A Woman's Place: A Four Part Series
In our time, nothing has changed more dramatically than the role of the American woman--from Abigail Adams to Hillary Rodham Clinton. This series highlights the most important aspects of that evolution. SB
A funny thing happened to the American woman on her way through the twentieth century. She changed--not just the length of her skirts, her hairdo, or her caloric intake--she changed her lifestyle and her point of view. Her story marks a long trip on a slow bus, with a lot of detours along the way. But she persisted, and today, we can almost say, "she has arrived."
Sometimes the lights all shinin' on me, other times I can barely see. Lately it occurs to me--what a long, strange trip it's been. The Grateful Dead
Part I: Remember the Ladies
On March 31, 1776, America was on the verge of issuing The Declaration of Independence. Abigail Adams, wife of John Adams, one of the Declarations's framers who later became the second President of the United States, wanted to see that women were represented in the document, so she wrote to her husband, "In the new Code of Laws, which I suppose it will be necessary for you to make, I desire that you Remember the Ladies." To which John responded..."We know better than to repeal our masculine systems. In practice, you know, we have only the Name of Masters, and rather than give up this, which would completely subject us to the despotism of the petticoat, I hope that General Washington and all our brave heroes would fight.
A Woman's Place
For much of its history, the ideal American society was depicted as one in which men functioned as the breadwinners and protectors, while women stayed home--raising the children and managing the household. It was thought the work world would be too dangerous for women because it was full of temptations, violence, and trouble. Women would be victims in that environment.
In establishing male-female boundaries, man was identified as a "doer" in social and intellectual pursuits: aggressive, outgoing, rugged, dependable, imaginative, intelligent, versatile, and flexible--capable of logical thinking and skilled in the art of decision-making. Woman, on the other hand was regarded as a supporter in man's actions: frail, retiring, indecisive, emotional, and somewhat deceptive. Together, man and woman made a perfectly matched pair--of opposites.
Their proper roles were impressed upon both sexes almost from birth. Little boys were set free outdoors and given miniature weapons, baseball gloves, and erector sets. The message was clear: go out, build, and conquer. Male models from Abraham Lincoln to Babe Ruth sent the message that with ambition and hard work, a by could grow up to achieve success, greatness, and even immortality.
Girls were kept indoors and given dolls, tea sets, and sewing projects. They had one role model: Mother who stressed that their proper purpose in life was to make one man a good wife, raise his children, run his home, and cater to his needs.
In this ideal society, women had no legal rights. If a woman brought property to her marriage, she had to turn that property over to her husband. A woman could not testify or bring suit in court. She could not sign contracts, serve on juries, or act as legal guardian for her children. But the greatest injustice to women in those early years was that they had no vote--no say in matters that impacted their lives. Clearly, something had to change.
The Fight for Women's Rights Begins
That change began in the mid-nineteenth century when a few courageous women demanded equal rights and opportunities. The first to come forward was Elizabeth Cady Stanton, considered to be the founder of the women's rights movement. She spoke out at the first Women's Rights Convention in Seneca Fall, New York in 1848: The history of mankind is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations on the impact of men toward woman, having as direct object the establishment of tyranny over her.
Mrs. Stanton protested the economic discrimination against women and urged reform of divorce laws. She also organized a campaign to write A Woman's Bible to dispel the notion that women were weak and inferior. She advocated suffrage as a step toward making woman a self-supporting, equal partner with man in the State, the Church, and the Home. The bus was on the move.
Filed under: Living in Interesting Times