Natural rights were a topic much discussed in the early years of the Republic. Modern scholars studying these debates have sought to identify early advocates for women's rights, determine the extent to which they judged men's and women's rights to be different, and assess women's place in early American republicanism.
the idea of natural rights
For most of the eighteenth century, the rights usually invoked in popular discourse were constitutional rights, those having to do with law and procedure. The British colonists were aware of John Locke's writings on natural rights, but the idea did not take on political valence until the 1760s, and then mostly among the leaders of the Revolution, such as James Otis. The phrase "rights of man" and "women's rights" were not in widespread use until the 1790s, following the publication of Thomas Paine's treatise on the French Revolution, The Rights of Man (1791, 1792) and Mary Wollstonecraft's A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792).
The idea that all human beings possess equal rights to autonomy, property, and happiness, advanced by Locke and others, was as potentially revolutionary for the new Republic as the theory of "consent of the governed" had been when the colonies were under British colonial rule. The issue now became just how far rights advocates could push the argument. By 1829 white, unpropertied, and untaxed men were well on their way to achieving full political rights in all the states. For women, however, voting rights were barely under debate. (Only New Jersey had seriously considered the issue, having granted and then rescinded the vote to landowning single women between 1776 and 1807.) The first question was whether they possessed natural rights at all. Judged to be men's inferior, particularly in matters of intellect and civic virtue, women were expected to embrace dependence on, and obedience to, men as the proper arrangement.
In the midst of the Revolutionary War, a twenty-eight-year-old woman, Judith Sargent Stevens (later Murray), began work on a manuscript, "The Sexes," in which she argued for the natural equality of women's minds and for providing mentally challenging education to all girls. The first portion of this manuscript, on which she continued to work throughout the 1780s, was published anonymously in 1790 in a prominent literary magazine with the title, "On the Equality of the Sexes." Frustrated by society's neglect of women's intellects, Murray set out several arguments in favor of educating girls. Some arguments, most of which were in general circulation by the 1780s, were purely practical—that women would be less coquettish, vain, and frivolous, better companions to their husbands, better mothers to their children, happier, and be brought closer to God, if their minds were trained. But Murray, while avoiding the word "rights" and generally favoring women's traditional role as obedient helpmeet, argued that women's minds were naturally equal, that they possessed immortal souls and that they ought to be able to realize their full potential—all ideas advanced by natural rights theory. Whether Murray was America's first advocate for women's rights is still in dispute.
Two years after Murray's essay was published, the phrase "women's rights" was boldly laid on the table by the British philosopher and essayist, Mary Wollstonecraft. Her book, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), shocked and excited readers on both sides of the Atlantic. Three American editions of this first major work of feminist political theory were immediately in print, and the book was excerpted in several literary journals, including the one that had published Murray's essay. Wollstonecraft used natural rights arguments to conclude that women belonged in the republican vision of citizenship. The rights of humanity also belonged to the female side of the population, she wrote; women, too, should enjoy independence, cultivate their virtue through the exercise of their reason, and realize their "full potential." Like Murray, her primary focus was on why women's minds should be educated; unlike Murray, she extended the implications of the rights argument into other areas. Talented women, she argued, should be able to take up the professions, such as medicine, or to practice business, or even to be elected to represent other women in legislatures. Although Wollstonecraft affirmed that women's duties were different from men's and that they included managing her family, educating her children, and helping her neighbors, she continually repeated the point that these duties flowed from women's natural rights. If a woman's rights were not honored, then her duties were cancelled.
women's rights redefined
The early years of the nineteenth century were years of consolidation and retrenchment for issues related to women's rights. As the century turned, the traditional gender hierarchy—of women dependent on men and under their authority—reasserted its influence through the ideal of the republican mother and through the distinction drawn between public and private spheres and the theory that men's place was in public and women's place at home. But rights had entered the national vocabulary. Hannah Mather Crocker in her Observations on the Real Rights of Women (1818) voiced the new assumption that women were equal and that women and men had different rights, with women's centering on their domestic duties.
Still, the argument for educating girls made some progress. A few academies for young ladies sprang up in the 1780s, and their numbers increased in the 1790s. By the second decade of the nineteenth century, such schools were entirely noncontroversial. Many taught dancing, French, and good manners, and a little mathematics; the best ones, however, taught rhetoric, philosophy, and history. The natural rights argument that had helped produce this educational revolution was hidden from sight but not forgotten. A second generation of Wollstonecraft's readers, those equipped with a better education, would expand the arguments for women's rights in the near future.
See alsoCitizenship; Domestic Life; Education: Education of Girls and Women; European Influences: Enlightenment Thought; European Influences: Mary Wollstonecraft; Gender: Ideas of Womanhood; Home; Natural Rights; Parenthood .
Boydston, Jeanne. "Making Gender in the Early Republic: Judith Sargent Murray and the Revolution of 1800." In The Revolution of 1800: Democracy, Race, and the New Republic. Edited by James Horn, Jan Ellen Lewis, and Peter S. Onuf. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2002.
Brown, Chandos Michael. "Mary Wollstonecraft, or, the Female Illuminati: The Campaign against Women and 'Modern Philosophy' in the Early Republic." Journal of the Early Republic 15, no. 3 (autumn 1995): 389–424.
Sapiro, Virginia. A Vindication of Political Virtue: The Political Theory of Mary Wollstonecraft. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992.
Zagarri, Rosemarie. "The Rights of Man and Woman in Post-Revolutionary America." The William and Mary Quarterly, 3rd ser., 55, no. 2 (April 1998): 203–230.
Louise W. Knight