As of December 31, 2014, I retired from full-time teaching in Humboldt State University's Department of History. While this website will remain online, it is no longer maintained.
History 110 -
Dr. Gayle Olson-Raymer
Founding Mothers: The Road to Seneca Falls
"Woman is a slave, from the cradle to the grave," wrote Ernestine Rose,Third National Women's Rights Convention, September 1852. How does this painting illustrate this quote?
The reality is, we know very little about the women of colonial America, especially the ordinary women. Because most did not read or write, women rarely left behind any information about their lives. We know a bit more about what some people have called the "Founding Mothers" - the wives of famous men - because they were literate and engaged in correspondence with their husbands. Only recently have historians begun to look at the lives both ordinary and extraordinary women.
- To learn some basic facts about the daily lives and formal roles of colonial women.
- To discuss the roles of American women during the Revolutionary War.
- To understand how the circumstances and consequences of the Revolutionary War changed the lives and roles of American women.
To determine how and why a few American women took the path to Seneca Falls.
Discussion Goal #1: To learn some basic facts about the daily lives and formal roles of colonial women
Although Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England was not published until 1765, the principles he described were long embedded in practice and language in both England and her colonies:
"By marriage, the husband and wife are one person in law; that is, the very being or legal existence of the woman is suspended during the marriage, or at least is incorporated and consolidated into that of the husband; under whose wing, protection, and cover, she performs everything."
Essentially, colonial women were "owned" by their husbands. The most obvious emblem of this status was the loss of her name. Married women were not referred to as "Mary Brown" or "Mrs. John Brown," but rather as "John Brown, his wife." Further, unless a husband signed a contract prior to marriage, a wife could neither own nor acquire property, nor could she enter into a contract or write a will.
While we know very little about the lives of southern and middle colony women in early America, we do have some information about women in colonial New England, most prominently
the brief “Valedictory and Monitory Writings” of Sarah Goodhue,
the captivity narratives - especially those of Mary Rowlandson and Elizabeth Hanson,
the poetry of Anne Bradstreet, and more recently, we have the diary of Martha Ballard who wrote about her life at the beginning of the Revolutionary period until her death in 1812.
These sources alone are not enough to tell us the story of colonial women. So, historians have had to search for evidence of women’s lives that is buried in sermons, account books, probate inventories, genealogies, church records, private records, paintings, embroideries, gravestones, and the private papers of husbands and sons. These sources illustrate one primary fact - women - both rich and poor - lived in a gendered world defined by certain truths:
And what do these sources tell us about the daily lives and what was expected from colonial women? They spent their days:
- God had created woman to be a helpmate to man.
- A woman’s natural inclination was obedience, fidelity, frugality, and industriousness.
- A woman’s natural function was bearing and nurturing children.
- A woman – regardless of economic status – faced restrictions on her economic independence, her legal identity, and her access to positions of formal authority.
- Societal restrictions pushed a woman into a choice between marriage and spinsterhood.
- The only rites of passage a woman could experience were marriage and motherhood.
- Building and regulating fires
- Feeding the family by cooking, baking, and canning
- Tending the farm animals - milk and meat cows, chickens, sheep, pigs.
- Tending the kitchen garden.
- Making cider and beer.
- Keeping the family clothed by gathering wool, weaving, and sewing
- Cleaning the home and family clothing
- Keeping the family healthy
- Birthing and rearing children
They also had some important economic considerations that contributed to the household such as:
- Bartering with neighbors for household items
- Supervising an apprentice - especially for weaving and herbal medicinal skills
- Running a farm or plantation
Work for pay was rare, but some women were busy
- Providing services on a farm or in the city
- Running a business
- Operating a tavern and/or lodging house
- Practicing midwifery
- Educating children in other's homes and in communities
Married women had several important and expected roles:
Helpmate - This role was the most important; a woman was to satisfy male expectations for a wife by providing help and assistance in all that he required.
Housewife - This role was defined by space (her house and surrounding yards), her tasks, and her limited area of authority which ws the family's internal economy.
Deputy Husband - This role required her to shoulder male duties - a weaver’s wife might wind quills for the loom - as well as take responsibility for external affairs of the family in the absence of her husband.
Consort - This role required her to harmonize spiritually and sexually with her husband, regardless of her needs or desires.
