Before Equal Suffrage: Women in Partisan Politics from Colonial Times to 1920

By Robert J. Dinkin | Go to book overview

Chapter 1
The Colonial and Revolutionary Periods

As had been the pattern in Europe over the centuries, women in early America were not supposed to play any political role in society. Following the ideas and values brought here from the Old World, colonial leaders agreed that women's primary place was in the home, centered around traditional activities such as housework, cooking, cleaning, and childrearing. As one New Englander put it: women should "keep at home, educating of her children, keeping and improving what is got by the industry of the man."1 In addition to taking care of the household, it was conceded, women could participate in some phases of the religious life of the community. But a sharp distinction was drawn between religion and politics. When the question arose in early Massachusetts about possibly allowing all church members a political voice regardless of their other status, Puritan minister John Cotton argued that only independent adult men had the necessary qualifications to act responsibly in the political sphere. "Women and Servants," he said, are not reckoned "capable of voting in the choice of Magistrates, . . . though they may be and are, church members."2 Cotton and others felt that women might exercise some decision-making authority within the family, but in society at large men alone could be rulers.

To be sure, not all men in early America had access to the political realm. As noted in Reverend Cotton's remarks, bound servants (primarily male) were to be excluded. Moreover, religious dissenters, white men without property, and, of course, black slaves were usually barred from any form of political participation. Members of these groups, along with women,

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