The Declaration of Independence asserted that "all men were created equal." As for women, the document said nothing. American women, especially in the West, were portrayed as bold, assertive, practical and resourceful. In order to insure the survival of their families, many women took on these characteristics. Nevertheless, the importance of the role of women in the nation was not met with a corresponding guarantee of their rights and freedoms as Americans. Neither the US Constitution, nor most of the state constitutions addressed the protection of women's rights. While women risked their lives to bear the children so critical for the growth of the nation, they were given few opportunities for education. Women could hold positions of responsibility and authority, but could not vote. They could work day and night alongside their husbands to forge a life out of the Western wilderness, but most could not own property. They could earn money using their ingenuity and intelligence, but any money they earned belonged to their husbands or other male relatives. Social pressure and the threat of being dependent on their fathers often compelled single women to get married. Only widows seemed to enjoy some rights in the new nation.
Education and Women
In the early national period, the major advance that helped the progress of women's rights was the increased availability of education. Beyond basic literacy and education, women could attend "academies," such as the Philadelphia Young Ladies' Academy; the Moravian Seminary in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania; and Susanna Rowson's Young Ladies Academy in Boston. The Young Ladies Academy of Philadelphia was founded in 1787 to give girls an education equal to that of boys. In its first commencement address, Dr. Benjamin Rush was the speaker at its first commencement. Rowson, head of the Academy in Boston, was the author of the first American best-seller, Charlotte Temple. Rowson also wrote textbooks to make up for the deficiencies in available educational materials. Her works include An Abridgment of Universal Geography, together with Sketches of History (ca. 1805) and A Spelling Dictionary (1807).
The young ladies who attended these academies were generally from relatively wealthy families. Women from more modest families usually had to be content with basic literacy, learned in the home or in community schools. Many of these schools were coeducational for small children. In 1799, the Quakers of Pennsylvania founded the Westtown Boarding School. It was established to teach "domestic employments" and academic subjects to rural women.
Those women who had completed their secondary education, at one of the academies or privately, were unable to attend college, since no college would accept women. In 1814, however, Middlebury Female Seminary, the first school for the higher education of women, was established in Middlebury, Vermont. The first women's college, Mount Holyoke, and the first co-educational college, Oberlin, were still at least 20 years away.
Women who took advantage of the educational opportunities available to them were well-trained for leadership. Unfortunately, few had outlets for their skills. Women of the late eighteenth century and early nineteenth century had few opportunities and outlets for their education and skills. If they were educated, they could teach or open a school. Otherwise, they could open a boardinghouse which, unfortunately, required an initial investment few could afford or obtain. Other possible jobs were becoming a nurse for other people's children, becoming a servant, or becoming a seamstress. Professions were closed to them. Only Quakers allowed women to serve as ministers. While single women were allowed to run businesses, married women had to obtain their husband's permission to work outside the home, and any money they earned legally belonged to their husbands.
In areas in which the Anglican Church had a strong foothold, such as the South, couples who wanted to get divorces could not, since they had to go to a "bishop's court," and there were no bishop's courts in the U.S. Since most women were not allowed to own property, they could not separate from their husbands unless their fathers or some other male relative allowed them to live at home and provided clothing. Few women could earn their own living, since there were few jobs available to them. If a woman was able to obtain a separation, any money she earned was her husband's money. Before 1800, judges automatically gave custody of children of a divorce to the husband, regardless of the situation involved.
Women across the country had few property rights. Because of the traditional status of widows as being in need of social assistance, however, some states made special provisions for them. While most American women were not allowed to sell property; Massachusetts gave that right, in 1787, to women who had been abandoned by their husbands. This began a long process which would result in giving women full property rights in that state.
Women had even fewer voting rights than property rights. The Constitution gave states the right to determine voter eligibility. The states answered by forbidding women to vote. Some state constitutions did not mention women. Others, like New York, stated that only males could vote, thus specifically excluding females.
The only exception to this was New Jersey. In 1776, the New Jersey State Legislature gave the right to vote to single women "worth fifty pounds clear estate" and over 21 years of age. Some historians explain this unique action as the result of several factors. New Jersey delegates were interested in ideas of justice and property and, thus, felt that property-owning women should not be disenfranchised (Married women were considered one with their husbands, with the husband representing the couple in voting, so the delegates did not deem it necessary to give them the right to vote). Many also remembered the numerous ways in which New Jersey women contributed to the war effort, and wanted to reward their involvement and awareness. According to Elias Boudinot, in an oration of July 4, 1793, in Elizabeth Town, New Jersey: "The rights of women are no longer strange sounds to an American ear, and I devoutly hope the day is not far distant when we shall find them dignifying in a distinguished code, the jurisprudence of several states of the Union." In addition, Quakers, who believed in equal rights for the genders, had a strong influence on state politics.
