The Rights of Women in 18th Century America
On July 4, 1804, a group of young men in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, offered a series of toasts to commemorate the nation's independence. Among their testimonials, they offered one to a cherished ideal:"[To] the rights of men, and the rights of women-. May the former never be infringed, nor the latter curtailed." The men acknowledged, even celebrated, an innovative and controversial idea: women along with men should be regarded as the bearers of rights. But why were women denied to bear their own rights?
"Let the defenders of male despotism answer (if they can) the Rights of Women" Just as the rights of man took on new meanings over time--meanings the American Revolutionaries had not anticipated-so, too, did the rights of woman.("An Essay On the Rights of Woman," National Magazine; (Wash., D.C.,1800) 2:206)
Women during the eighteenth century were acknowledged as nothing more than housewives, and were expected to play that particular role with a smile on their faces. Women were to "find happiness in their chimney corners" (Norton). "Women remained essentially confined to the domestic sphere" (Tindall and Shi). Women's rights were to be nonpolitical in nature, confined to the traditional feminine role of wife and mother. Where is the justice? In the Declaration of Independence, we are granted inherent liberty, yet women, small property owners, endentured servants, slaves, and minorities were not included. Since when does liberty suddenly have a different significance? Where do life, liberty, and property stand. They were granted, but if you were a woman these natural rights were unheard of. Natural rights, more than other kinds of rights, commanded assent because they were said to be inalienable, immutable, and transcendent-passed by virtue of one's personhood rather than a result of one's citizenship, parentage, or property (Wollstonecraft).
"Discrimination against women throughout much of American history was caused by the prevalence of a masculine system of justice based on English common law" (Hoff-Wilson). "The development of the republican ideal as an autonomous, patriotic male citizen, proud of his maturity and independence, left women cast in the opposite role of dependent, unreliable, and weak" (Kerber). "The rights of humanity," Wollstonecraft asserted, "have been...confined to the male line from Adam downwards,: with the result that half of the population was kept from realizing its full human potential. They found that limitations on women's liberty was too controversial so they decided women did not need liberty. Why are general rights being decided solely from a male’s prerogative? Were men so intimidated by the...