Women in 18th-Century America

Women in 18th Century America were taught little except domestic duties and religion - any education given was designed to further these ends. As religious beings, however, women held positions of dignity and respect. The English liberals of the day believed that wider education would render women better wives and mothers and that it was wrong to deny them its privileges, but Americans generally offered only limited training to their women.

Though individual women in the US and abroad read widely and were interested in study for its own sake, this did not change the general standard. By the middle of the century literary influences became stronger, with many also helping to spread more liberal ideas on marriage and feminine training.

It was The American Revolution which brought an increased interest in women's education and a new recognition of its importance. Women contributed to the Revolution in many ways and on both sides. While formal Revolutionary politics did not include women, ordinary domestic behaviors became charged with political significance as Patriot women confronted a war that permeated all aspects of political, civil and domestic life. They participated by boycotting British goods, spying on the British, following armies as they marched, washing, cooking and tending soldiers, delivering secret messages and, in a few cases, fighting disguised as men. Above all, they continued the agricultural work at home to feed their families and the armies. They maintained their families during their husbands' absences, and sometimes after their deaths.

American women were integral to the success of the boycott of British goods, as the boycotted products were largely household items such as tea and cloth. Women had to return to knitting goods and to spinning and weaving their own cloth - skills that had fallen into disuse.

The years succeeding the conflict brought an extension of town and village school facilities, the opening of female academies and the publication of books and addresses on the subject. By 1790, even the conservatives had adopted views which would have been thought liberal in 1700.

Economic activity for women of the upper classes was greater in the U.S. than in England, partly because wartime and frontier conditions, by taking men from home, left women with added responsibilities. Mistresses of plantations had probably heavier duties than women of corresponding status elsewhere. In the poorer classes, on the other hand, women received better treatment, did less outdoor work and dressed better than in Europe.

American law towards the close of the century showed some changes in the provisions for conveyance of land by women, in more liberal regulation of power, and in greater ease in obtaining divorce. Women were still in a legally subordinate position, but perhaps less so than in most European countries. Despite some Revolutionary appeals, political activity was reserved for a select group which wielded only indirect influence. Opportunities for religious leadership and participation in church government were confined to a few denominations.

By 1800 the work of new liberals was well known and these writers advocated greater economic and educational opportunities for women - even suggesting feminine participation in government. A few Americans were sympathetic with the liberal views, but most, including the clergy, were conservative and bitterly attacked the new ideas.

Despite distinct gains in the education provided for women, it was far from being equal for the two sexes. European ideals and methods still predominated, somewhat modified, by American conditions. In legal and economic affairs, women's positions had improved, but fear of radicalism was restricting new developments.

Despite occasional suggestions of the fuller life which the next century and a quarter were to open to them, American women were still in a state of dependence.

Selected full-text books and articles on this topic

No Small Courage: A History of Women in the United States
Nancy F. Cott.
Oxford University Press, 2004
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 1 "The Tried and the True: Native American Women Confronting Colonization," Chap. 2 "The Colonial Mosaic: 1600-1760," Chap. 3 "The Limits of Independence: 1760-1800"
Inventing the American Woman: An Inclusive History
Glenda Riley.
Harlan Davidson, vol.1, 2001 (3rd edition)
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 1 "Women in Colonial America to 1763," Chap. 2 "Resistance, Revolution, and Early Nationhood, 1763 to 1812"
Herstory: A Woman's View of American History
June Sochen.
Alfred Publishing, 1974
Librarian’s tip: Chap. Two "Spokes on the Wheel of Western Culture 1600-1775," Chap. Three "The Defiant Ones 1600-1775," and Chap. Four "Independence for Whom? 1775-1800"
Women in Eighteenth-Century America: A Study of Opinion and Social Usage
Mary Sumner Benson.
Columbia University Press, 1935
Love of Freedom: Black Women in Colonial and Revolutionary New England
Catherine Adams; Elizabeth H. Pleck.
Oxford University Press, 2010
The Fair Sex: White Women and Racial Patriarchy in the Early American Republic
Pauline Schloesser.
New York University Press, 2002
Before Equal Suffrage: Women in Partisan Politics from Colonial Times to 1920
Robert J. Dinkin.
Greenwood Press, 1995
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 1 "The Colonial and Revolutionary Periods"
Daily Life during the American Revolution
Dorothy Denneen Volo; James M. Volo.
Greenwood Press, 2003
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 13 "Women at War"
Political and Historical Encyclopedia of Women
Christine Fauré.
Routledge, 2003
Librarian’s tip: "The American Revolution through Women's Eyes" begins on p. 61
Out to Work: A History of Wage-Earning Women in the United States
Alice Kessler-Harris.
Oxford University Press, 1983
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 1 "Forming the Female Wage Labor Force: Colonial America to the Civil War"
Daily Life on the Old Colonial Frontier
James M. Volo; Dorothy Denneen Volo.
Greenwood Press, 2002
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 6 "Family and Household"
Women and the Law of Property in Early America
Marylynn Salmon.
University of North Carolina Press, 1986
Not All Wives: Women of Colonial Philadelphia
Karin Wulf.
Cornell University Press, 2000
In the Affairs of the World: Women, Patriarchy, and Power in Colonial South Carolina
Cara Anzilotti.
Greenwood Press, 2002
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