Other historians feel that the New Jersey delegates did not intend to give women the right to vote. They assert that the state constitution was simply worded vaguely, and that women of the state took advantage of the situation. One of the major factors contributing to the eventual withdrawal of female suffrage in New Jersey was the fact that women showed great eagerness to utilize their newly-acquired political rights. In 1807, New Jersey revoked women's right to vote in the state.
There were few American women in public office. One notable exception was Mary Katherine Goddard of Baltimore, Maryland. She was the nation's first postmaster, serving from 1775 to 1789. Although women were granted the right to be elected to office in the US in 1788, few women were elected until after women obtained the right to vote in 1919.
Race and Gender
For African-American women, the abolition of slavery in the North and Northwest was perhaps the most influential event of the early national period. Those who lived in free states were relieved from the burden and horror of slavery. Under slavery, they had no rights when their families were broken up as their husbands and children were be sold elsewhere; or when they or their daughters were raped or assaulted. Families could establish more stable ties, without fear of members being sold away and, if women were raped or assaulted, they were able to bring charges against the assailant, whether he was white or black.
Nevertheless, black women had very limited economic opportunities. Under slavery, any skills taught to slaves were usually taught to men. Thus, black women were largely undereducated and unskilled. Urban black women usually worked as domestic servants, while rural black women were mostly agricultural laborers. About five percent of free black women, however, were able to obtain work as retailers, bakers, peddlers, teachers and keepers of boarding houses.
Women of Native Americans tribes were seriously affected by the forced westward migration of Native Americans, as well as the cultural invasion of the European-Americans. Nevertheless, the radical changes in Native American lives made a greater impact on men than on women. The social roles of defending and providing, traditionally male roles, were greatly threatened by the alien social order. Domestic roles of childbearing and childrearing, farming, cooking, and other activities, generally female roles, were less severely affected.
Despite the social limitations placed upon women, some were able to transcend their restrictions. One outlet for women's skills was the sphere of religion. Although women, except Quakers, did not serve as ministers; many found other capacities in which to serve. In 1790, Frances Dickinson and Ann Teresa Mathews founded the first Roman Catholic convent in the US, a Carmelite convent in Maryland. Twenty years later, Elizabeth Seton and the group which would become the Sisters of Charity, founded the first American Catholic parochial school, in Emmitsburg, Maryland.
In 1800, the Boston Female Society for Missionary Purposes was founded, one of many organizations founded to fund the education of missionaries. Although only male missionaries were initially sent, women were later included. In 1811, the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the US formally stated that it supported "pious females" who had begun organizing independent, female-run benevolent societies to support missionaries, teachers, and doctors overseas and in the US. Nevertheless, the General Assembly emphasized that the women should only provide services for other women and for children, under the belief that such services done for men would have been inappropriate.
Ann (Nancy) Hesseltine Judson and Harriet Newell were the first two American women sent abroad as missionaries. In 1812, the two women were sent with their husbands to India, the Isle of France (now Mauritius) and Burma (now Myanmar). In that same year, Mother Catherine Spaulding founded the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth. This Kentucky order of nurses and teachers made home visits.
One Shoshone woman, Sacagawea, took part in one of the most famous events of the period, the Lewis and Clark Expedition (1804-6). She served as one of guides for Captain Lewis and Captain Clark, along with her husband, Toussaint Charbonneau. The only woman on the expedition; Sacagawea is credited with having saved the notes of the expedition from falling into the water, as well saving the white explorers from attack from the Shoshone. Another woman, Lucy Brewer, was more directly involved in the American military. In 1812, she enlisted in the Marines under the name George Baker, and served aboard the U.S.S. Constitution. Women were not openly allowed in the US Marines until 1918.
In the sphere of culture, women were also active. In the 1790s, Judith Sargent Murray published a series of essays, under the name, "Mr. Vigillius," called "The Gleaner" in the Massachusetts Magazine. Amelia Simmons wrote one of the earliest American cookbooks to focus in American ingredients and dishes. Entitled American Cookery, it was published in 1796, and included recipes for Indian pudding, johnnycakes and flapjacks. In 1805, female artists began exhibiting their artwork at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.
Women were also involved in manufacturing. In 1793, Mrs. Slater was the first woman ever granted a patent in the US for a method of producing cotton sewing thread. The method was probably used in the New England mills of her husband, Samuel Slater. In 1809, Mary Kies, a resident of Connecticut, received a patent for her invention of "a method to weave straw with silk and thread." The method was used as long as straw bonnets were popular, which was about ten years. Around 1813, Francis Cabot Lowell began hiring young women to work in his mills in Waltham, Massachusetts. In addition to providing employment, the management provided housing and activities, going to great lengths to maintain a sense of propriety and decorum. The women working in Lowell's mills comprised the first large-scale women's labor force in the US.