Limited Liberty for Women after the American Revolution

The American Revolution forced women to take on new roles. Women participated in every aspect of the Revolution. On the home front, women boycotted British goods and in Middletown, Massachusetts women wove 20,522 yards of cloth to avoid buying British fabric. The boycotts’ success depended on women who made decisions about what items to produce or what material to buy. Women also aided men in the battlefields. Soldier’s wives cooked, did laundry, and nursed for the army as they followed their husbands. Although these duties allowed them to contribute to the Revolution only with traditional “women’s work,” other women took on jobs that were considered traditionally male. Several accounts exist of women who fired cannons in the Revolution. Soldier Joseph Plumb remembered seeing a woman helping her husband load a cannon during the battle of Monmouth. Through activities like firing cannons and helping men in battle, women in the American Revolution stepped outside of their usual roles of household management and child care.

Despite their contributions during the war, women were still not viewed as equal to men. When Thomas Jefferson stated that “all men are created equal,” his words were understood to apply only to men. Property ownership and divorce remained difficult for women to get after the Revolution. Though unmarried women could own property, husbands took control of their wives’ property. Divorce was rarely an option for post-Revolutionary women even if they were abused by their husbands. The rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness promised in the Declaration of Independence were not granted to women.

The failure of the American Revolution to grant basic rights to women was not corrected in the constitution that was formed after the fighting stopped. Since a woman’s role in the eighteenth century centered around household management and childbearing, the founding fathers never considered women’s rights. Some women, like Abigail Adams, challenged men’s tendency to ignore the rights of women. Abigail wrote to her husband John Adams when the constitution was being formed, “in the new code of laws which I suppose it will be necessary for you to make, I desire that you would remember the ladies and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors.” Despite Abigail’s request, the original constitution never provided women with equal rights. Women not only did not receive protection from abusive husbands but also could not vote until the nineteenth amendment to the U.S. Constitution was passed in 1920. The position of women in American society did not change significantly until the twentieth century.  




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