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Duel in Bois de Boulogne


In the Early American Republic, politicians publicly debated what, if any, the women’s relationship to the state would be, including their rights and civic obligations. Could women be expected to adhere to the new republic’s laws without the privileges that accompany citizenship, like the right to vote, to hold public office, and the right to sit on juries? Most early politicians considered politics as inherently masculine and therefore, women were unfit for politics. John Adams summed up this sentiment best when he said, “The spirit of liberty spread where it was not intended.”[1] Few people expected the avenues of inquiry that the rhetoric of Independence and Natural Rights had opened. In the first four decades of the Republic, the top political leaders weighed in on who would be included or excluded from the national discourse. This debate created a narrow window in which the ideals of the Revolution could have reached its full potential.

This paper will discuss the various ways women took advantage of that window of opportunity. The first section delineates their passive resistance to male dominance. Passivity here means that women displayed some agency to protect their interests but they did not seek to change their overall social or legal situation within the Early Republic. The second section deals with women’s active involvement in both politics and economic matters. This involvement went beyond maintaining the status quo and could be described as the beginnings of the Women’s Right movement that first gained widespread public notice in the 1840s.


In A Midwife’s Tale, Laurel Thatcher Ulrich dissects the diary of a Maine midwife, Martha Ballard, from 1785-1812. In some respects, Martha was a typical example of a colonial goodwife. She was the head of household production, recording in her diary the results of not only her labor but also the labor of those who worked in her household. She diligently recorded entries on gardening, dairy production, and the carding, spinning, looming and weaving of cloth. In other respects, she was atypical. She kept a diary, which demonstrated that she had received a rudimentary education in reading, writing, and ciphering. Female education was not very common in the colonial era. She was an experienced social healer. She made simple medicines, helped nurse the sick, sat with the dying, attended autopsies, and helped dress the dead. She also was a successful midwife and managed this business on her own, conducting transactions and collecting debts, separate from her husband, Ephraim. As midwife, Martha had extraordinary freedom of movement and recorded in her diary her frequent comings and goings she made between neighbors’ houses to attend childbirth.

Childbirth was not a private event. It was a mostly female event. Several women were usually present to attend the laboring mother. Towards the end of Martha’s life and career, male doctors begin to enter into obstetrics and are frequently on hand to assist in delivery. Martha’s interactions with other remained largely female, with the exception of settling transactions with the husbands’ of the women she delivered and male doctors. She showed deference towards men in general, except in cases where her experience outweighed a lesser experienced doctor.

Martha’s diary recorded the daily life and the difficulties of taming the wilderness in Hallowell, Maine. It also gives one a peek at the sexual mores of the town. Premarital sex and pregnancy were common in the colonial era, but it there seems to be little stigma attached to either and was not a barrier to participation in society. Marriage was generally expected to follow pregnancy and/or birth. It was only scandalous when it did not. Unwed mothers were interrogated by midwives at the height of labor pains about the paternity of the child. It was thought that the pain rendered women were incapable of lying. In a coded series of entries, Martha records the rape of the minister’s wife, Rebecca Foster, by Judge North. These entries give one a clue about how vulnerable women could be outside of society’s protection.

wife selling

Wife selling

The Wicked Agency of Others discusses the social and legal contract of coverture. Under coverture laws, women’s legal existence is suspended during marriage. Husbands assume complete legal control of their wife’s property, money, and labor and in return, he agrees to support her and their dependents financially to the best of his ability. Coverture forced a woman’s legal and economic dependence on her husband. In this article, Mary Beth Sievens examines the breakdown of marital relations in Vermont between 1790 and 1830. She uses newspaper notices published by discordant couples which advertised a withdrawal of support for one spouse or the other and claims of desertion or infidelity.

Public notices were a way to garner support from the community either to facilitate a resumption of marital duties or to gather witness for divorce proceedings. Communities legitimated marriage, enforced behavioral standards on both spouses, and judged whether or not the couple fulfilled their martial obligations to each other and the community at large. Couples used public approval and disapproval to force compliance on an unwilling spouse. Both genders used the notice to damage their spouse’s reputation within the community. Men most often brought charges of adultery or sexual misconduct against their wives. Women usually countered with an accusation that their husbands failed to provide adequate financial support. Although a small percentage of women also levied accusations of their husband’s infidelity. Women, in general, had little legal recourse against their husband’s withdrawal of support, infidelity, or cruelty. They could, however, use informal, personal networks to damage their husband’s credit and good standing within their community.

