Women’s Post-revolutionary Politics

Thus far for all her interest in politics and her performance of male blunders in leadership roles, Mrs. Adams had no wish to see the new nation ruled by women. Soon after becoming first lady of the land, she exclaimed: “Government of States and kingdoms, tho' God knows how badly enough managed, I am willing should be solely administered by the lords of creation. I should only contend for Domestic government, and think that best administered by the female. ”13

The enthusiasm to discuss civic matters only in private settings and to leave governing completely to men were attitudes held not just by Abigail Adams however by most politically observant women of the Revolutionary era. Why such women did not wish to go further in politics and demand an equal voice can largely be described by the fact that women's conventional confinement to the household role was too strong to be permanently changed by the short-term experiences of the American Revolution.

Their training had always been for the domestic sphere and not for the world outside. Whereas women were able of understanding the dynamics of the political process and in recommending courses of action, they themselves had never spent any time on the public stage and hardly ever thought about ascending to that level. As historian Joan Hoff-Wilson has written: “Opportunities open to women earlier in the eighteenth century were too limited to allow them to make the transition in attitude necessary to insure high-status performance in the newly emerging nation.

” 14 Conceivably, too, women of the time may have realized that their presence would not have been welcome if they enthusiastically sought out a greater political role in these years. In any case, most post-Revolutionary era women were not necessarily unhappy remaining outside the conventionally male political sphere. In actual fact, several of those touched by the patriotic fervour of the Revolution, and wishing to contribute to the well-being of the new nation, found compensation in the more and more popular idea of "Republican motherhood.

" Women within this mode could take pride in their domestic achievements, particularly the rearing and educating of their children. Raising the next generation (sons in particular) to be ethical and righteous citizens, perhaps future leaders of state, was claimed to be a patriotic attempt ranking with almost anything that men could accomplish. To be a victorious Republican mother, women were encouraged to obtain some education and a wakefulness of the nation's civic culture. And they could use their capabilities even beyond the household at times, performing charitable work and other types of community service.

It is likely that most women of the time thought such activities more fitting than ventures into partisan politics. (Letters of delegates to Congress, 1774-1789) Thus far a woman's acceptance of the concept of "Republican motherhood" did not necessarily prevent an interest in state or national politics. Certainly, some women continued their close observation of political events in the instant post-war period. They did this by reading newspapers and communicating frequently with friends and relatives on the subject.

It would emerge that a number of women were aware of the high-level meetings going on in Philadelphia in the late spring and summer of 1787 that resulted in the formation of the new federal Constitution. (Letters of delegates to Congress, 1774-1789) Whether any women responded to this appeal and, if so, what form it took is unknown. We as well have little evidence of women's reaction to the Constitution as ultimately drafted, except for a sharply critical antiFederalist pamphlet by Mercy Otis Warren.

Interestingly, Warren did not differ from male opponents of the document in making no reference to the absence of gender in its contents. 15 However if the federal Constitution ignored the female half of the population, and most politically knowledgeable women restricted their political views to the private sphere, this fails to tell the whole story. As would be true over the next several decades, there were always a handful, who deliberately or unconsciously defied tradition and did what society said women were not supposed to do--that is, openly partake in the political arena.

Conclusion: Consequently, from the start of colonial times to the end of the Revolutionary era, women had moved from a position of being completely outside the political realm to one where they had contributed in the war effort, had begun discussing current affairs, and in one state had in some cases even been admitted as voters. In terms of later developments one can, certainly, argue that the amount of progress which had taken place was negligible. In spite of everything, women on the whole were not yet measured capable of acting responsibly in the political sphere.

On the other hand, given male attitudes at the time it might be astonishing that women would have made any progress in this area whatsoever. At the same time as change would come slowly in the ensuing years, by the end of the next half-century women would start to have more presence on the political scene.

Footnotes: 1. John Cotton, Discourse about Civil Government (Cambridge, Mass. , 1663), p. 5. 2. John Adams to John Sullivan, May 26, 1776, in Charles F. Adams, ed. , The Works of John Adams, 10 vols. (Boston, 1850-56), 9: 376.