the Virginia Revolutionary Richard Henry Lee, why single, propertied women (who were not encompassed by the principle of coverture, which placed daughters and wives under the rule of the male head of household) could not vote, and he could not make an effective answer. Abigail Adams famously instructed her husband John, then attending the Continental Congress, to "Remember the Ladies" in "the new code of Laws which I suppose it will be necessary for you to make… . Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the Husbands. Remember all Men would be tyrants if they could." Abigail Adams gave the republican commonplace about the corrupting tendencies of power a gendered gloss. Just as famously, John Adams made light of his wife's concerns. "I cannot but laugh," he told her. "We have been told that our Struggle has loosened the bands of Government every where," provoking uprisings among children, apprentices, slaves, and Indians, "but your letter was the first Intimation that another Tribe more numerous and powerfull than all the rest were grown discontented." John Adams treated the issue more seriously, however, in an exchange with his fellow Massachusetts Revolutionary James Sullivan. Sullivan wanted to know how Lockean theory, which held that people can only be bound to laws to which they have consented, could be squared with the customary exclusion of women and other groups from the franchise. John Adams accepted the principle of consent "in Theory," but worried about it in practice. "It is dangerous to open So fruitfull a Source of Controversy and Altercation… . There will be no End of it."

Yet without either a genuine feminist movement or a fully articulated doctrine of female political inequality, both ideas and practices were in flux. In the furthest reach of Revolutionary egalitarianism, New Jersey, as if in answer to Hannah Lee Corbin's query, permitted unmarried, propertied women to vote from 1776 to 1807, when, in a narrowing of the Revolution's democratic possibilities, the franchise was withdrawn from free blacks, aliens, and untaxed men, as well as women.

Although the Constitution nowhere mentions women explicitly, records of the debates in the Constitutional Convention make it clear that women were to be included when congressional representatives were apportioned and hence that women, even though they could not vote or hold office, were to be represented by the new government. Likewise Bill of Rights guarantees such as freedom of religion, assembly, speech, and trial by jury all applied to (free) women. At the same time, as Linda K. Kerber has shown, women were not allowed to perform the duties of citizenship, not only (with the exception of New Jersey) voting and holding office, but also serving in the militia or on juries. Women's relationship to the new government was, hence, ambiguous. In one sense, they were the paradigmatic citizens, construed, like children, as weak members of society, in

need of government's protection. At the same time, although they could lobby and petition government—which they certainly did—they were precluded from representing themselves. Indeed, this exclusion from formal participation only made them more worthy, or so it appeared. The presence of women at political ceremonies, in the halls of Congress, or even in the U.S. Supreme Court seemed to assure that whatever took place there was done for the benefit of society more generally, and not just for the presumably self-interested men who exercised power in their name.


The years after the Revolution witnessed several small improvements in women's legal status. For the most part, however, the legal reforms of the post-Revolutionary era were not designed for women's relief, even if that was sometimes their effect. For example, the elimination of primogeniture worked to the advantage of younger brothers as well as women. Consider also the case of divorce, which both Thomas Paine and Thomas Jefferson justified in liberal terms of consent and contract. "No partnership can oblige continuance in contradiction to its end and design," Jefferson wrote, and the principle applied both to governments and marriages. By 1800 divorce, which before the Revolution had been rare except in the Puritan colonies of Massachusetts and Connecticut, was legal in twelve states and the Northwest Territory. Yet as Norma Basch has shown, liberalized divorce laws benefited primarily those women whose husbands had already abandoned them; now they were afforded some legal protection. Divorce, however, remained rare, and if it provided relief for the occasional wife with an adulterous or abusive husband, it did almost nothing to redress the imbalance of economic and legal power under which many more women suffered.

There were other small improvements in women's legal status. For example, in some states, married women gained expanded rights to enter into business, and in 1808, married women in Connecticut secured the right to bequeath real estate. Significant change for women would not come, however, until the middle of the nineteenth century.


The economy in this period was shaped by several significant trends. The "consumer revolution" of the eighteenth century put an array of consumer goods, ranging from tea and teapots to mirrors, linens, and chests of drawers, into the hands and homes of perhaps half the colonial population. Women were avid consumers of such items. At the same time, there were significant gains in productivity over the course of the century in advance of the technological innovations that accompanied the industrial revolution. Although economic historians are not yet certain how these gains were made, they believe the advances were the result of an "industrious revolution" in which people worked longer and harder. In an economy still based upon the family, significant gains in productivity could come only from the work of women and children (and of slaves of both sexes).