Sievens found that the majority of the notices were published by men which demonstrated their dominant legal position. The few women who did respond to their husband’s notices were careful to apologize for stepping further into the public’s notice. They realized their precarious situation and took pains not to draw further negative public notice. Most women did not seek legal redress against their husbands nor were they trying to change coverture laws. The female responders only sought to have their interests and protections under the law honored, maintained, or reinstated.

Linda Kerber, in The Paradox of Women’s Citizenship in the Early Republic, examines the question of women’s political agency and argues that Martin vs. Massachusetts presented an early challenge of the relationship of a married woman to the state. In 1805, James Martin sued Massachusetts, demanding that the Commonwealth return the property it had confiscated after the American Revolution from his mother, Anna Gordon Martin. The question at the heart of this case was whether a wife should have her property confiscated under the Confiscation Act. Was she an “inhabitant and member of the state”, as required by the Act, or did her status as femme covert make her merely an inhabitant but not a member of the state?[1] Could Anna Martin be complicit in her Loyalist husband’s treason because she dutifully followed him out of the State? Or was she simply fulfilling her obligations to him under established martial coverture laws of the day?

James Martin’s attorneys argued the latter, that the femme covert “has no political relation to the state any more than an alien.”[2] For a brief moment, Kerber argues that, the possibility for women’s full civic participation was debated openly. However,

“In the end, all four judges chose common law over natural law, English precedent over republican potential, narrow interpretation over loose construction…The judges spoke in terms of deference, of obligation, of what women owed to their husbands, what men had a right to demand of their wives.”[3]

The judges unanimously found against Massachusetts upholding every aspect of coverture despite the expense and inconvenience to the Commonwealth.

The Revolution changed men’s relationship to the state; however, men retained the highly patriarchal legal contract between husbands and wives despite its apparent incongruity to the new republican ideals. Female citizenship seriously challenged coverture laws because “citizenship, involves claims of rights, notably suffrage, but also the right to pursue happiness and to be free of constraints. It also involves a wide range of civic obligations.”[4] This case was a strictly male dialogue on the rights, privileges, and obligations that women owed the federal government and totally lacked female agency or voice. The women discussed by the judges were not newly-minted ideas of the republican mother but rather an older archetype of the colonial goodwife.

republican womanhood

Women in the New Republic

In Revolutionary Bodies, Susan Klepp discusses the declining fertility rates and smaller family sizes experienced in the United States in the post-revolution period. There was a marked shift from lifelong fertility patterns to one of shorter and less frequent duration. In natural fertility societies, women give birth as frequently as biology allows and the number of children produced depends on the age of the mother at time of marriage, the length of marriage, how long the mother breastfeeds, and other societal constraints. In parity-specific societies, or more modern low fertility societies, couples choose a specific number of children desired and stop procreating once the desired number has been achieved. Klepp argues that women were the prime motivators for limiting the size of their families. “The new vocabulary [the revolutionary rhetoric of independence] proclaimed a selfless, domestic womanhood while allowing expanded choices and a limitation of traditional obligation.”[5] The new language called for restraint, sensibility, and rational childbearing. “Women applied egalitarian ideas and virtuous, prudent sensibility to their bodies and to their traditional images of self as revolution inspired discussion and debate.”[6]

Accompanying this new vocabulary was a change in the way women’s bodies were viewed. In the colonial era, “women’s bodies created abundance and a symbolic, if not actual, form of wealth…Women attained consequence through their productive powers, especially as harnessed in their husband’s interest.”[7] Pregnancy and the ability to withstand labor were a source of pride for women while men competed with other men over their wives’ fertility; the more children a man fathered the more standing he acquired in the community, especially if he fathered sons. After the Revolution, pregnancy was viewed as an unnatural state and disruptive to a woman’s good health because of the risk of maternal death. The focus of pregnancy shifted from a celebration of the woman to an emphasis on the child, though not in the modern sense. Throughout the Early Republic, parents displayed an unsentimental attitude toward their children, just as husbands’ did their wives. Children were view as the inevitable result of marital love and a fulfillment of the marital contract. Excessive fertility was no longer viewed positively as bountiful but negatively as a plague or a swarm. Breeding emerged as a term of contempt and was applied to slaves, immigrants, and pigs.

