The Once & Only 19th Amendment Centennial Course: A 2020 Blog Citizenship as Republican Motherhood Minus Rights

Week 2.

It is not possible to understand the rise of women’s rights movements, including the suffrage movements, without first understanding the situation women faced in the historical lead-up to that period. This is especially important because we can be sure that very few students have any background in women’s history. They haven’t begun to imagine what it was like to be a woman – from any social group – in the 17th, 18th, or early 19th century. They don’t know how the law considered women as compared with or in relation to men, or how women spent their days, or what their relationship was to the political system or major events such as, even, the American Revolution.

The readings for this week included the first chapter of Rosemarie Zagarri’s Revolutionary Backlash: Women and Politics in the Early American Republic (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007) and 2 chapters of Linda K. Kerber’s Women of the Republic: Intellect and Ideology in Revolutionary America (University of North Carolina Press, 1980).  Zagarri’s chapter has a very good discussion of the implications of the American Revolution for women; a useful brief explication of the  period from 1790 to 1807, when women gained then lost the right to vote in New Jersey; and a consideration of women as citizens and rights bearing people in the Early Republic. The Women of the Republic readings provide a good introduction to the legal situation of women, especially the common law framework of coverture and the concept and reality of Republican Motherhood.

This week had two main goals – beside an introduction to the socio-political and legal situation of women up to the Jacksonian era, this class also offered a substantial exercise in thinking historically, following up on our discussion of historical story-making from the week before. (See the slides: PO50519thAMCItizenshipPPT)

I developed and handed out a 6-page Timeline of Rights, Law, Policy, & Politics, listing simply dates and events. (See the Timeline: Timeline19thAmendSp20 )  I asked the students to divide themselves up into a few groups and spend 20 minutes reading and discussing the time line, identifying one or two interesting historical stories they detected, or identifying a couple of interesting questions or puzzles the timeline raises. When we reconvened together, each group presented its stories and puzzles. In each case I facilitated substantial discussions in which we pursued the stories and puzzles together, and through which I could draw some overarching points that will be important throughout the course.

Some of the questions the students identified:

  • Instead of things just getting “better and better,” sometimes rights that were there were taken away – why? (Discussion: “progress” as a bad framework for understanding history. What specific situations led to increase or decrease in rights?)
  • Rights were granted first in the Midwest/West – especially Territories: Why?
  • Utah: Why did they grant women rights so early and why did the federal govt take them away?
  • Bradwell v IL: Weird that women started getting degrees and qualifications, but then weren’t allowed to use them.
  • Also in terms of education: Why is Mississippi the first place where women could get degrees (and they were granted limited voting rights very early there) when Mississippi otherwise has been so anti-egalitarian? (Discussion: Always note who is responsible for increase or decrease in opportunities or rights: Fed? State? Local? Which branch? Private bodies like religious organizations?)
  • Muller v Oregon 1908: What was the big deal about 10-hour workdays for women? (Discussions: Different views of advancing women: pure equality vs protecting them from the special brutalities imposed on women ; i.e. equality vs equity. Also: Changes in women’s status and opportunities were often moved not primarily because of views of gender, but because of other issues such as, in this case, governmental intrusion in the labor market or, in other cases, party advantage.)
  • Why did women get to vote in school elections in so many places first?
  • Why was the vote often limited to taxpaying women and what was the significance for women?

We then moved to a combined lecture/discussion on gender, the law and policy to get a baseline for women’s situation before the suffrage movement. Although we mainly covered the common law, we took some time to note the variety of legal frameworks existing in the colonies and Early Republic, and conditions that would create variations in how the legal system affected women.

We worked our way through a classic discussion of the law of coverture and its implications using the famous passages in Blackstone’s Commentaries. The point was to make clear that even focusing on free white women, regardless of class or wealth, the law of coverture meant married women could not own their own property other than the clothes on their back, could not make contracts, seek employment without their husband’s permission, or have a right to keep any earnings from their employment. If a woman no longer resided with her husband, either because she left him or he left her, she was assumed to have abandoned him and if they were still married she still lived under the law of coverture, as she did if her husband was, say, lost at sea but they had not proof of his death. She had no rights over her children. She had rights only to the widow’s portion (1/3 of his property) at his death, which meant, if the property was a farm, she had to sell her portion – that is, her source of income. There was no such thing as rape in marriage because she had given her consent at marriage. He had a right to “correct” her, as they did their children, so his brutality against her would have to be very extreme indeed for anyone to protect her. Because of all of this, a “free” woman’s situation depended very much on the beliefs, attitudes, behavior, and whims of her husband, although he could make no binding contracts with her to circumvent the law because, by law, they were one person, indivisible.

We moved next to a consideration of women’s social roles and gendered expectations, emphasizing two aspects that are very important for understanding women’s standing and potential in politics: women in public, and women and communication. The main point is that women were not supposed to appear in public unaccompanied by men except in very circumscribed circumstances, or they would be regarded as deeply suspect. Moreover, there was a limited range of subjects women were able to discuss acceptably, and they were certainly not supposed to presume to teach or inform men. This, obviously, makes it very difficult to have an impact on public decision-making.

The remainder of the class was supposed to begin to look at women’s political roles relating first, to elections, and then the broader subject of republican motherhood but, not surprisingly, we were out of time. Next week!

(Look to the right, to Recent Posts, to connect with the other weeks.)