Dialogue About Gender In Early America Essays Examples
The rhetoric used during the American Revolution that invoked liberty, justice, and equality served as a springboard for debates about gender equality to circulate in public discourses and in political forums. Women indeed were increasingly cognizant of their absence from the public arena and their lack of political, economic, and social agency as a result of the entrenchment of the heteronormative paradigm, predicated on the separate spheres ideology and biological determinism, in early American society (Hoffert 54). Abigail Adams emerged as one of the first advocates for female education. As the First Lady, she wielded a degree of political agency indirectly, as her letters to her husband suggest that she advised him on political issues on a quotidian basis. In one letter, Adams poignantly stated that “I long to hear that you have declared an independency—and by the way, in the new Code of Laws which I suppose it will be necessary for you to make I desire you would Remember the Ladies, and be more generous and favorable to them than you ancestors” (Adams, as cited in Hoffert, 54). Abigail continued to remind her husband that if unchecked, men would become tyrants if they were able to. Indeed, Abigail says that if the delegates ignore women in their political decision making then there would be a rebellion waged by women because they refused to remain silenced and without political representation. John Adams never really took his wife’s demands seriously, yet he still did entertain the idea of women’s voting rights. While his wife implored Adams to advocate for women’s rights, articulating some of the foundational beliefs of feminist theory in early America, John Adams proved resistant towards granting women political agency. As such, it is unequivocal that John Adams still conceived of the early Republic as a nation in which male hegemony was natural and necessary.
Judith Sargent Murray, one of the most accomplish female writers in early America, penned a litany of works using the pseudonym “The Gleaner” because women have historically been muted from the grand narrative. Although Murray was forbidden from receiving an education as a result of her sex, her brother tutored her. Murray’s seminal essay “On the Equality of the Sexes” Murray mimics some of the sentiments evident in Abigail Adam’s letters to her husband. Women, she argued, possessed a natural right to exersize as much agency as their male counterparts. Indeed, they were deserving of earning an education and cultivating their talents. As such, women must be given educational opportunities in order to be able to develop and nurture these innate talents. Murray forthrightly demanded that women be treated as equals, eschewing the salient notion that women derived their happiness from performing their domestic duties in the private sphere of their homes (Foner 140). Murray exclaims that “Ye lordly, ye haughty sex, our souls are by nature equal to yours; the same breadth of God animates, anlivens, and invigorates us” (Murray, as cited in Foner, 140). Thus, Murray would contribute a radical view on women in a dialogue concerning gender and gender relations in early America.
The appropriation of Revolutionary rhetoric is most poignantly evident in the subject of gender and sexuality studies. Family limitation in the western world generally occurred during the nineteenth century, but both France and the United States witnessed the transformation of American families from large to small almost a century prior. Women participated in the increasingly popular trend that advocated for family planning and smaller households (Klepp 30). Weaving together statistical data, demographic literature, art history and social and cultural historical methods, historian Susan Klepp posits that during the eighteenth century American women adopted the language of the American Revolution that promulgated life, liberty, equality, restraint, virtue and happiness in order to subvert patriarchal structures and reclaim control over their own bodies vis-à-vis reproductive autonomy. The appropriation of these notions granted women agency within their marriage and fostered more loving relationships between parents and their children.
