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.

Women in 18th-Century America: Selected full-text books and articles

No Small Courage: A History of Women in the United States By 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"
Women in Early America By Thomas A. Foster New York University Press, 2015
Inventing the American Woman: An Inclusive History By 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 By 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's Rights: People and Perspectives By Crista Deluzio; Peter C. Mancall ABC-Clio, 2010
Librarian's tip: Chap. 2 "Women of the Colonial Period," Chap. 3 "Daughters of Liberty: Women and the American Revolution"
Love of Freedom: Black Women in Colonial and Revolutionary New England By Catherine Adams; Elizabeth H. Pleck Oxford University Press, 2010
Before Equal Suffrage: Women in Partisan Politics from Colonial Times to 1920 By Robert J. Dinkin Greenwood Press, 1995
Librarian's tip: Chap. 1 "The Colonial and Revolutionary Periods"
Daily Life during the American Revolution By Dorothy Denneen Volo; James M. Volo Greenwood Press, 2003
Librarian's tip: Chap. 13 "Women at War"
Political and Historical Encyclopedia of Women By Christine Fauré Routledge, 2003
Librarian's tip: "The American Revolution through Women's Eyes" begins on p. 61
Daily Life on the Old Colonial Frontier By James M. Volo; Dorothy Denneen Volo Greenwood Press, 2002
Librarian's tip: Chap. 6 "Family and Household"
The Diary of Elizabeth Drinker: The Life Cycle of an Eighteenth-Century Woman By Elaine Forman Crane University of Pennsylvania Press, 2010 (Abridged edition)
A primary source is a work that is being studied, or that provides first-hand or direct evidence on a topic. Common types of primary sources include works of literature, historical documents, original philosophical writings, and religious texts.
Women and the Law of Property in Early America By Marylynn Salmon University of North Carolina Press, 1986
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