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How Did the American Revolution Influence Women’s Rights?
American women of the 18th century had far fewer rights than they have now. Colonial America respected women’s rights little more than African American slaves. Before the start of the American Revolution, women were perceived only as an appendage to their husbands and fathers, without taking any part in the political life of the country. From the moment of birth, women belonged to their fathers, who soon decided what kind of man to give them in marriage. After the wedding, women would become utterly dependent on their husbands. Their daily routines consisted of tedious homework, which often implied heavy physical labor due to the low level of technology development at that time (DePauw and McCurdy 4). The welfare of a woman was entirely determined by her husband, while unmarried women did not have the right to earn their living and were rejected by society. The Revolutionary Era marked a significant shift in the social importance of women; however, their formal political role has not undergone any significant changes. While most men went to war, most of their responsibilities passed to women, and in fact, it was the first period in American history that gave women the opportunity to show their active social stance and support for their country. Considering the American Revolution, most historians estimate the war against Britain paying little attention to the processes that took place within American society outside the battlefield. Despite the fact that after the American Revolution women’s political rights had remained at the same level, since then, they had gained confidence in their social significance and began to demonstrate an active role in the life of society.
Before the Revolution, the duties of women were significantly different from those of men; afterward, husbands began to increasingly trust their wives for more meaningful work such as financial accounting for the family or help with the business. Nevertheless, it should be taken into account that such changes have not affected all women, but only those few of the white, wealthy households. This was dictated by the fact that during the long period of the war, most men have become distant and incompetent in conducting certain affairs, especially as regards finances and running a family business (Mays 12). At the same time, during the absence of men, women performing the role of men significantly deepened their knowledge and improved their management skills of family household affairs. It was particularly evident from the letters that women wrote to their husbands at war.
In some cases, women took responsibility for running their husbands’ businesses or farms during their absence. In the process, they understood that they could do this not worse, but equally, and maybe even better than men, which encouraged them to realize their importance. In some letters, it can be observed that women referred to it as “our business” instead of the usual “your business,” which marked the beginning of the significant changes in the social consciousness of American women (Skemp). Being more and more engaged in men’s affairs, they took an increasingly active civil position, which subsequently led to active assistance in the fight against Britain. For example, by organizing joint efforts, women managed to boycott many British goods imported into the US such as textile and tea, which subsequently had a negative impact on the British economy and played an essential role in the course of the war.
In addition, women provided significant support to the American soldiers in the war. Their skills as domestic attendants were a significant support for the American army: they sewed military uniforms and brought them to the front, worked in military hospitals assisting severely injured soldiers and thereby substantially reducing losses among the American troops, supplied the army with provisions and resources, and some women even took part in spying operations on the territory of the enemy. Women’s support at the home front also ensured the normal functioning of American society, because they went to factories and industries, worked as blacksmiths and teachers, and as a whole, were able to replace men in most occupations previously uncommon for women (Zagarri 2). All this laid the foundation for the active social and civic position of women, which after a century began to bring results in the form of the first wave of feminism. However, before that, it was still far in the future, and women were still subordinate to men. Nevertheless, it is worth noting that, given the contribution of women to the Revolution, men have significantly changed their attitude towards them, recognizing their importance and skills.
This kind of activity on the part of women forced American society to reconsider views on women’s rights, which resulted in the birth of women voters in New Jersey in 1776. Despite the fact that society still did not recognize the equality between men and women in political activity, New Jersey residents still got the right to take part in the elections regardless of their husbands (Mays 41). Before the Revolutionary War, women had no right to vote, just like men who did not possess any property. At the time, it was believed that only independent Americans should have the right to vote, while women were dependent on their husbands, as well as men without property were dependent on their landlords or others. The right to vote for women in New Jersey had become a significant step towards the attainment of civil rights since besides not only white women but also women of color could vote. However, it is worth noting that the rule on property ownership still operated for both men and women.
Nevertheless, as early as 1807 this right was abolished under the pretext of combating falsification and women were again suspended from participation in the political life of the country. However, they received an opportunity to get an education instead. Before the outbreak of the war, women received virtually no education, but the responsibilities they assumed during the absence of men forced them to gain some education to perform the necessary work efficiently. At first, they began to learn how to work with weaving looms, and then other crafts peculiar to men. Later, they performed the role of Republican Mothers, as they taught their children patriotism and republican ideals, which were appreciated and encouraged by society. Women served as the mainstay of morality and virtue of the American family, and for this, they needed education, which was the reason for the opening of women’s academies in the 1790s. The initiator of this movement was Abigail Adams, who was the first woman advocating education for women.
Abigail Adams actually became the first feminist because she actively protested against gender-related laws reigning in American society in the 18th century and her activities significantly influenced the rights of women after the war. She stated that women should not submit to laws that do not protect their interests, having in mind first of all the right to property, which at that time belonged only to white men. She also became the founder of the concept of Republican Motherhood, which allowed women to receive primary education and take a more significant role in the upbringing of children in the family. Thanks to Adams’ activities, women began to show more willingness to express their public opinion and social activity, something that did not happen before (Wayne 44). Despite the fact that all the bills and statements Adams passed to the government were rejected, she managed to become the First Lady in the White House, which could not pass without a trace of the position of women in society.
Thus, the American Revolution significantly influenced the change in the social role of women in society. While before the outbreak of the Revolutionary War, women were considered nothing more than the property of their husbands doing routine housework and raising children, during and after their social responsibilities significantly expanded. Since men had been suspended from participation in public life for a long time, many of their duties had passed to their wives, which caused them to acquire responsibility for the functioning of American society in that period of history. American women not only ensured the stable operation of plants and factories but also provided substantial support to the American soldiers, providing them with uniforms, resources, and provisions. Similarly, the American women joined in the fight against Britain and boycotted goods taxed, which affected the course of the war. All this led to the fact that women began to take a more active part in the life of the country after the war, and in New Jersey, they even had the right to vote on an equal status with men for the following thirty years. Also, women acquired great importance in the education of children in the republican traditions, which led to the beginning of women’s education.
De Pauw, Linda Grant, and Michael McCurdy. Founding Mothers. Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1994.
Mays, Dorothy A. Women in Early America. Santa Barbara (Calif.), ABC-CLIO, 2004.
Skemp, Sheila L. “Women and Politics in the Era of the American Revolution.” Oxford Research Encyclopedia Of American History, 2016, Oxford University Press, doi:10.1093/acrefore/9780199329175.013.216.
Wayne, Tiffany. Women’s Rights in the United States. Santa Barbara, ABC-CLIO, 2014.
Zagarri, Rosemarie. Revolutionary Backlash. Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011.