DID THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION make any difference in the lives of women? Did women make any difference in the outcome of the American Revolution?
Historians Mary Beth Norton and Linda Kerber, in addressing these questions, provide us with a richly detailed account of the lives, work and consciousness of women in the revolutionary period. Both trace the activities of women during the war, their changing self-concepts as they assumed economic responsibility for their families and their increased expectations after independence was won, as manifested in their demands for education and for some role in public life. Both authors try to interpret the changes in the definition of "womanhood" in the post-revolutionary era. Drawing on similar primary sources -- letters, diaries, family papers and legal records -- both authors agree as to basic facts, but their interpretations are quite different.
Asking the question of what the Revolution meant for American women is in itself emblematic of the relatively recent efforts to understand women's past. The assumption that historical generalizations about any period would apply equally to men and women was challenged in the 1970s by several historians in the emerging field of women's history, who noted a deterioration in the status of women as compared to men in the Age of Jackson. In an important essay published in 1976, Joan Hoff Wilson stated flatly that "the American Revolution produced no significant benefits for American women" and proved her case largely by citing a decline in women's status under the law and in the professions in post-revolutionary America.
Mary Beth Norton builds her book into an attack on this thesis. She claims to disprove the notion that colonial "American women's essential economic contribution to the household gave her a social status higher than that of both her European contemporaries and her nineteenth century descendants." She also challenges the idea of a loss in status for women in the 19th century as well as the claim that industrialization caused this loss.
Norton's thesis is simple: 18th-century men and women firmly believed in the "inferiority" of women. Most white women of that century had low self-esteem and a limited conception of their roles. The American Revolution had "an indelible effect upon American women," not in law and politics, but "in changes in women's private lives -- familial organization, personal aspirations, self-assessment."
The subordinate position of colonial women in a society based firmly on patriarchal law and power has been proven by every historian working on that subject. Norton ably elaborates on it in the first section of her book, in which she details the life cycles of colonial woman, their attitudes and expectations in regard to marriage, their dependency on fathers and husbands, their discomfort with their limited choices. Her use of naming patterns to deduce mothers' attitudes toward their infants is ingenious and her description of motherhood, nursing practices and mother-daughter relationships adds importantly to our knowledge of colonial women. Her excellent account of the wartime acivities of women, especially their relief and fundraising efforts, illustrates both the energy and intent of women and the societal limits imposed on them.
Yet Norton's thoroughly researched evidence does not convincingly prove her thesis. She neither compares colonial women with European women of the same period nor does she sufficiently treat white women of the lower classes, although her attention to black women is noteworthy. Such comparisons are essential to evaluating the status of women, and they do show that women in the American colonies had a broader range of choices, more economic opportunities and greater freedom than European women. American women of the servant classes in particular had a comparative advantage in upward mobility over their European counterparts. Norton gives us ample evidence for her generalization that some women had low self-esteem and limited role choices, but her generalization about this being true for "most white women" seems unwarranted.
Norton has charged other historians with describing a "golden age" of equality for women during the 18th century, followed by their loss of status in the 19th. But there never was a golden age. Comparisons of the status of women in different periods must always be based on the understnading that in all periods of American history women lived under patriarchal dominance and were, relative to men, disadvantaged in a number of important ways. Also, in denying a status loss for women in the 19th century, Norton fails to take into consideration the economic changes which occurred in American society between 1800-1840. The transition from the rural, family-based economy of the 18th century to the commercial, industrial economy of the 1830s, which was spurred on by the American Revolution, basically altered the economic role of women. Men left the home to work for cash in shops and offices; while women's domestic labor continued, unrewarded by money, and thus devalued in an economy in which money became the measure of worth.
The first decades of the 19th century also witnessed a major shift in the definition of "womanhood." Norton and Kerber differ in their assessment of the meaning of the ideal "republican mother," a term which became predominant in the new nation. Kerber stresses the irony of a rhetoric which claimed to elevate woman's domestic function by focusing on her political role in educating "republican sons" while in actuality she and her daughters were excluded from direct participation in the polity.
Norton finds, on the contrary, that "American society had at least formally recognized women's work as valuable. No longer was domesticity denigrated; no longer was the feminine sphere subordinated to the masculine, nor were women regarded as superior." Her claim is all the more astonishing, since she herself delineates the serious educational and economic deprivation of women when compared to their male contemporaries. On the final page of her book, Norton admits that the legacy of the American Revolution for women was "ambiguous." Only by treating developments within the family out of their social and economic context, could she describe the idealization of domesticity and the elevation of child-raising to a political-cultural "duty" of women, as though it represented an actual advancement in the status of women.
The ambiguity of the American Revolution is that it promised equality to all citizens, while withholding it from women, blacks and Indians. As millions of white men, formerly restricted from participation in the political process, became voters, the opportunity and participation gap between men and women actually widened, rhetorical flourishes notwithstanding. Still, Norton's book, while not proving her thesis, makes a valuable addition to our knowledge of the lives, thoughts and activities of women in the revolutionary era.
Linda Kerber makes the ambiguity of male American revolutionaries a central theme, describing it as their search for a synthesis, which "would facilitate women's entry into politics without denying women's commitment to domesticity." She traces the contradictory values and ideas characterizing American national development to Enlightenment ideas which in the American context, are transmuted and adapted, but remain predominant. Kerber finds that because men of the revolutionary generation were unable to think of women as equal partners in their political movement, American women had to invent their own ideology. In this elegant and eminently readable intellectual history, she reconstructs that ideology not only from sources written by women, but from law and from a close study of linguistic, literary and pictorial symbols. Her sensitivity to the variety of means by which women expressed their political convictions and sought to influence political events, gives us a rich picture of the meaning of female patriotism. Her discussion of female petitioning and organizational activities is particularly helpful.
Kerber demonstrates the ideological contradictions of male revolutionaries, expressed for example in the action of state legislatures, which encouraged the wives of Tories to break with their husbands and embrace the revolutionary cause in exchange for the restoration of their dower property. Such encouragement implied that women were politically autonomous, an assumption otherwise denied by law and practice. Similarly, the right to separate from dictatorial masters implicit in the rhetoric of the revolution, offered women "an ideological validation for divorce," which they sought with increasing frequency in the post-revolutionary period.
Kerber discusses with insight the ambiguity of female education in post-revolutionary America. The promises of the American Revolution for educational equality could not be denied, and women struggled throughout the 19th century to fulfill them. In her chapter on women's reading, Kerber shows women's search for symbols and images, which would allow them growth and autonomy. From an equally interesting analysis of women's writings and memoirs of the revolution, Kerber concludes that women had become aware of the existence of heroines forged in the trials of the war and had been politicized by "male legislators slighting issues of greatest significance to women." Deprived of other legitimate political outlets, women exensively petitioned to remedy a variety of grievances.
Kerber defines the so-called cult of domesticity as an impediment to women's progress, concluding that the inherent promises of the revolution for women could not be fulfilled until the "paradox of Republican Motherhood was resolved, until the world was not separated into a woman's realm of domesticity and nurture and a man's world of politics and intellect." Kerber's urbane, beautifully reasoned and methodologically sophisticated book is a major contribution to the history of American ideas.