Mother - This role required her to perpetuate the race and to elevate women to selflessness and love that would counterbalance the more authoritarian governance of fathers.
Mistress - This role required her to serve those who served her by training, supervising, feeding and clothing a succession of neighbors’ daughters.
Neighbor - This role required her to sustain the community of women by gossiping, trading, assisting in childbirth, sharing tools and stories, watching and helping in cases of abuse.
Christian - This role required her to be spiritual, pious, and silent in church.
Discussion Goal #2: To discuss the roles of American women during the Revolutionary War
What is often missing from the tales we tell about war in early America is the women's perspective and the roles they play during these tumultuous times. If we look at the lives of our Revolutionary Mothers - the title of Carol Berkin's great book- we get an especially clear idea of how they fared during wartime. And in exploring their lives and roles, we are forced to see the war through an unromantic lens - a lens in which violence plays a huge role in the lives of women, in which families are torn apart by chaos and death, homes and crops are destroyed, women are raped, and many families suffer from hunger, dislocation, and in some cases, exile from their homeland.
As Carol Berkin tells us in Revolutionary Mothers, for eight years the Revolutionary War "blurred the lines between battlefield and home front" and in so doing, propelled women into the center of the violent conflict. So, just what did women do during the Revolution?
- Before and throughout the war, both lower and upper class women organized and carried out political protests against English policies.
The first real political act of American colonial women was to boycott British goods and services. Others signed political manifestos in their communities to join with merchants and community members by abstaining from the use of tea.
Some wrote articles, plays, and poems urging women to make a political commitment to saying no to British policies.
- During the eight long years of the war, lower and upper class women kept the farms, shops, and families going by assuming all the roles of both mother and father. While assuming this role, many women experienced a devastating sense of loneliness after their husbands and sons left for the war.
Regardless, they had to face the challenge of managing their home or farm completely on their own.
They did this by
- Improvising when food and other household materials ran out - learning to make tea from herbs and flowers, preserving food with walnut ash instead of salt, making soap out of sea salt.
- Making do in the midst of exorbitant prices for food and goods. By 1778, four months of a soldier's pay could not purchase a barrel of wheat in many areas of the country.
- Assuming new tasks that were physically and emotionally demanding - mend fences, cut and store firewood, repair tools, negotiate the sale of crops, pay laborers and buy and sell slaves - while still doing her normal chores such as tending the children, cooking, gardening, sewing, and mending clothes.
- Opening their homes to soldiers whenever so ordered by military commanders. In so doing, their homes were taken over and as its mistress, they were expected to provide food and do laundry for the military men. When they left, women had to replace the scarce resources the soldiers had consumed and stolen and take care of the massive damage they left behind.
- Suffering rape and/or physical humiliation in silence - they knew complaining would not bring about punishment but could instead, cause more humiliation; and they also knew that resistance would have consequences for the lives other than their own - especially their children.
- Throughout the war, lower class women traveled with the army - both the American and British armies - and provided necessary services. While numbers are uncertain, it is generally believed that the number of women traveling with the American army made up about 3% of the entire army population.
- About 5,000 women and 12,000 children lived in the British military camps and the majority were ordinary women from the lower classes who performed traditional roles in an untraditional setting. Such women joined the army for three primary reasons: to escape loneliness, poverty, fear of starvation, the possibility of rape or death at the hands of hostile invading troops; to make some income by peddling their trades as seamstresses, cooks, laundresses, and prostitutes; and to nurse sick soldiers.
- These women were often scorned as lower class "doxies" and were considered a nuisance by many of the soldiers, especially officers. George Washington issued 8 army-wide orders during the course of the war directing women to march with the baggage and prohibiting them from riding on the baggage wagons. But he had little success in getting them to obey - largely because women served several important roles:
- They cut down on desertions - when men had the comfort of their wives, mistresses, or even their mothers, they tended to remain in the army.
- They improved hygiene in the camps by washing uniforms and underwear, something men refused to do.
- They provided nursing skills, despite their exposure to the danger of disease.
- They fed the men and sewed their clothes.
- Some women even took their husband’s place at the cannon when they were injured, continued their husband’s jobs if they died, and even disguised themselves as men and enlisted in the war.
