In colonial America, women fulfilled an important function in society. Besides the usual roles of wife and mother, women also played an important economic role. In frontier areas, men and women worked together to produce the food and supplies necessary for survival. Even in towns, women often helped their artisan husbands in the shop to produce the family income. Towards the end of the eighteenth century, however, this reality began to change, at least for well-to-do women in the towns and villages along the East Coast. Increasingly, these women were less involved in the day-to-day economics of making a living. By the nineteenth century, the ideal American society would be divided into the man’s sphere, the realm of work and making money, and the woman’s sphere, the world of the home—the retreat from the evil world. This division was slowly developing in the last quarter of the eighteenth century.
These changes in the role of women encouraged changes in attitudes and ideas about women. In the seventeenth century, women had been seen as the source of much evil in the world. As the “daughters of Eve,” women were particularly susceptible to sin and often led men into wrongdoing, as Eve had led Adam to sin. 1 Women were weak, lacking reason, unable to learn and be educated, and easily led astray, so they had to be guarded and protected by the men in their lives. Slowly, through the course of the eighteenth century, these ideas changed. Increasingly, women were seen as rational beings who could be educated to play a useful role in the young republic. Growing emphasis was placed on the role of women as the wives and mothers of citizens of the United States. Increasingly, the marriage vision came to be the “companionate ideal of marriage” 2 —the idea that men and women were friends and companions in marriage. In order to be good companions and good mothers, women needed to be educated. It slowly