Women after the American Revolution

Although the Revolutionary War provided a new perspective of women’s roles in politics and the household, there was not lasting change after the end of the war. Coverture is the status that a woman is essentially property of her husband, and is to remain under his command. During the post-revolutionary era, ideas of coverture still existed in America, even if new rights given to women began to spark their want for equality.

Before the American Revolution, women had a very elementary role in their homes and in public life. They could cook, clean, and raise children. Not much more was expected of them. For the most part, activities occuring outside of the home were not for women, and were not the business of women. However, during and after the American Revolution, women were viewed much differently. With their husbands away at war, women were the only people who were able to take on the responsibilities of their spouse. Before the war, no one would have thought that a woman would even be capable of handling such responsibilities. The revolution provided opportunity for women to be granted limited rights. It then became the soul purpose of a woman to raise their children as patriots, so that they would grow up to love and contribute to their country. Although this “Republican Motherhood” did not give women more freedom outside of the home, it gave them the determination and confidence that they needed to escape from the inequality that they experienced in Colonial America.

The practice of coverture in America had an effect on women in two ways, both by restricting what they could learn, and by legally confining and separating them from men. For education, women were not encouraged to seek higher learning. In the north, girls
finished school at an elementary level, which was enough education for them to learn to support their husbands in the future. In the south, education was somewhat similar. Girls would learn basic classes like reading, writing and arithmetic. They were taught enough to read their Bibles, and to know how to record household expenses.

There were laws about social issues that kept women from having full and equal rights. Even after the Revolution, most states did not grant many grounds for divorce. Massachusetts Bay only allowed divorces for cases of adultery and desertion. Because of this, women were again pushed into coverture. They were not allowed to file a divorce for simply being unhappy with their relationship. It was very difficult for women to remain single, even if they wanted to. If a woman became a widow, she was entitled to what was known as “the widow’s thirds,” meaning she gained only one-third of her late husband’s property.

Coverture did have an effect on the unequal treatment of women. This treatment of women persisted until the Revolutionary War challenged many of its traditions. Due to the new struggles of war, many women decided to take up arms alongside men and fight with them. Sarah Osborn was one of these courageous women. During a battle, George Washington had asked her if she “was not afraid of the cannonballs?” to which she replied “The bullets would not cheat the gallows, it would not do for the men to fight and starve too.” When Osborn said this she stood up to gender roles of that time period. Her ambitious statement showed that she would fight just as the men did, and that she would defy the king just as the men did. This idea that many women shared challenged the idea of coverture and its place in early American society.

Not all women fought or helped aid soldiers in the war, but many were hopeful for the future of women, and hoped that their lives would be changed by it. Judith Sargent Murray wrote, “… they almost render the wise man’s assertion problematical, and we are ready to say, there is something new under the sun.” She relayed hopefulness on American women that their lives were going to change for the better. Coverture and men’s consistent defiance of removing the ideology of it, would not last. After the Revolutionary War, it was unsure weather coverture would remain dominant in society. The new inspiration that women shared was known as “Republican Motherhood.”

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