According to historian Carol Berkin, a woman was considered a "legal incompetent" along the same lines as "children, idiots, and criminals under English law." Berkin probably represents the majority view among most observers of America's past and citizens who are at least mildly attentive to the founding era.
It's certainly the view of the Women's International Center (WIC). Its website paints a fairly critical view of women in early American history, arguing that "a man virtually owned his wife and children as he did his material possessions."
***See WIC's section on Women's History by clicking here.
Is, however, such a cynical and frankly anti-Founder view justified? Certainly, women of African descent (particularly those held in slavery) faced a bleak existence. Few would dispute that. But what about the rest of America's women? Were they relegated to second-class status (or worse)? Was early America oppressive toward women?
***Read "How Were Women Treated in Early America?" at Suite101 American History.
In 48 Liberal Lies About American History, Larry Schweikart refutes the view that women (non-slave women, that is) had no rights in early America. According to Schweikart, a historian with the University of Dayton, the United States took steps to accord women (including married women) greater options and rights than were available in other societies. He cites power of attorney laws, prenuptial agreements, education, and even church opportunities as examples of early steps to improve conditions for women in early America. These steps were somewhat unique to the United States, elevating the status of women in America beyond that of many other societies.
This of course doesn't change the fact that men enjoyed greater voting rights, property rights, and social status than did women.
***Click here to watch author and commentator Cokie Roberts and UC professor Cynthia Gorney discuss the role of women in the American Revolution.
While women in colonial America certainly didn't enjoy the same degree of rights and opportunities that women do in the twenty-first century, progress was being made. And this is something that Schweikart says should be acknowledged today.
Says Schweikart: "American women, while not yet the political or economic equals of males, had far more protection and rights under Anglo-American law than did the vast majority of females around the world."