Overcrowding, particularly in New England, and a series of imperial wars dislocated numbers of young people of both sexes and made widows out of young wives. The Revolution only exacerbated this trend as countless young people flocked to the cities, where they hoped to make a living. There they were joined by emancipated slaves, who created the first urban, free black communities. These new urbanites, many of whom, of course, were women, constituted the United States' first working class. The women found employment in a variety of manufacturing and service occupations, ranging from domestics in wealthier women's homes to prostitution.

The heightened pace of economic change after the Revolution affected other segments of the female population in different ways. As paid work increasingly moved out of the home, the labor of middle-class white women was obscured. To be middle class meant not to work for pay, and hence domestic labor, from caring for children and making clothing to taking in boarders, was—in Jeanne Boydston's term—"pastoralized," or redefined as love rather than work.

During the same period, slavery was eliminated, sometimes immediately and sometimes gradually, in every state north of Maryland. And even in those states where slavery remained legal, thousands of slaves, some the mistresses or daughters of their owners, were freed by their owners, especially in the Chesapeake region. The result was a new class of free blacks, which was disproportionately female. Most of the women among them faced a life of hard work as domestics, cooks, seamstresses, and laundresses, but freedom enabled them to associate with whom they wanted, to move more or less freely through the North, to marry and maintain families, and to join churches and voluntary associations, all of which would have been difficult if not impossible under slavery. At the same time, as slavery became more entrenched in the South, conditions for slave women generally worsened. New, skilled positions generally went to men, leaving slave women with the drudge work. The spread of slavery, however, and the development of larger plantations generally made family life more secure for women, although the separation of families by sale and forced removal was so common that a term such as "secure" has only relative meaning.

The condition of Indian women in this period deteriorated. All Indians were losers in the Revolution, and many found their lands seized and their homes destroyed. Others would face defeat by the American army and eviction from their lands in the decades to come. The wars left countless Indian women widows. Also, increasing dependency on the market altered gender relations in Indian country. Men traded undressed skins and pelts to whites and too often spent the proceeds on liquor. Women's work was no longer vital to their communities.


By the middle of the eighteenth century, the power of fathers was in decline as a rapidly changing economy and new doctrines of equality limited their control over their children. This change should have been more beneficial to women than it was. Although the ideal of companionate marriage suggested that marriage should be a union of equals, and while increasing numbers of young people hoped to find a soul mate, young women had very little power and even less protection should they succumb to the entreaties of a faithless suitor or marry unwisely. Once again the promise of the Revolution remained unfulfilled. Women, particularly those of the middle class and the elite, benefited from ideals of equality and even increased freedom. But without the power to protect themselves or to secure their own livelihoods, such gains were only partial.

See alsoDivorce and Desertion; Domestic Life; Education: Education of Girls and Women; Law: Women and the Law; Marriage; Revolution: Women's Participation in the Revolution; Sexual Morality; Sexuality; Work: Women's Work .


Basch, Norma. Framing American Divorce: From the Revolutionary Generation to the Victorians. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999.

Boydston, Jeanne. Home and Work: Housework, Wages, and the Ideology of Labor in the Early Republic. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990.

Kelley, Mary. "Reading Women/Women Reading: The Making of Learned Women in Antebellum America." Journal of American History 83 (1996): 401–424.

Kerber, Linda K. Women of the Republic: Intellect and Ideology in Revolutionary America. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1980.

——. No Constitutional Right to Be Ladies: Women and the Obligations of Citizenship. New York: Hill and Wang, 1998.

Lewis, Jan. "The Republican Wife: Virtue and Seduction in the Early Republic." William and Mary Quarterly 3rd series, 44 (1987): 689–721.

——. "'Of Every Age, Sex, and Condition:' The Representation of Women in the Constitution." Journal of the Early Republic 15 (1995): 359–387.

Nash, Margaret A. "Rethinking Republican Motherhood: Benjamin Rush and the Young Ladies' Academy of Philadelphia." Journal of the Early Republic 17 (1997): 171–191.

Norton, Mary Beth. Liberty's Daughters: The Revolutionary Experience of American Women. Boston: Little Brown, 1980.

Salmon, Marylynn. "Republican Sentiment, Economic Change, and the Property Rights of Women in American Law." In Women in the Age of the American Revolution. Edited by Ronald Hoffman and Peter J. Albert. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1989.

Jan Ellen Lewis

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Women: Overview

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