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Women’s Fight for Their Inalienable Rights, 1630-1898

This Collection Essay was produced through a generous annual fellowship for digital education on American Women’s History or Early American History funded by the Chicago Chapter, National Society Daughters of the American Revolution.


The very first coin minted by the United States, the Chain Cent, depicted Liberty, the new nation’s most sacred value, as a woman, shown in profile with freely flowing hair. A century later, to celebrate the nation’s westward expansion, artist John Gast painted Lady Liberty floating above the Great Plains, a book in one hand, and a length of telegraph wire in the other. Other images of Lady Liberty abound, most notably her namesake statue in New York Harbor (dedicated in 1886) and her continual presence, from 1794 to the present (albeit in new and updated forms) on the country’s one dollar coin.

Image of a flying woman laying telephone wire from East to West across a landscape dotted with frontiersmen, trains, covered wagons, stage coaches, American Indians, and animals.
John Gast, American Progress (1880)

The use of a woman’s image to depict the values of Liberty and Progress is somewhat at odds with the actual experience of American women in the years following the ratification of the Constitution. Before the Revolution, women in various locales throughout the Colonies had the right to vote in certain circumstances. At the close of the Revolution, only one state, New Jersey, still granted women that privilege, but by 1807 women’s voting rights had been voted out of existence by New Jersey’s legislators. They justified this decision on the grounds that because most women didn’t own property and were dependent on men, they lacked the independence and self-sufficiency necessary to be responsible voters. By that logic, single women, heiresses, and widows who had inherited their husbands’ property should have retained their voting rights, but that did not happen. The logical inconsistency of the situation became even more obvious in the opening decades of the 19th Century. As property requirements for voting were gradually removed, universal suffrage for white males, even poorer white males, became the norm, but few if any attempts were made to extend voting rights to the majority of the population, American women.

Despite the assertions of equality in the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution’s promise to “secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our posterity,” and the guarantees of the Bill of Rights, at the close of the Revolutionary Era the majority of American citizens, including poorer white men, were unable to exercise their full constitutional rights, including the most basic right of all in a democracy, the right of citizens to choose their leaders at the ballot box. The most visible and tragic victims during this period of political consolidation were African American slaves, who emerged from the era with virtually no constitutional rights or liberties. Less noticeable were the losses of white women, who emerged from the Revolutionary Era with fewer civil rights and liberties than their fathers, brothers, sons, and arguably, their mothers.

Though the Founders concluded that the constitutional rights of women and African Americans were indeed alienable, with the passage of the 19th Amendment in 1920, women did finally gain the right to vote. Yet the path to full voting rights was not direct because many Americans, women included, were deeply conflicted about the propriety of Woman Suffrage. On the long journey toward securing their right to vote, numerous American women became deeply involved in, indeed were among the primary instigators of the 19th Century’s three largest movements for social and political reform: Abolition, Temperance, and Suffrage. There is evidence to suggest that women’s advocacy on behalf of others in the Abolition and Temperance movements provided the momentum that enabled them to eventually secure their own civil rights. The following collection of documents highlights the primary political, legal, and social challenges American women and their allies faced, and the strategies they employed, from the Colonial Period to the close of the 19th Century, to secure for themselves the same rights and liberties enjoyed by the male citizens of the nation.

Please consider the following questions as you review the documents that follow:

  • According to the documents in this collection, when did female Colonists first begin agitating for greater autonomy, power, and influence in their communities?
  • Why was the path to political equality and full civil rights for women so indirect?
  • What role did religion play in 19th Century women’s quest to abolish slavery and secure full constitutional rights for African Americans and themselves?
  • What were the primary means by which women exerted political influence, before achieving the right to vote and hold office?
  • What aspects of 19th women’s experience, in the struggle for the right to vote, may still be relevant today?

A Puritan Poet Praises a Female Queen

The English Puritans arrived in the New World determined to build a new kind of society, a “city set upon a hill,” in which all Christians, whether lay or ordained, were considered spiritual equals, and every member of the community was expected to live a life of active piety and civic purpose, in service to God and to their community. Though to contemporary readers the Puritans may seem dogmatic and old fashioned, as part of the Protestant tradition, they were on the spectrum of religious and social radicals in the Early Modern period. In their quest to return Christianity to its Biblical foundations, Protestants rejected many Catholic practices, including clerical celibacy, sacramental marriage, papal infallibility and authority, and the claim that only the pope and other bishops possessed the spiritual gifts necessary to accurately interpret the scriptures.

