The Woman Question in the U.S. (late 1700s – early 1800s)

One Explanation of the Woman Question

Virginia R. Bensen

While drafting the American Constitution during America’s Early Republic in the late 1700s, the “woman question” started to appear. Based upon the values system of the British, women were not considered to have voting privileges. In fact, there was must questioning over just how women should participate in our newly formed country, the United States of America.

Acording to the scholar, Gerda Lerner, the American Revolution substituted egalitarian ideology for the hierarchical concepts of colonial life for men. Women wer excluded from the new democracy, and their situation had deteriorated. Many business and professional occupations that had been opened to women were now restricted from training opportunities and entry. Other than the answer, “The war caused it,” my question is what specific influencers helped spur these changes?

Any societal change usually happens gradually and over time. Granted, a war can speed change up, but the societal changes that Lerner discussed, particularly the women’s restrictions to professional occupations and training opportunities have little to do with the American Revolution. The American Revolution forced women to step into male roles. The war did nto stop that effort, it encouraged it.

Some influencers that may have caused the shift of women’s occupational restrictions really started prior to the American Revolution. There was more than just one influencer, but possibly multiple influences. During the the early settlement of the British colonies in North America, there was an increase in the colonies’ population, yet during this period, there was a shortage of women. By the mid-1700s, there was a 15% surplus of women. What did a single or widowed woman do during this period if she was of little means? The woman had to work. What did these poor women work at? They either became indentured or were taken in by relatives, and the women cotnributed to someone’s household economics and home industries. During this same time, commerce was booming in the colonies, and trade was flourishing between Great Britain and the Colonies. In the South, tobacco and rice brought in wealth to the plantations, and in the North, becasue of new technologies of the time, the mercantile industry was establishing itself. Because of these new technologies, women now were not required to home home manufacture everything that was needed to manage a home.

Because of the increased commerce between the American Colonies temselves,a nd with Great Britain, many individuals who were not considered wealthy, such as merchants and small business owners, now had purchasing power. Many of these new middle-class women now could buy things like fabric, china, fancy furniture, and other finery. They had more time to do other things, like visit friends, make their homes “pretty,” and show off their newly acquired things by entertaining friends and relatives. Now, the concept of the “genteel lady” or “pretty gentlewoman” emerges, but only the very wealthy women were considered one of these creatures.

Women were still restricted both through society and legally in their choices for work and property ownership. Again, let’s revisit the issue that there was a surplus of women who needed to be employed. According to historian Sara Margaret Evans, by mid-seventeenth century, “men became less religious and more attentive to economic opportunity.” For the sake of this discussion we will limit our focus on the northern colonies. With the establishment of the mercantile industry, and mill work, who is available, and who could be hired cheaply? The answer is the poor women who needed to work.

Now the American Revolutions happens. Men leave their homes to fight. Women take over the family businesses and farms. The Patriots win America’s independence from Great Britain. Men come home, and if living in a town or city, they find industry has taken away their need to home manufacture. What will they do? The men find jobs in factories which are located outside of their home. Businesses and industry hired men first. If the husband is provided a decent income, and the women now do not have as much to do, what will the women now do? Women become active int heri church, buy finery, make their homes prettier, make babies, and rear their children. Tehre are now three clases in the new United States of America: the wealthy, the middle-class (with spending power), and the poor. The wealthy womena re already “ladies.” Now, the middle-class women placed the idea of being a “lady” as a status symbol, because now there is no hierarchical structure preventing them. Now attaining wealth is no longer restricted to just a few who were born into that status. The American women now think, “We too, can be ladies.”

Who makes the laws? Who owns the mills? Men do. Who now influences the newly elected legislatures in each colony and in the newly formed United States? Again, the answer is the men. Questions start to arise asking what role women will play in this new government, and, should they be treated as equals and given the same rights that men have, thus, the “Woman Question.”

The more educated women wanted to justify that women are capable of stepping into men’s roles. Women are not mentally inferior. Thus, women need to be educated. The men bought into the idea about women’s education, but they still objected on the basis that if women were busy getting educated, which made them qualified for occupations and “men’s jobs,” when would the women have time to do what was left of the domestic chores, especially taking care of their husbands and riasing the children? Did men want to volunteer to help in these areas? Of course not, that is “women’s work.” The men thought a bit more into the issue, and asked, “How much education does a women need to make a shirt or cook a pudding?” Women of course answered, “We can do both!” We can take care of our husbands, as well as the children and become educated.” To justify this answer, the women claimed that an education would prepare them to be able to teach their “sons” to become patriotic good citizens, and “hard workers.” Because women had already become vocal and active in religious activities, the men piped in and said, “You can also be the beacon of morality, but try to look good when you do all these things. We men realize you can multi-task, but you cannot be the beacon of knowledge and morality, and work outside of the home. You need to stay home to do these things properly, and be a “lady.”

after both the women and men manipulated each other in a type of sparring match, it crossed the men’s minds that industry was expanding. The men needed more workers. There were more jobs than men. Who could the men hire who would workcheap? Ponder…ponder…”The poor women. They are not ladies. We men will come through as knights on white horses to rescue these poor out-of-work women! Now these creatures will be able to keep busy, and off of public assistance. This is the ‘moral’ thing to do.” In the men’s minds, it was now time to move on to bigger and more important issues.

What appears above to be a quick conversation between the women and men really transpired over a period of over eighty years. It was not until the 1830s that the cult of true womanhood hit its peak with everyone. As Gerda Lerner states, “Idleness, once a disgrace in the eyes of society, had become a status symbol.”

Sources: (Click Source Title to Access)

Gerda Lerner, “The Lady and the Mill Girl: Changes in the Status of Women in the Age of Jackson,” American Studies Journal 10, no. 1 (1969), 9, 11.

Sara Margaret Evans, Born of Liberty: A History of Women in America (New York: Free Press Paperbacks, 1997), 34-35, 40.

Carol Berkin, First Generations: Women in Colonial America (New York: Hill and Wang, 1996), 152.

Carol Berkin, Revolutionary Mothers: Women in the Struggle for America’s Independence (New York: Vintage Books, 2006, 154.

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