Monday, January 5, 2009

Did Women Have Rights in Early America?

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."


Lori Stokes said...

It's true that English women in America had far fewer rights than Dutch or Quaker women; both of those groups allowed women to own property, inherit land and money, initiate divorce, and to own their own formal businesses. English common law was much harder on women, who could not do any of these things.

English colonial women in America could not be given the right to live in their own homes by their husbands; if a husband died, his property, including the house, went to his sons or other male relatives. Wives and daughters were stuck, and had to rely on the mercies of those male relatives who did inherit (and, substantially, on the womenfolk of those males, with whom they had to get along).

The early U.S. didn't do a lot to remedy these problems, but it did do a little. As the women of the first Seneca Convention said in the middle of the 19th century, a woman was still "legally dead." said...

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John Shaw said...

Unfortunately, Jefferson was "clueless" about Native Americans and Indian women in the eastern woodlands. Many not all) eastern woodland cultures were matrilineal, which meant that children followed the lineage or descent of their mother's (clan), not their father's.

In these matrilineal cultures, women were also the economic mainstays, i.e., the "farmers" who cultivated the main mode of subsistence - corn, beans and squash ("the three sisters"). While women also did most of the gathering (seeds, plants, grasses, nuts, berries, roots), men hunted, fished, raided other tribes or defended against attacks, engaged in diplomacy and provided political leadership. But it was the clan mothers who nominated and deposed male sachems (chiefs). Women also had their own councils, and consulted on civil matters and issues of war and peace.

Jefferson's ethnocentrism stemmed from three European American cultural stereotypes. First, European American men did the farming ("man behind the plow), and did not appreciate that Native American gender division of labor was just . But difference was perceived as being negative. When European American men visited Indian villages, they saw the women working hard in their fields, while Indian men lounged around. European American men rarely saw Indian men work, except at treaty councils (and many European men saw hunting as a leisure sport rather than a mode of subsistence). European American men like Jefferson concluded (incorrectly) that Indian women were drudges or slaves to the men. But in reality, Native women had much greater economic and political clout than European American women, who were for the most part confined to the private "domestic sphere."

Jefferson was also imprisoned by a rigid Enlightenment-era construct known as "stages of civilization," which conveniently relegated Native Americans to the barbarous lowest stage. To Jefferson's credit he believed Native peoples could rise to the higher levels (unlike his views of African Americas as being inherently inferior), but mislabeled them as barbarous nomadic hunters (when they were settled horticulturalists exhibiting high-levels of culture). THus Native peoples had inferior rights to use and occupy land, while superior European of European-derived sovereigns had superior title to land in North American based upon a contrived "doctrine of discovery." From that, the U.S. embarked on its continental "empire of liberty" (as Jefferson called it) or "manifest destiny."

I am still a great admirer of Jefferson, but not when it comes to his ethnocentrism towards Native Americans. He was imprisoned by his own culture's standards and values.

Anonymous said...

i think its a really which meant that children followed the lineage or descent of their mother's , not their father's.

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