The American Revolution raised the possibility of gender equality. Women were celebrated for their minds and intelligence and their bodies were de-emphasized. Pregnant bodies were no longer commemorated. Pregnancy obligations were conceived as a voluntary expectation that was carefully planned and controlled rationally according to the republican ideals of virtue and prudence.

In Bringing Rapes to Court, Sharon Block discussed the topic of rape in early British America and the Early Republic. Woman, who had been assaulted, found it difficult, if not impossible, to seek legal redress for the crimes committed against them. First, they needed absolute proof that the assault occurred without the consent of the victim. Second, they needed sympathetic family, friends, and community support. And third, they needed a male sponsor to bring the rape to court. Rape convictions were punishable by death. Rapes by trusted male authorities often went unreported or un-prosecuted because people were reluctant to impose the death penalty, families did not want public exposure, or to face the horrors of a loved one’s rape, prosecution sometimes was more detrimental to the victims status or financial situation, and the public did not want to believe that prominent or well-liked community members were capable of such an act. Of course, this only applied to white women. African-American and slave women had no legal redress because they were not allowed to testify against whites in court, had ineffectual community supports and faced harsh reprisals if they spoke publicly about the assault.

In Unruly Americans, Woody Holton discussed the economic and political origins of the American Constitution and turbulent first decades of the Republic. The turbulent eight year war and subsequent removal from the British Trade Empire sent the American economy into the toilet. Many political commentaries blamed the economic decline on women and lambasted them for their frivolous luxury and extravagance. “According to male authors, the woman who draped herself in luxury garments was not actually interested in increasing her comfort, just in keeping up with the neighbors or even standing ‘at the head of her acquaintance.’”[8] Some men complained that women consumed too much and produced too little, that women bought most of what they used to make in their household and they spent too much time displaying themselves publicly and politically. The men that brought these complaints to the national stage blamed over indulgent fathers, husbands and brothers for this change to occur. They also blamed the education of women for their political pretensions.

“While most women were castigated for exacerbating the economic downturn, others were celebrated as pointing the way to recovery.”[9] Some women ostentatiously flaunted their frugality and austerity measures in running their households. The made public pacts to limit extravagance, held boycotts of foreign goods, and made and wore homespun clothing by carding, spinning and weaving their own cloth. Women were asked to reform their husband and son’s spending habits for the public good. Despite all this, the criticism of luxury and extravagance persisted. Women, nevertheless, fought back against the charges levied against them. Woody’s portrayal of women is nearly non-existent. These women barely displayed their own economic agency and they certainly were not challenging the political status-quo.


Linen Spinners

Women spinning linen yarn, about 1783

In Scraping By, Seth Rockman explores the lives of low-wage earners in early Baltimore and gives a nuanced assessment of women’s labor, whether free, indentured, or slave, on the edge of economic sustainability and the consequences of their failure. He demonstrates the openness and diversity of the labor pool that Baltimore business leaders and merchants could marshal. The elite carefully maintained this diversity and in so doing were able to keep wages low, workers from unionizing, and keep menial jobs from splintering along racial, gender, and class lines as they had in other cities like New York and Charleston. Rockman also did an excellent job in illuminating women’s struggles to earn a living wage. As more women were becoming heads-of household, they needed to have the ability to support themselves and their dependent children.

Women were excluded from all skilled crafts and occupations, except dressmaking. They were permitted to take in laundry and boarders for income, or garner income from other household chores and labor. But wages were kept deliberately low because of the prevailing belief that women were suppose to derive all their financial support from male relatives. Women’s labor, while mostly invisible, was crucial for urban economic development and social reproduction. “In addition to birthing and raising the next generation of workers, women did the washing, feeding, sheltering, and provisioning necessary for any port to function.”[10] However, childbearing and rearing interfered with a woman’s ability to retain employment, if she was lucky to obtain it in the first place. “Alongside their peers who exchanged labor for wages in textile mills or whose cottage industry made the countryside a hot bed of early American manufacturing, urban women also found themselves in the midst of new market relations that converted their labor to a commodity.”[11] Similar to the men in Wicked Agency of Others, women harbored the same fears as men over the economic dependence wage labor created and worried over its ability to curtail republican independence.