The Puritans’ rejection of these claims yielded significant, albeit indirect benefits for women. Like other Protestants, they believed that all children must be taught to read and write so that as adults they could study the scriptures for themselves, and as mothers and fathers, they could school their children in the Christian faith. The rejection of clerical celibacy also proved beneficial to women. Almost all the leaders of the Protestant Reformation, Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, Melanchthon, Bucer, and Simons, married, putting themselves in close and loving relationships, not to mention daily conversation and contact, with women. The impact of this change should not be underestimated; both ministers and lay people in Protestant churches began to view women through a new set of lenses: as gifts of God and companions on the journey through life, rather than as evil temptresses, sent by Satan to entice priests to break their vows of celibacy. Martin Luther, for example, wrote about his wife Katy with great affection and respect, joyfully admitting, among other things, that she was a far more adept manager of the family’s finances than was he.

Bradstreet, The Tenth Muse, pg 199-203
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The New England Puritans left an extensive body of writings, including several works by women. The best-known author among them is Anne Dudley Bradstreet (1612-1677), who arrived in New England in 1630. Bradstreet wrote in a variety of genres: plays, poems, memorials to the departed, and discourses on politics, theology, history, family life, and child-rearing. Though most of her writings were not published during her lifetime, at the instigation of her husband and a brother-in-law, a collection of her poetry, The Tenth Muse Lately Sprung Up in America, was published in London in 1647. Included here is her poem in honor of Elizabeth I, a Protestant ruler whose long reign (1558 to 1603) provided England with stability and order during a time of significant political, religious, and social change.

Questions to Consider:

  1. What personal attributes and qualities of Elizabeth I does Bradstreet admire and emphasize?
  2. According to Bradstreet, how did Elizabeth I compare to other European monarchs of her day?
  3. What role did the queen’s gender play in Bradstreet’s assessment of her reign?
  4. Does this poem provide any insights into Bradstreet’s own vision of “the “city set upon a hill”?

Inalienable Rights for All, or Just Some? The Revolutionary Expectations of Phillis Wheately, Abigail Adams, and Mercy Otis Warren

As is often the case in wartime, during the Revolutionary War women had to shoulder many traditionally male tasks and responsibilities while their husbands and sons were off fighting. And because the war was fought on home soil, the personal was so inextricably bound up with the political that almost every Colonial resident, whether male and female, was caught up in the big political discussions and debates of the day. Abigail Smith Adams (1744-1818), Mercy Otis Warren (1728-1814), and Phillis Wheately (1753-1784), are three of the many active women of the era who were eyewitnesses, as well as political actors, debaters, and agitators during the Revolution and Early Republic.

Though Phillis Wheately arrived in Boston in 1761 on a slave ship, within just a few short years she was regaled in both England and the Colonies as a brilliant poet and writer. In 1763, with the help of her owner, Wheately’s Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, became the first volume of poetry published by an African American, either slave or free. Wheately wrote on many topics, including the Patriot cause, to which she was devoted. In “To the Right Honourable William, Earl of Dartmouth, His Majesty’s Principal Secretary of State for North America” her descriptions of tyranny and liberty are at once political and deeply personal, made all the more vivid for her readers by Wheately’s comparison of her experience as a slave to the Colonists’ struggle against the British for their independence.

Wheatley, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, pg 73-75
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Abigail Smith Adams and Mercy Otis Warren were also committed to the Patriot cause. Born into prominent New England families, well-educated and well read, with strong and carefully reasoned opinions about political developments in the young nation, the friends maintained a lengthy correspondence with each other, and with numerous other revolutionaries of the period. After the war, the better known of the two, Abigail Smith Adams, the wife of one president and mother of another, became, like her husband, a committed Federalist, and she is known to us mainly through her decades of correspondence with her husband. Mercy Otis Warren, lesser known but the more prolific of the two writers, was an impassioned Republican, frequent political commentator, and historian. Her three-volume work, History of the Rise, Progress, and Termination of the American Revolution, was a detailed eyewitness account of the era, but also a fierce philosophical repudiation of the Federalists who had, the Republicans believed, amassed far too much power in the new nation.

The most famous of Adam’s letters is one she sent to her husband in March, 1776, asking him to “…Remember the Ladies and be more generous and favourable to them than your ancestors. Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the Husbands. Remember all Men would be tyrants if they could.” A month later, In the letter to Warren that appears here, Adams shared her dismay at her husband’s response, and her concerns about American women’s lack of political and legal rights under Blackstone’s Law, the British legal tradition upon which Colonial law was based.

The writings of these three women provide us with insights into the political hopes and expectations of the women of the Revolutionary era. One was black and two were white; one had been born a slave and two were born free. One was a Federalist, another a Republican, and a third did not live long enough to enter that debate. Yet, the writings of all three indicate that, like the males of the era, the revolutionary rhetoric of liberty and equality empowered, emboldened, and filled them with expectations.

