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The Evolving Role of the American Woman The role of women in American History has shown that although turbulent, women have never faltered in their beliefs and optimism toward equality in the home and workplace. The five events that have greatly influenced women’s American history signify the struggles and triumphs women have faced and overcome to get to where they are today. These events show that the themes generally remain the same, with women working hard at work and harder at home while receiving no respect for either. It also shows struggles and victories unique to different ethnic groups within the United States, such as the respect given to Native American women and slavery in the South. American women were not always politically oppressed. The history of women in this country has changed dramatically with each cultural shift. Before European explorers stumbled on the east coast around 1600, Native American women were historically regarded with much freedom both politically and sexually, which proved to be rare in comparison to other women during that time. They served as cultural mediators, with Kidwell describing the relationship, saying “There is an important Indian woman in virtually every major encounter between Europeans and Indians in the New World. As mistresses or wives, they counseled, translated, and guided white men who were entering new territory.”1 They also had a significant amount of informal power and were allowed to freely express themselves. Men understood this and as a result, their ancestry was traced from the mothers’ family. When Europeans began to arrive, they acted as cultural mediators and their housework was valued greatly among the tribe. They also had informal power within their community; their opinions were valued and they were considered in the decision making process of the tribe. This system continued until Europeans began arriving with their ideas of female inferiority. Missionaries coming from Europe wondered


why native women were working so hard while men sat around. These missionaries began trying to save the Native Americans and set up their own communities. This is significant because Native American men understood and valued the contributions their women made and had a very efficient system until settlers began to pour in. The next pivotal moment in women’s history was when women began to arrive and find their political voice as indentured servants in the early 17th century. Their basic needs were met but they were expected to work years to pay off the cost of their voyage. Men began to realize the significance and value of women’s work. It was said that the success of a home depended heavily on the presence of a wife. This, however, did not translate into equality. This is when the idea of the women’s economy emerged. Women began bartering household items and time in order to make sure their families had enough. They began making specialized items. This system, however, was becoming increasingly invisible to men. Soon, Revolutionary women began to have a greater voice in their futures. Women began talking and thinking about how these events would affect them. Liberty’s Daughters began dedicating themselves to the cause; they wrote petitions and encouraged boycotts. These changes in attitudes were only temporary, but it showed that women, as consumers and producers, could succeed when they put their efforts together. Women decided that since they were living politics, they should begin having representation in government. Abigail Adams began speaking out more, showing that women needed to begin protecting women as a whole. During the Revolution women not only reorganized their households to support the war, some actually fought, like Deborah Sampson and Molly Pitcher. They also were camp followers, deputy husbands and participated in gathering supplies and hosting fundraisers. Women were having a greater presence in the military, a normally male-dominated sector. Women were citizens and were equally subject to


laws and paid taxes; they weren’t, however, eligible for full citizenship, which of reserved for landowning, white males. Women were still legally owned by their husbands under the system of coverture. Men were realizing that as child bearers, mothers needed to be educated to teach their children, especially boys, what it was like to be a citizen. Gradually, women began realizing the oppression they faced and developed a political voice, although at this point it history it was only a whisper. This time is important because women were beginning to question why they were not afforded the same rights as men while they were performing a vast number of domestic jobs in order to keep the home running smoothly. Women as wage earners were the next huge event that greatly influenced women’s American history. During the late 18th century, both immigrant and American women like Lucy Larcom started to believe in the “mutual bond of universal womanhood” and began working in industrial factories because they needed to, not because they wanted to. It was at this time other women began working due to industrialization. In the textile production industry specifically unmarried young women were sent by their families to work. They stayed in boarding houses and the conditions they worked in were deplorable but they had their independence. As their wages decreased, women who were empowering themselves while working in the factories began protesting. They were soon replaced with immigrants, while other sectors for women to work grew quietly. This work ranged from domestic servants to mills and prostitution. Soon, a shift began to emerge between wage earning women and “true” care-giving women. This was important because young women’s attitudes were formed very early about work and “true womanhood.” While these women would most likely eventually leave the workforce to pursue a husband and family, their attitudes remain unchanged about women’s role in the workforce. This event was very important because it gave women a sense of independence; they began working