The Early Republic began a period of social stratification where upper class ladies no longer did menial housework, but rather hired women of lower social classes instead. Domestic service became the largest portion of women’s labor market. For free women, the goal was to land and keep a job long-term in the hope of supporting oneself financially. For slave women, the goal was to minimize the amount of work and to avoid damage to one’s dignity at the same time. Domestic service allowed employers to set the terms of employment and gave them control over their employees’ reputations, thereby exerting control over the employees’ future prospects. This posed serious risks for female wage earners who were highly susceptible to physical and sexual abuse at the hands of their employers.

In The Woman Who Wasn’t There, Jeanne Boydston seeks to reintegrate women’s participation in the market revolution. She argues that the market revolution did not insist upon women’s exclusion from the economic marketplace but rather placed a greater dependence on the availability and flexibility of women’s labor and productivity. She claims that women’s place as wage earners had long been acknowledged by scholars even though they were excluded from the historical narrative. One reason for this is that women’s labor was seldom self-owned. They rarely possessed the means of capital. It was also more flexible than male labor with a greater variety of occupations and was of smaller scale.

The traditional story of the market revolution was male-dominated and often told from the artisans’ point of view. In the Early Republic, male claims to citizenship rested on economic and financial independence. Wage labor and women’s participation in the marketplace complicated those claims. This period experienced the upheavals of war and many displaced peoples wound up in urban centers of commerce. There was also a small but growing portion of household headed by women, often widowed, single migrants, or newly freed, in the case of some African-American women. “In this reconstituted urban landscape [after the Revolution], women were everywhere visible as aggressive and ostensibly independent economic agents…They claimed their place in the market assertively.”[12]

Early workers of both genders strove for domestic security, which depended on an increase of overall household productivity and women’s paid labor and production inside and outside of the home. “Most non-elite households required the direct economic participation of both partners, often in ways that sent wives into the streets alongside female heads-of-households.”[13] The market revolution complicated colonial household relations, sexual divisions of labor, and engendered disagreements over authority. It also had adverse affects on coverture laws. Women were at a severe economic disadvantage due to the practice of femme covert. Republican widows’ inherited less than colonial widows, while their daughters inherited more with sons’ taking the lion’s share of their fathers’ estates.

Women’s participation in the marketplace gave them a feeling of competence and social autonomy which led to greater civic engagement and female activism. Women participated in protesting mobs against financial creditors in the Panic of 1792 and against predatory merchant practices in various food riots. Female activism, “reflected their increased economic importance within their households—a heightened sense of the precariousness of their household economies and a greater readiness to take matters into their own hands.”[14] This practical self-reliance and civic engagement sparked questions of women’s political participation in the new government which triggered a growing discomfort amongst male politicians and wage-earners alike.

In the end, artisan republicanism, which emphasized the marketplace as a masculine sphere, triumphed. The language of domesticity encouraged women to withdraw from public involvement into the private and feminine sphere of the home. Working women, many of whom could not afford to withdraw, were label as prostitutes. The women, who were able withdraw, were referred to as republican mothers. Female “exclusion was inscribed into the new federal Constitution, which fixed in law long-standing prejudices against females in office and denied to women direct participation in federal legislative debates over the direction of the Republic’s political economy.”[15]

In the Midst of Perpetual Fetes, David Waldstreicher discusses how Nationalism and Popular Sovereignty combined with political pageantry unified public experiences for American citizens of all classes between 1776 and 1820. Public participation in the Grand Federal Processions broadened who could be considered respectable citizenry to include upper- and middle class women and artisans. Women took an active interest in national celebrations, especially Washington’s Birthday, and marched in parades, attended banquets, heard orations and participated in toasts. They were appealed ostensibly to make national unity possible by bringing together disparate groups and interests. Men represented women in the political sphere but invited them to informally participate as spectators and supporters. Women also participated in partisan politics and non-partisan nationalism. At first, their involvement gave partisan politics a level or respectability. Increasingly “uncomfortable with their partisanship and the politicization of women that partisanship encouraged, men continued to rely on the ideal of republican motherhood to explain women’s political activity and their own solicitation of that activity.”[16]