Questions to Consider:

  1. Why might Wheatley’s poem, and her picture on the frontispiece, have made Colonial readers uneasy?
  2. What seem to be Adam’s primary concerns about the status of the women of her era? What does she see as the solution?
  3. How might Warren’s experience as a woman in the post-Constitutional period have heightened her concerns about a return to tyranny under the Federalists?
  4. What sorts of political expectations are evident in the writings of Wheately, Adams, and Warren? What is the origins of these expectations?

Old and New Challenges to Women’s Equality and Autonomy: Coverture and Sphere Ideology

By 1838, some sixty years after Abigail Adams had urged her husband to press for greater legal and political rights for women, the vast majority of the nation’s white men had been granted the right to vote, regardless of their economic status. The opposite was true for American women. They had lost the right to vote, were forbidden from holding office or serving on juries, and were excluded from most professions and institutions of higher education. Further, despite the opportunities political independence presented to the nation’s leaders to establish new laws and legal principles consistent with the ideals of equality and liberty, American women’s legal rights were still circumscribed by British legal tradition, including the principle of coverture articulated in Blackstone’s Law. The logic of coverture prevented a woman from legally possessing any wealth, property, or political rights, because she herself was property, owned by her husband, who, upon marriage, effectively “covered,” i.e. negated and absorbed her political/legal legal identity into his own.

The legal principle of coverture found its social complement in what historians often refer to as “sphere ideology” or the “cult of true womanhood.” In the 19th Century, thousands of magazines, newspapers, sermons, tracts, “scientific” treatises, poems, pamphlets, and books, like the one by George Burnap, shown here, popularized the idea that all of human existence was divided into two distinct and separate spheres. The male sphere (which received relatively little attention in the 19th Century media), encompassed politics and government, business, law, academia, the sciences, and all other dimensions of public life, and was characterized by the supposedly masculine traits of physical and intellectual strength, vigor, and boldness. The female sphere, which received far more attention in the popular press, was the sphere of private life. Here, women were expected to cultivate the “uniquely” feminine traits of purity, religious piety, domesticity, and submissiveness, and had sole responsibility for all domestic duties: cooking, cleaning, making the clothes, managing the household, and childrearing and Christian education of the young. As high birthrates and universal white male suffrage rapidly began to alter the demographics and socio-economic status of the electorate, child-rearing began to be portrayed, by both male and female writers, as the ultimate expression of female patriotism; who better than the “Republican mother” to instill the necessary political and religious virtues in the nation’s youngest citizens?

Burnap, Lectures on the Sphere and Duties of Woman, pg 47-49
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In 1838, intellectual, abolitionist, and feminist Sarah Grimke (1792-1873) offered one of the first published criticisms of Blackstone’s principle of coverture. Her book, Letters on the Equality of the Sexes, echoed the concerns of Abigail Smith Adams, articulated more than a half-century earlier, about women’s vulnerability under Blackstone’s Law, and provided her readers with additional information about the legal consequences of coverture for American women.

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Sarah Grimke, Letters on the Equality of the Sexes, and the Condition of Woman: Addressed to Mary S. Parker, pg 74-75 (1838)

Questions to Consider:

  1. What does Grimke mean when she writes that women have “no political existence” in the U.S.?
  2. Does Grimke reject the notion of the women’s sphere?
  3. According to Burnap, what is the origin of the two spheres? What are the duties assigned to each sphere?
  4. Which of the four qualities of “true womanhood” does Burnap emphasize in this selection?
  5. How are Burnap’s initial comments about equality (page 47) contradicted by the claims he makes on page 49?

Gilded Cage or Camel’s Nose? Sarah Grimke and Sojourner Truth Seek to Expand the Woman’s Sphere

Though the popularity of sphere ideology in the early 19th Century was in one sense a detour on the path toward full equality for women, it also proved to be, for both women and African Americans, a significant step forward in the struggle for full and equal rights. How can this be? First, the emphasis on female purity, piety, and Republican motherhood, dated as this language may sound to us, is evidence of a larger cultural rejection of one of the most enduring and pernicious Western cultural assumptions about women: namely, that all women were not only physically and intellectually, but also morally weaker than all men, because the mother of all women, Eve, had been the first to disobey God in the Garden of Eden. In contrast, the foundational assumption of sphere ideology was that women were actually more moral than men, and as the keepers of the moral flame for both family and society, they were far better qualified than men to instill in the nation’s children the moral, religious, and patriotic character traits necessary for citizenship.