- Throughout the war, upper class women visited their husbands - officers and generals – and provided morale.
These women were driven to join the army from a sense of duty to their husbands, to lift the morale of their husbands and their officers, and to remind their husbands of the genteel life that they were fighting to defend.
- Typical of these was Martha Washington who several times during each year of the war, visited her husband, stayed at a local home near the camp, threw parties, and provided luxuries that were not available to ordinary soldiers. Their visits were more like an adventure rather than a lifestyle.
- These upper class women - from both the American and British armies - were admired by the officers and their troops. Indeed, there was a clear social distinction between the often-scorned lower class women who followed the army and the admired genteel, upper class women who visited the soldiers.
- Throughout the war, loyalist women tried to avoid victimization due to their support of Britain. Women, rich or poor, who supported the British quickly became outlaws in their own communities. Some were left behind to guard their husband’s property while they fought for Britain; others tried to wait out the war. Regardless of the reason, their suffering was immense.
- The Revolutionary governments confiscated the property of men they considered traitors - this included land, homes, furniture, livestock, and any other possessions. Usually, their wives were still on the property when the confiscations occurred.
- Often times, neighbors destroyed Loyalist property, mobs drove women from their homes, destroying them as they left and confiscating everything they owned.
- Many women chose to leave their communities rather than remain in the midst of their enemies - but this meant leaving home without any of their possessions and undertaking a long and dangerous journey to Canada or Florida.
- An alternative existed - petitioning local patriot authorities for safe passage and permission to bring personal possessions and supplies into British territory, but the price was high. Officials set limits on what a woman could take, required she pay all transportation costs, and required her to leave any son over 12 behind to serve in the patriot army.
- Some women served as spies and couriers for the Americans and the British. One of the more controversial ways women helped the war effort was by spying for the British, the Loyalists, and the Patriots. These women put themselves and their families in danger and overcame great risks for their cause. Their actions influenced the outcome of battles, furthered the causes they believed in, and protected their families.
- According to the National Women's History Museum website, most female spies worked for the British and American military camps as cooks and maids. Some worked as couriers, like the woman in this painting who is delivering a message to a fort. They eavesdropped on conversations about troop movements, military plans, supply shortages and deliveries.
- Women were especially good spies because they were women; few people thought that women would get involved in such political and dangerous acts. However, because the war was fought on farms, city streets and the front yards of many homes, female spies easily carried the messages and supplies they gathered to neighboring houses and farms without detection.
Discussion Goal #3: To understand how the circumstances and consequences of the Revolutionary War changed the lives and roles of American women
Before and during the war, women entered a sphere largely unfamiliar to them - the world of politics. Their daily choices before the war - to buy or drink imported tea or refuse it, to buy English cloth or weave their own, to shop at loyalist stores or avoid them - became political acts. Thus, during the war, rich and poor women continued to perform their traditional duties, but performed them under untraditional circumstances.
Despite this change and the manner in which women easily moved into the political sphere and assumed many of the male roles required by the war, after the war virtually no one suggested formalizing the role of women in politics or allowing them to continue performing any untraditional tasks.
In fact, most women seemed eager to return to the family roles they had known in more peaceful times.
Indeed, the extraordinary challenges they assumed in wartime had been met "only to preserve the survival of the ordinary." (Berkin, xvii) Most women returned to their customary activities after the war.
It was, as if "The war for independence allowed, and often propelled, these women to step out of their traditional female roles for the briefest of moments and to perform deeds that surprised them perhaps as much as they surprised others." (Berkin, 146)
Discussion Goal #4: To determine how and why a few American women took the path to Seneca Falls
Although radical changes in gender ideology and gender roles for most women did not change after the war's end, the Revolution did lend what Carol Berkin describes as a "legitimacy to new ideas about women's capacities and their proper roles." Such thinking led some individuals to offer a few new opportunities for some women and encouraged postwar intellectuals to reinterpret the traditional roles of women in ways that eventually led to change.
Specifically, a small group of intellectuals engaged in a lively debate after the war about what changes might be necessary in the New Republic. Such people were, of course, among a small group of elite women and men who addressed changes in the lives of their racial and social classes - not in the lives of ordinary women or women of color.
These women formed the earliest debates about the role of women in colonial society and as such, focused on the following:
The rejection of the traditional notion that women were both morally and mentally inferior to men.
