Women's Rights Movements Born Amidst The American Revolution
With the coming of the Revolutionary Era, the ideas of liberty pervaded throughout America, and although claiming to be founded on these ideas, early America did not grant women the same freedoms as properties, white men. Driven by the ideas born in the Revolution, many women, including Abigail Adams and Judith Murray, fought in an uphill battle to remove barriers placed by traditional gender roles and achieve equality among men and women. From the colonial era to the establishment of the United States, women gradually gained rights, although there were still advances to be made.
Colonial America was faced with troubles early on because of low birth rates and life expectancy. Men severely outnumbered women in colonies such as Virginia, and this resulted in the encouragement of transporting “tobacco brides” to the Americas for arranged marriages. (Voices of Freedom, 27). Those who did not come as “tobacco brides,” came as indentured servants where they experienced harsh laborious conditions and often premature death. Due to the lack of stable family environments in the Americas, if they survived their labor terms, single women possessed many rights, including property rights. Furthermore, the Puritan religion, which flourished in New England, gave women some equality in the religion, allowing women to become full members of the church.
Although women had rights, the Puritan religion supported the patriarchal family view, often limiting women’s role to the household. Women, such as Anne Hutchinson, were criticized for their involvement in religious practice. In the trial against Anne Hutchinson, John Winthrop, states, “you have maintained a meeting and an assembly in your house that hath been condemned by the general assembly as a thing not tolerable nor comely in the sight of God nor fitting for your sex” (Voices of Freedom, 34). As a woman, Anne Hutchinson threatened to tear down the concept of male domination in the Puritan religion. Women in the colonial era experienced more rights than those in England, although not as many rights as those in the Americas after the Revolutionary War.
Despite America’s fight for more liberties during the American Revolution, women were still faced with the challenge of removing traditional gender roles, although there were many breakthroughs. Among these gender roles includes the European idea of coverture or a woman’s subordination to her husband’s authority. Married women were to forfeit certain rights based on this doctrine. For example, under ‘coverture,’ the husband ‘had the exclusive right to his wife’s ‘company,’ including domestic labor and sexual relations’ (Give Me Liberty, 17).
As a result, women’s lives were restricted to the household with minimal government participation, similar to colonial America. After the Revolution, new interpretations of the meaning of liberty pervaded throughout the states, often challenging traditional views. Abigail Adams, for example, expressed opinions to her husband, John Adams, opposing male dominance over the family. In a letter to her husband in 1776, Abigail Adams states, “do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the husbands.
Remember all men would be tyrants if they could” (Voices of Freedom 108). Abigail fears that by giving husbands all the power in the family, they will abuse their power (similar to how England treated the Americas). Moreover, Republican Motherhood, the idea that the mother is inherently responsible for their son’s training and introduction in politics, opened doors to education closed before the American Revolution (Give Me Liberty, 233). These freedoms ultimately heightened a woman’s status in the household, as she was primarily responsible for teaching the future posterity of the country.
Although women gained some educational opportunities from this, they still were unable to attend college. Judith Murray, who fought for education rights for women, was denied college access because of her sex. Without proper education, women were deemed incompetent in political discussions and denied direct representation in government. Judith Murray states, ‘we can only reason from what we know, and if an opportunity of acquiring knowledge hath been denied us, the inferiority of our sex cannot fairly be deduced’ (Voices of Freedom 148). Murray points out that male “superiority” stems from a lack of education for women in America.
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