Second, much of the rhetoric of sphere ideology was borrowed from the Christian tradition. It depicted women’s care of children and household as a sacred, unique, and God-given vocation, upon which rested not only the future of their nation and their families, but also the future of their souls. This gave women a powerful incentive to step, temporarily, into the male sphere, even if it led to the sin of usurpation (i,e. encroaching upon the privileges and prerogatives of men) because so much was at stake for their country, their families, and their salvation.

Third, the 19th Century media’s fascination with the concept of the women’s sphere fostered the development of a new group consciousness among American women, a consciousness that was defined (at least in theory), by gender, rather than class, religious affiliation, or geographical location. Though most working-class women did not have the privilege of remaining in the private sphere, since they had to leave their homes to find work, they too read the literature, heard the sermons, and took pride in women’s unique attributes, which included moral (if not political and economic) superiority over their husbands and other men. Even racial boundaries (as rigid and ingrained as they were), were affected, to some extent, by this new group consciousness. A small but vocal group of women spoke out repeatedly on behalf of female and child slaves, and there is evidence that their descriptions of the horrors visited uniquely on slave mothers and children resonated deeply among women, even those women who remained silent on the issue of slavery.

Finally, the concept of separate spheres proved to be enormously malleable because the distinction between public and private spaces in real life was not nearly as clear as the rhetoric of sphere ideology claimed. In which sphere, for example, did the nation’s first factory workers, the young women who left their homes to work at the Lowell textile mills, belong? And to which sphere did organized religion belong, given that most ministers were men but the majority of parishioners were women? Ultimately, the concept proved so malleable that 19th Century activists used it to coax women into the public sphere to fight for abolition, temperance, and finally, the right to vote, all in the name of fulfilling their domestic duties, as women, to safeguard the private sphere of home and family.

Grimke, Letters on the Equality of the Sexes and the Condition of Woman, pg 3-8
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The documents featured here illustrate some of the ways in which 19th Century female leaders and their followers embraced, expanded, adapted, and even coopted the concept of women’s sphere to achieve their personal and political goals.

As early as 1790, American women writers began challenging the ways in which male scholars had interpreted the Bible, particularly the first three chapters of Genesis (the story of humankind’s Creation and Fall). Some wrote commentaries, others offered new translations that cast the women of the Bible in a more favorable light. Few were more erudite, or faithful to the original texts, than Sarah Grimke (1792-1873), who argued that the legal and social constraints placed on women were due to a misreading of Genesis. Her 1838 book, Letters on the Equality of the Sexes and the Condition of Women, opened with a careful exposition of Genesis 1-3, which concluded that Adam bore as much responsibility as Eve for the fall of humankind. As Grimke stated, “They both fell from innocence, and consequently happiness, but not from equality.”

Former slave Sojourner Truth (born Isabella Bomefree, 1797-1893), also expanded the boundaries of women’s sphere. After securing her own freedom and that of a son and daughter, she spent the rest of her life traveling and speaking out against slavery. Truth delivered her most famous speech, “Ain’t I a Woman,” in 1851, at a women’s rights convention in Akron, Ohio. Two transcriptions of the speech survive and there is some dispute about which is more accurate. One was published soon after the event in a local newspaper; the other, as remembered by one of the organizers of the convention, appeared several years later in The Narrative of Sojourner Truth: A Northern Slave, a biography written by Truth’s friend, Olive Gilbert. The second version, the one most frequently referenced, appears here.

Gilbert, Narrative of Sojourner Truth, pg 132-135
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Questions to Consider:

  1. Which of the four qualities of “true womanhood” (purity, piety, domesticity, submissiveness) does Grimke emphasize in this selection?
  2. What seems to be Grimke’s primary goal in this text? Why does she not reject the foundation of sphere ideology?
  3. Do you see any evidence of a gender-based group consciousness in Grimke’s letter? Where?
  4. How does Truth expand the boundaries of women’s sphere? What traditionally masculine qualities does she incorporate into women’s work?
  5. Which of the four qualities of “true womanhood” (purity, piety, domesticity, submissiveness) does Truth emphasize in this selection?