Federalists and Jeffersonians used gendered language, referring to the new Republic as feminine, a virtuous maid, innocent and pure. Maternity became a metaphor for politics. Female political participation became another way to mother, especially if republican sons and daughters were created. Women began to co-opt national celebrations to proclaim women’s rights: education, the right to own/control their own property, divorce, and political relevance. “Jeffersonian women were more likely to use the languages of revolutionary republicanism and universalism, even to the point of claiming women’s rights as equal rights, but they were no more able to do so within the structure of partisan politics than Federalist women.”[17] Women’s involvement in politics, while endorsing women’s rights, never seriously challenged gendered notions of republicanism. They could not participate in partisan politics and work to change women’s roles in the public sphere. Nor could they espouse women’s rights and practice partisanship. Eventually the public sphere pushed women to the margins of political culture altogether.


1792 Genius of Lady’s Magazine kneels before Columbia (Lady Liberty) with a petition for the rights of women. Lady’s Magazine. Library Company of Philadelphia

In Revolutionary Backlash, Rosemarie Zagarri argues that the universal and inalienable rights espoused by political leaders during the Colonial era opened up a new conversation over the rights of women in the Early Republic. Public leaders began to define the scope of what it meant to be a new citizen in the emerging United States and what part, if any, should women be allowed to take. Using the politics of the street, rallies, parades, Fourth of July celebrations, and the newly emerging print culture, Zagarri was able to demonstrate that women took an active interest in the politics of the day, engaged in partisan politics themselves, and were actively sought out by politicians for their support on various issues in the first two decades of the republic. This window of opportunity, however, did not remain open for long. By the Age of Jackson, women were actively dissuaded from pursuing politics. Instead, they turned their attention to moral and social reform becoming active in benevolent, temperance, and abolitionist societies. Zagarri and Waldstreicher agree on women’s participation in partisan politics but Zagarri takes it a step further by claiming women, themselves, shrank from the destabilizing influence they had in politics.

In One Woman So Dangerous to Public Morals, Kristen E. Wood discusses the Eaton affair, otherwise known as the “Petticoat War,” which consumed most of President Andrew Jackson’s first term. Margaret “Peggy” Eaton was a woman of interesting character, described by many as an “immoral woman.” Rumor had it that she had courted her second husband, John Eaton, while she was still married to her first husband, John Timberlake. Timberlake died under mysterious circumstances at sea and within the year, Margaret and John Eaton were married. It caused a huge scandal in Washington D.C. society. Further scandal ensued when Eaton was appointed to Jackson’s Cabinet making Margaret a Cabinet lady. This immoral woman was too close to the center of political power and for two and a half years, Washington ladies ostracized and shunned Mrs. Eaton. Jackson, having none of the snobbery and female meddling, outright insisted that the ladies accept Mrs. Eaton and vouched for her modesty and virtue.

This incident, while seemingly farcical in nature, went to the heart of gendered Jacksonian politics. It was about political relevance and who controlled it: men or women? Jackson saw “only men as significant actors on the national stage.”[18] Men only were to be the authority and the arbiters of political morally. However, women believed that they were the guardians of public morals which gave them a legitimate right to political expression and influence. Mrs. Eaton’s alleged sexual improprieties complicated this moral mandate. Washington ladies wanted to “stamp out vice…They believed that even the slightest contact with a sinful woman could irreparably harm their own reputations” and tainted their own modest influence over political interactions within their social sphere.[19] Anti-Eatonists believed that women had the right to choose their own society.

The trouble was that social exclusion was both personal and political. Politics, the government, and social life were tightly interconnected in the District of Columbia. The patronage system worked on the basis of personal relationships. Dinners, parties and balls worked as a social lubricant bringing together people with different view and interests. Women believed that their “moral scruples should take precedent over men’s political alliances in shaping Washington’s social interactions.”[20] For them, social disruption was preferable to moral corruption. Jackson disagreed. He dissolved his Cabinet. His exclusion of women from politics closed the chapter on the revolutionary promise of political and universal rights for women for nearly a half century.