The acceptance of the belief that formal education was necessary to cultivate women's dormant rationality and morality.
The assumption that the familial role of women was to ensure her children's patriotism and basic education - a role previously given to men while they still worked within the home space.
Despite the debates, 60 years after the Revolutionary War, the following had occurred:
Women's roles narrowed rather than expanded. Upper and middle class women were forced into a "domestic sphere" that focused their emotional and intellectual energies within the small circle of the home..
While many agreed that the sexes were intellectually and morally equal, few believed that men and women should employ their abilities together in the political arena.
Women's economic independence and married women's legal rights were as restricted as they were prior to the war.
Thus, it is sad but not surprising that women still had few legal rights.
This fact led a group of 300 committed women - and a few men - to gather at Seneca Falls in 1848. About 100 people - 68 women and 32 men - decided to write and endorse a declaration that would, in the words of Susan B. Anthony, serve as the "grand basis for attaining the civil, social, political, and religious rights of women."
At a time when traditional roles for women were still very much in place, the Convention and the resulting Declaration of Sentiments caused much controversy. Written in the same language as the Declaration of Independence, the Declaration of Sentiments was meant to illustrate that women still had a long way to go if they were to be considered equal citizens in the new nation.
As an essay at the Human Rights and Social Justice Writing Center states:
"Elizabeth Cady Stanton ... followed the style and wording of the Declaration of Independence closely. Thomas Jefferson wrote, 'We hold these truths to be self evident that all men are created equal.' Elizabeth Cady Stanton edited this same sentence to say that all men and women are created equal. Whereas the Declaration of Independence outlines the 'patient sufferance of the colonies', the Declaration of Sentiments outlines the 'patient sufferance of women under this government.' The Declaration of Independence aims its grievances at the King of England and addresses him by saying things such as 'He has obstructed the Administration of Justice' and 'He has dissolved Representative Houses repeatedly.' The Declaration of Sentiments uses this same style, but the 'He' is not used to address the King, but male oppressors. The Declaration of Sentiments mimics the style used in the Declaration of Independence to highlight the fact that women are American citizens."
Many people respected the courage and abilities behind the Sentiments, but were unwilling to abandon conventional mindsets.
An article in the Oneida Whig published soon after the convention described the document as "the most shocking and unnatural event ever recorded in the history of womanity."
Many newspapers insisted that the Declaration was drafted at the expense of women's more appropriate duties.
Even many supporters of women's rights believed the Declaration's endorsement of women's suffrage would hinder the small women's rights movement and cause it to lose much needed public support.
Why do you think many people - men and women - saw this as both a radical and dangerous document?
How many years after Seneca Falls was it before women achieved almost all of what they wanted in the Declaration?
Founding Mothers: The Road to Seneca Falls
Women in colonial America lived a highly gendered life in which they were completely beholden to their husbands and were expected to be a good Christian helpmate, housewife, mother, neighbor, deputy husband, consort, and mistress.
Before and during the Revolutionary War, women entered a sphere largely unfamiliar to them - the world of politics. Their daily choices before the war - to buy or drink imported tea or refuse it, to buy English cloth or weave their own, to shop at loyalist stores or avoid them - became political acts.
The lives of women, both rich and poor, changed dramatically before and during the Revolutionary War as women performed their traditional duties and roles within untraditional settings, and assumed many new roles previously provided by their husbands and sons.
Women’s participation in the war provided proof that the colonial certitude of women being morally and intellectually inferior to men was incorrect.
Despite the assumption of new roles, the manner in which women easily moved into the political sphere, and the certainty that women were morally and intellectually equal to men, after the war virtually no one suggested formalizing the role of women in politics or allowing them to continue performing any untraditional tasks.
The extraordinary challenges women assumed in wartime appeared to have occurred only so that they could return to their ordinary family roles in times of peace.
The “women’s debate” of the postwar era ended by narrowing, rather than expanding, the women’s sphere by focusing women’s emotional and intellectual energies within the small circle of the home and domesticity.
Over 60 years after the end of the Revolutionary War, this narrow definition of women’s roles in the world at large led a small group of determined women to come together and advocate for change at Seneca Falls. It took, however, another 71 years before their list of changes were met!