The Velvet Hammer and the White-Ribboned Army: Frances Willard and the WCTU Fight for Suffrage in order to Fight for Temperance

Far too few white Americans of the Antebellum period spoke out against slavery, though women were well represented among abolitionist leaders. Unlike male leaders, women abolitionists waged a battle on two fronts, fighting for the rights of African Americans as well as for their own rights, as women, to speak publicly on behalf of the abolitionist cause. Parallels between the oppression of blacks and women did not go unnoticed by abolitionist leaders like Sarah and Angelina Grimke, Lucretia Mott, Antoinette Brown Blackwell, Harriet Tubman, Frances Watkins Harper, Lucy Stone, Susan B. Anthony, Sojourner Truth, and the Beecher sisters, Harriet and Catherine, and most of these women were also among the 19th Century’s earliest women’s rights advocates. However, the presence of women in the public sphere, even for so just a cause, scandalized the general public as well as several abolitionist leaders. As a result, the abolitionist movement soon fractured into different factions, with some societies quite opposed, and others more open to women’s leadership.

In the post-Civil War period, many women abolitionists turned their attentions more directly to the cause of securing women’s rights, hoping to build a national movement capable of influencing the country’s political leaders. However, continued wide-scale opposition, among both women and men, to women’s involvement in politics and the public sphere made this impossible. Unity among various women’s groups was also hampered by disagreements regarding the roles of religion and race in the movement, and the kinds of rights that women should be seeking (divorce, property rights, the right to work, etc.). Disagreements about voting rights proved particularly vexing; though most leaders saw woman suffrage as essential for women’s progress, the vast majority of American women regarded this as a step much too far into the public (male) sphere.

Stebbins, Fifty Years History of the Temperance Cause
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Willard, Glimpses of Fifty Years: The Autobiography of an American Woman
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Even as the emerging women’s movement was splintering into competing factions, another movement, also comprised almost entirely of women, was gaining members and rapidly evolving into a cohesive and powerful political force. The Temperance movement, which had been in existence since the 1820s, galvanized women across the country because it promised relief from what many of them saw as the primary source of their hardships and sorrows: the abuse of alcohol by husbands, fathers, and sons. In 1874, numerous temperance groups across the country joined together to form the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, and temperance literature, including books, newspapers, pamphlets, hymns, handbills, and even a lengthy history of the movement, began to flood the market. By 1879, the WCTU was the largest women’s political organization in the world. Thanks to the deft leadership of its second president, Frances E. Willard (1839-1898), who, among other things, created the slogan “Home Protection,” thousands of pious women across the country began marching out of the private sphere and onto the sidewalks of their communities to assemble, protest, petition, sing, and pray in front of the bars, taverns, and pharmacies they believed were destroying their families and communities. By 1893, when Willard announced the WCTU’s new “Do-Everything” strategy at the World’s Columbian Exposition, conservative women’s opposition to woman suffrage had largely evaporated. The White Ribbon Army, i.e. the rank and file of the WCTU, which numbered in the hundreds of thousands, stood ready to fight for the right to vote, the next logical next step in their crusade to rid their homes and communities of the evil of alcohol.

Questions to Consider:

  1. The question of women’s presence in the public sphere divided and weakened the abolition and women’s rights movements. How did the temperance movement manage to avoid this problem?
  2. How did Willard modify the four qualities of “true womanhood” (purity, piety, domesticity, submissiveness) to connect temperance work with the quest for woman suffrage?
  3. Which of the four characteristics of “true womanhood” (purity, piety, domesticity, submissiveness) did the artist emphasize in the picture, “Home of the Temperate?”
  4. In what ways did the picture, “Home of the Intemperate,” reflect the realities of women’s lives during this period of U.S. history? How did this picture attempt to modify the characteristics of the true woman?

Selected Sources

Bordin, Ruth. Woman and Temperance: The Quest for Power and Liberty, 1873–1900. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1990.

Cott, Nancy F. The Bonds of Womanhood: “Woman’s Sphere” in New England, 1780-1835. Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1980.

Cott, Nancy F., ed., No Small Courage: A History of Women in the United States. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.

De Pauw, Linda Grant. Founding Mothers: Women of America in the Revolutionary Era. New York: Houghton Mifflin Press, 1975.

DuBois, Ellen Carol and Lynn Dumenil. Through Women’s Eyes: An American History, 4th ed. Boston: Bedford/St. Martins, 2016.

Epstein, Barbara Leslie. The Politics of Domesticity: Women, Evangelism and Temperance in Nineteenth Century America. Middleton, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1981.

Harris, Sharon M., ed. American Women Writers: To 1800. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.

Kerber, Linda K. Women of the Republic: Intellect and Ideology in Revolutionary America. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1980.

Lerner, Gerda. The Grimke Sisters from South Carolina: Pioneers for Women’s Rights and Abolition. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.

Norton, Mary Beth. Liberty’s Daughters: The Revolutionary Experience of American Women, 1750-1800.

Woloch, Nancy. Early American Women: A Documentary History 1600-1900. Belmont, California: Wadsworth Publishing, 1992.