for their own money to help support their family. They were able to work long hours and return home to work longer hours. Women soon began to realize the increasing oppression and shame they were facing from trying to help support their families were not fair. Slavery was the next huge moment in history, especially the triumphant story of Elizabeth Key. Although slavery began in the 1760’s, it was at its peak during the 19 th century. It was a fluid system and was not life-long in the beginning, comparable to servitude. With the discovery of the Middle Passage, African men, women and children were kidnapped and shipped to the colonies, if they survived the harsh journey. African women performed a diverse range of work, depending on their region in the country, with the rural South having the harshest conditions. They worked in agriculture, crafts and domestic labor, the same work they had performed in their native Africa. The way in which they were expected to work was vastly different, being isolated and looked after by an overseer. This was very important because the work black women provided were taxed under tithe laws while white women’s were not. White women’s labor was not considered to be economically important while African American were expected to produce work equitable to a man. This showed that female slaves were less womanly than their white counterparts, which was dehumanizing. Gradually, a clear gendered division of labor emerged and women were increasingly relying on other women for emotional support as their husbands and older children were beginning to be sold off. Elizabeth Key was one of the first slaves to successfully challenge and deviate from English law. Although she lived during the beginning of slavery, she successfully sued her free, English father’s estate and won her freedom. Soon laws were changed making slavery matrilineal. During the 19th century, importation of slaves was abolished; reproducing the slave population was the most important job for slave women and it greatly increased their value. Although slavery is unique to African American women alone,


Jones notes that the same theme was also present for white women of this time. “…the burdens shouldered by slave women actually represented in extreme form the dual nature of all women's labor within a patriarchal, capitalist society: the production of goods and services and the reproduction and care of members of a future work force.” This huge part of history is so important to women’s history specifically because it showed that women’s work was equitable to men’s and valued legally as such. Although they were still oppressed, the state was recognizing that slave women were working just as hard as white men. Forming support systems within the slave communities was also very important to the livelihood of their culture. The most important event that influenced women’s American history was women getting the right to vote with the 19th amendment. Women were able to stay involved in politics, while the women’s rights movement was deeply divided. The modern movement was ready with fresh women and ideas. They soon changed their name from “women’s suffrage” to “votes for women” and made many changes to keep the issue more modern. They began heavily recruiting working class women and newly arriving immigrants with propaganda being distributed in their native languages. Women were still much divided on the issue of race; black women argued that if white women should have the right to vote, so should black men and women. Stansell“Black women, working women and immigrants joined white reformers in a stunningly successful coalition. More states followed, so that by the 1916 presidential election, 4 million new votes were in play….President Woodrow Wilson, who had been a genteel but firm anti-suffragist, was indebted to female voters for helping him win a close election, and in 1918 he endorsed a constitutional amendment.” In 1919, the amendment goes to the states for ratification and was added the Constitution a year later. This victory marked the end of a long, tiresome72-year battle to give women equal rights as men. This change was obviously the biggest, most significant


event in women’s American history. Women had been oppressed for so long and were finally given the same treatment as men. With this victory, women would never again be silenced or allow repression based on their gender alone. Although it was difficult to pinpoint only five historic events that changed the course of women’s American history, I feel that these signify the biggest struggles and accomplishments both white and African American women have faced. These events show the increasing, although incremental, liberation and independence women were receiving. Women were equally as involved during the Great Depression, in the workforce during World War II and the Civil Rights Movement. They faced many more political struggles, including their personal reproductive rights and workplace discrimination and have somehow survived. Women have not had an easy journey to where they are today and it is important that we all know what women such as Elizabeth Stanton and Alice Paul have done for the woman gender as a whole. Without courageous, determined women who would have sacrificed anything for equal rights, I do not know where we would be and it is important that we continue telling their stories so women all around the United States can appreciate the freedoms we have today.

Women in American History  

essay written describing the linear progression of American women throughout our nation's history

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