Charlotte, Sorrows of the Female Heart, 1832

In The Significance for the “Global Turn,” Rosemarie Zagarri discusses women’s social activism, especially with regards to Christian missionary work in India. As women were increasingly pushed out of politics, they began to channel their energies by “join[ing] a wide variety of charitable organizations, benevolent organizations, and societal reform movement,” both domestically and abroad.[21] Women joined temperance movements, abolitionist societies and foreign missionary organizations. They collected money for the poor, built schools, and sent bibles and other religious pamphlets. Very few American women actually became foreign missionaries. Print culture helped make the ones that did into secular saints and “influenced American attitudes toward missionary work in India.”[22] Most other women stayed stateside and aggressively campaigned and garnered grass root support for their various causes.

“The incongruity of a white American woman journeying to distant regions occupied by non-white heathens challenged notions of feminine timidity while at the same time affirming women’s role as the promoter of moral and religious values.”[23] Missionary work reinforced prevailing gender roles and reaffirmed Western superiority, elevating white, middle-class American women above non-Christian, non-white women in other regions. American women may not have achieved full gender equality, but at least they had it better than Indian women, who were doubly degraded because they were heathens and severely oppressed by a highly patriarchal society. “In effect, by comparing themselves to women in India and other non-Christian parts of the world, white middle class American women may have found it easier to rationalize their subordinate status.”[24] Social activists found it easier to Christianize heathens abroad than to tackle inequality and slavery at home.

In the years following the Revolution, some women fought to maintain the status quo and to retain the meager rights and privileges they had attained during the colonial era. Other women imbibed the spirit of the revolutionary rhetoric and applied it to their own lives, either passively by limiting the number of children they bore, or in active ways like participation in the marketplace and agitating for political influence. Regardless of their own agency, or lack thereof, the promise of citizenship and gender equality was debated openly in the Early Republic, but the push of republican motherhood and the cult of domesticity eventually succeeded in marginalizing women’s influence and participation in the public sphere. Women, who remained in the public eye, lost the respect and protection of the respectable citizenry and faced heavy public censure. Women channeled their thwarted political ambition into more socially acceptable and charitable causes. Theirs was a dream deferred for another generation to fulfill.

[1] Linda K. Kerber, The Paradox of Women’s Citizenship in the Early Republic: The Case of Martin vs. Massachusetts, 1805, in The American Historical Review. Vol. 97, No. 2 (April 1992). Pp. 369.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid., pp. 373.

[4] Ibid., pp. 350.

[5] Susan E. Klepp. Revolutionary Bodies: Women and the Fertility Transition in the Mid-Atlantic Region, 1760-1820 in The Journal of American History, Vol. 85, No. 3 (December 1998). Pp. 911.

[6] Ibid., pp. 916.

[7] Ibid., pp. 920.

[8] Woody Holton. Unruly Americans and the Origins of the Constitution. (New York: Hill and Wang, 2007). pp. 49.

[9] Ibid., pp. 50.

[10] Seth Rockman. Scraping By: Wage Labor, Slavery, and Survival in Early Baltimore. (Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press, 2009). pp. 101.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Jeanne Boydston. The Woman Who Wasn’t There: Women’s Market Labor and the Transition to Capitalism in the United States in Journal of the Early Republic, Vol. 16, No. 2, Special Issue on Capitalism in the Early Republic (Summer 1996), pp. 192-193.

[13] Ibid., pp. 194.

[14] Ibid., pp. 196.

[15] Ibid., pp. 201.

[16] David Waldstreicher. In the Midst of Perpetual Fetes: The Making of American Nationalism, 1776-1820. (Chapel Hill and London: University of North Carolina Press, 1997). pp. 233.

[17] Ibid., pp. 236

[18] Kristen E. Wood. ‘One Woman so Dangerous to Public Morals’: Gender and Power in the Eaton Affair in Journal of the Early Republic, Vol. 17, No. 2 (Summer 1997). pp. 242.

[19] Ibid., pp. 255-256.

[20] Ibid., pp. 249.

[21] Rosemarie Zagarri. The Significance of the “Global Turn” for the Early American Republic: Globalization in the Age of Nation-Building in Journal of the Early Republic, Vol. 31, No. 1 (Spring 2001). pp. 19.

[22] Ibid., pp. 21.

[23] Ibid., pp. 20.

[24] Ibid., pp. 24.