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  The Unfinished Revolution  

The Unfinished Revolution
By Edith Gelles

Three-quarters of a century after the signing of the Declaration of Independence, a conference of women in Seneca Falls, New York adopted a new declaration to speak to their generation.  The 1848 Declaration of Sentiments addressed the unfinished Revolution. It began:  “We hold these truths to be self-evident:  that all men and women are created equal.” It continued, echoing the original document, to outline grievances that the men of the Continental Congress failed even to imagine. The seeds for these grievances were planted during the Revolution and only began to sprout in the middle third of the nineteenth century. Some of them did not become law until the twentieth century.

The grievances that the Seneca Falls women outlined fell into three broad categories:  education, economic and political rights. Their demands were radical, bold, and articulated in the language of justice. They also contained ideas that did not exist in women’s world of the mid-eighteenth century American colonies, when the prevailing model of “separate spheres” circumscribed women’s roles. Based upon the belief of difference between the sexes, women—except those enslaved or indentured or trapped at the bottom of society--were considered primarily and ideally domestic beings. Religion, law, and biology confined women’s position to the home and care of family.

Contemporary historians of women look upon the concept of “separate spheres” in different ways. Some interpret the doctrine as a partnership, where women and men functioned harmoniously side by side in the performance of their responsibilities.  Other scholars see the system based on patriarchy, where women were subordinated to men’s authority and power. It was probably a bit of both, and the Revolutionary War with its rhetoric about independence and freedom laid the foundation for disrupting the status quo.

But it was not just the language of revolution that disturbed the social fabric; it was the experience of women acting as “deputy husbands” during the absence of men from the household, while they served the nation as soldiers and statesmen. In taking over the roles of their husbands, fathers and brothers, women began to envision themselves differently. Boldly expressing her new experience of supporting her family in wartime, Abigail Adams famously wrote to her husband, then a delegate to the Continental Congress, to “Remember the Ladies” in the code of laws that would govern the new country.

Abigail had in mind several issues.  One was broadening the opportunities of education for women. While several private schools for women existed prior to the Revolution, they were small and exclusive. Abigail bemoaned the fact that an education equal to that of men was not available to women. Unlike some women who based their demand for better schools on their roles as mothers, Abigail believed that women deserved the same education as men for the same reasons as men, to live more fully and thoughtfully.

Another issue that vexed Abigail was the legal structure that prevented her as a married woman from owning property. By the inherited British legal code, once a woman married, she lost control of her property to her husband by the rule of “coverture.”  Abigail learned to circumvent this rule by having male relatives purchase property that she wanted, but the system was harshly enforced against many women who became destitute in marriage. A woman did not own her own labor or her earnings. Furthermore, in the event of desertion, separation, or divorce, the husband gained control over the children. They were legally his children, not hers.

Political rights for women was not on the agenda of the Founders, although by an error of wording of the New Jersey state constitution, it became possible to women to vote, which several women did until 1807, when the word “persons” was changed to “men.” The idea of woman suffrage would not become an issue for American women until the mid-nineteenth century, but it was not a distant step from the other unfinished issues that did emerge in the revolutionary context. Once women gained education and economic rights and laws regarding their legal status began to change, the vote was certain to follow. And if rights for women were at first confined to privileged white women, as the movement gained momentum women of all social classes, races and ethnicity would be included. But it would take more than a century of agitation on the part of women before the unfinished business of the American Revolution became a part of the national agenda.

Further Reading:

Mary Beth Norton, Liberty’s Daughters:  The Revolutionary Experience of American Women, 1750-1800 (Boston:  Little, Brown, 1980)

Edith B. Gelles,  Abigail and John:  Portrait of a Marriage (New York:  William Morrow, 2009)          

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