Women’s Life, Roles, and History in Early America


The history of female rights in America is long and complicated. Since the early colonial years, American women, as well as women in European countries, were exposed to fewer rights and freedoms in comparison to men. It was connected with the overall structure of the society where households were the centers of economy and taking care of families, and their properties were crucial for the states. Women were treated as individuals who are responsible for children and homes but not for any other activities.

However, with the emergence of the American Revolution and the shifts not only in political but also in the social life of the country, the scope of rights and freedoms of women started to change. The most significant contributors to this process were Abigail and John Adams, Benjamin Rush, and Judith Sargent Murray who paid close attention to the way ladies were treated by the society and by law and put effort to make a change. This essay addresses the roles of women in household economies, their participation in social life, and the attempts to bring more liberty for females as equal sex with men.

Women’s Roles in Households of Colonial America

At the beginning of the 18th century, the life of a country, as well as its economy, much depended on each family. Men, women, and their children worked together, producing goods and products. Despite the traditional division of demanding physical labor and housework between males and females, the chores women performed required a lot of effort and hard work. As John Lawson, an English naturalist who visited Carolina in the early 1700-s, stated, “the women are the most industrious sex” in this state (Voices of Freedom 63). Indeed, girls married very young and entirely devoted their lives to the reproduction, bringing up children and working in households.

Such a state of affairs was usual for colonial America, where women had no rights to participate in political life or make any decisions in their families. For example, under the circumstances of lacking stable family life in newly inhabited territories like Virginia, women were forced to become wives in arranged marriages and relocate to another state (Voices of Freedom 27). Such arrangements were encouraged by the government and diminished any rights of women other than reproduction and family duties. However, the upcoming political changes in the life of the country contributed to the resolution of the problem.

Women’s Question in the Time of the American Revolution

The 1770-s were the years of Revolutionary movements in America when the question of independence was the most acute. The struggle for independence and liberty of the state marked the corresponding moods in the society, too. During this period, women were deprived full freedom and decent human rights like “slaves, servants, … Indians” or men without property (Voices of Freedom 106). For many activists of the movement of independence of that time, including Abigail Adams, the question of female rights was paramount. It is noteworthy that Abigail Adams perceived women’s equality in a way that differs from the contemporary point of view.

However, her ideas were new for the society in which she lived. In her opinion, despite women’s responsibility for family affairs, the absolute legal power of men to “control the bodies of their wives” and “inflict physical punishment on them” had to be eliminated (Give Me Liberty 205). Therefore, in her correspondence with her husband, John Adams, Abigail emphasized the need to address the challenges American ladies faced and resolve them. Other fighters for women’s rights later supported these efforts.

Women’s Education and Rights in Early America

The first attempts to liberate females were made in the time of political and social shifts in colonial America. The new way of life that the country started after the declaration of independence required significant changes in the overall organization of government and social structure. Such an idea was explicitly articulated by one of the main activists of the time, Benjamin Rush who fought for equal rights of sexes (Voices of Freedom 120).

From his point of view, American society after the revolution had to provide women with equal opportunities to access education to be able to teach their sons for their participation in governmental, political, and economic processes. Overall, Rush emphasized the importance of education in literature, arts, geography, and language for young ladies to develop their personalities and, thus, contribute to the well-being of the nation.

Similarly, Judith Sargent Murray, the activist advocating equal rights for women, wrote about the need to provide women with the rights to education and fostering their talents (Voices of Freedom 147). Her contribution to the discussion of this issue was fruitful and marked the following changes in US society.


In summary, a broad description of the American women’s question in literature implies the complexity and controversy of the problem when viewed from the historical perspective. Indeed, within the framework of the European mentality of the 17th-18th centuries, the power and rights of women were very limited in the American colonies. However, the Revolution and the endeavors of such individuals as Abigail Adams and Benjamin Rush contributed to the improvement of female roles in American society and provided the first glimpses of liberation process that has evolved since then.

Works Cited

Foner, Eric. Give Me Liberty! An American History. 5th ed., vol. 1, W. W. Norton & Company, 2017.

— Voices of Freedom: A Documentary History. 5th ed., vol. 1, W. W. Norton & Company, 2016.

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