Background of Women’s Rights Movements in America

It is not known to me who the first underwriter of women’s rights might have been, so I suggest Abigail Adams, spouse of John Adams on the basis of a letter she wrote to him.  On March 31, 1776, Abigail Adams writes to her husband in Philadelphia:  

“I long to hear that you have declared an independency.  And by the way, in the new code of laws which I suppose it will be necessary for you to make, I desire you would remember the ladies and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors. Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the husbands. Remember, all men would be tyrants if they could. If particular care and attention is not paid to the ladies, we are determined to foment a rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we have no voice or representation.”  

Mrs. Adams was living in a time of “Republican motherhood”.  If the “Republic of Virtue” which the founders sought to achieve was to become a reality, it would be necessary for its citizens to be educated.  From earliest colonial days, mothers taught their children to read, mostly using The Bible.  This continued among most families as a part of the necessary division of labor; men providing the economy of the household and women overseeing the health and education of the family.  Probably though, Mrs. Adams was referring to the Coverture Laws then in existence among all the colonies.  These laws dated to the seventeenth century in England.  When a woman married, she and her husband became a single person under the law; the woman was “covered” by her husband.  The wife’s property was legally transferred to her husband to manage and control.  Slowly after 1789 some States individually changed some matters, such as permitting women to earn separate income, or to hold and manage separate property.  Wealthy spinsters or widows were often sought by men to marry so as to control their wealth.  George Washington married Martha Dandridge Custis who was a very wealthy widow. The Panic of 1819 – the first major recession after the Constitution — provided reasons for some states altering their property ownership laws so as to protect families in bankruptcy.   This was the beginning of a long period of de-coverture.

Mrs. Adams could also have been thinking of women’s suffrage.  The First Congress passed the Naturalization Act of 1790. Any alien after two years residence and being a free white person could become naturalized as a citizen.  A child born of a citizen became a citizen upon reaching age 21.  Thus, women became citizens of the United States, but citizenship of a state was a matter of state law.  The Constitution does not reach the States’ obligation to respect US citizenship until the Fourteenth Amendment changed this result in 1868.  

By 1848, America’s economy had grown much greater and Republican Motherhood no  longer applied to wealthy women, many of whom now had formal education.  In 1848 forty-four women held a public convention in Seneca Falls, NY in which they stated their grievances – The Declaration of Sentiments. It included suffrage, politics, family, education, jobs, religion, property, and morals as issues.  Many women were already participating in reforms, such as de-coverture, prohibition, abolition and mainly suffrage.  Women were also involved in social work and in establishing poor houses.  Women’s suffrage issues in Western states were often sought together, with prohibition of alcohol, thus causing liquor and brewing interests to lobby against suffrage.  It is noteworthy that women’s movement used “associations” for civic betterment while commercial interests worked through political channels.  It is probable the women involved had read Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, and in particular the section on associations.  Based on actual results achieved from 1850 onward, women were able to realize results more reliably than from using politics directly.                                                                        May 20, 2020