Prior to 1760, American women embraced unrestrained fertility and regarded their fecundity as laudatory for both mothers and fathers whose children became sources of economic profit. The pregnant body symbolized beauty and strength because large families became vital to national prosperity; children contributed to the family income, and parents valued sons over their daughters because of their economic currency as free labor. Over time, however, women appropriated the notions of republican virtue and equality to their families, preferring to establish more affectionate relationships with their progeny regardless of gender. Rational motherhood entailed that mothers love and appreciate their children and provide all of them the best economic and educational opportunities. The Revolution thus shaped these novel practices about and attitudes towards fertility, and Klepp deftly traces the shift in the language of fertility to phrases of affection over breeding. Women thus became more sentimental in their interactions with their children and when they referenced them in letters and journal entries. Furthermore, chapter four examines how portraiture conveys shifts in social attitudes towards childbearing and helps explain why women endorsed family limitation during this epoch. While prior to the Revolution artists utilized sexual symbolism to emphasize the importance of female fecundity, subsequent portraiture limned women holding books and engaging in political activities to show that—free from constant pregnancy—women enjoyed access to the increased educational opportunities and political activism. The abundant and excessive female body became replaced by the modest and virtuous mother. Klepp constantly reiterates the sentiment that a woman’s status dictated her ability to engage in family planning through available technologies as well as her access to the new ideas about fertility and family life that circulated during this time period. Paradoxically, slave fecundity became desired for its material benefits through increased labor but also reviled and viewed as uncivilized once smaller families became a normative feature of American life.
The construction of masculinity in early America adds nuance to a dialogue on gender by underscoring the links between gender, race and class. Working-class men sought to maintain a ‘rugged’ form of manhood through their industrial work, which essentially rejected opportunities through which they might have been able to transcend class boundaries. “Rugged masculinity” emerged as a particular representation and self-representation of working-class masculinity. Historically, male laborers specifically connected their work with their gender identity as men rather than aspire to meet futile, middle-class standards. Despite the paucity of sources of working-class male voices articulating first hand a certain form of manhood, James Sidbury contends that working-class masculinity has historically been linked with their notion of skill, labor, and the experience of the rugged type of work that they were engaged in. Ultimately, the dangerous, dirty conditions faced while working in steel factories, coal mines and other forms of strenuous labor reinforced a working-class notion of strenuous manhood in early America. However, slaves retained a liminal position in the socio-cultural milieu, which resulted in the proliferation of an alternate form of manhood. Indeed, gender in early America was conceived of through the lens of the social constructions of class and race as well. Slave artisans working in Richmond, Virginia between 1780 and 1810 participated in an economic boom that yielded a highly diverse economy that was industrializing (Sidbury 72). Slaves lacked autonomy over their own bodies, yet the social conditions in urban spaces offered slaves a litany of opportunities that slaves in pastoral settings lacked. The lack of mobility slaves had, however, translated into a blasé attitude towards developing their skills and competencies. As such, slaves constructed their personal identities based on religious sentiments and family rather than on their work like their white male counterparts did (Sidbury 79). Studying gender and gender relations in early America calls for an investigation on gender identity in relation to race and class as well. Living up to social strictures regarding manhood was important because masculinity reflects ideals about femininity. Masculinity and femininity are corollaries and often shift accordingly.
The role of women in early America is complex and nuanced as depicted in the primary sources. Women were supposed to be the domestic housewife charged with rearing the children and preparing the home for the male breadwinner to enjoy after working all day. Such reproductive is unpaid and unacknowledged, yet it formed the backbone of the heteronormative paradigm. Women lacked political representation and economic agency as a result of the entrenchment of patriarchal structures. Murray and Abigail Adams decried this oppression of women, arguing for the need to grant women a degree of power. However, John Adams would never have considering widening the woman’s sphere of influence. Indeed, male hegemony was sustained and continues to have a bearing on gender inequality in the present day.
Foner, Eric. Voices of Freedom. New York: Norton and Company, 2011. Print.
Hoffert. “Gender in the Age of Revolutions: 1760-1820.”
Klepp, Susan. Revolutionary Conceptions: Women, Fertility, & Family Limitation in America, 1760-1820. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2009. Print.
Murray, Judith Sargent. “On the Equality of the Sexes.” Massachusetts Magaine, vol. 2(1790). Print.
Sidbury, James. “Slave Artisans in Richmond, Virginia, 1780-1810.”
Thompson, E.P. The Making of the English Working Class. New York: Pantheon, 1964. Print.
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