The American Revolution: Birthplace of Feminism?

Historian Mary Beth Norton, in her 1980 text Liberty’s Daughters, argues that the American Revolution changed colonial women’s self-perceptions, activities, and familial relationships.[1] The tumultuous years of 1775 to 1783, and the decade or so that preceded them, reformed the private lives and identities of literate, middle- and upper-class white women in particular, those in the best position to leave behind writings chronicling their thoughts and lives — though Norton stresses that the war touched most all women, making it safe to assume its effects did as well to some degree.[2] Early and mid-eighteenth century women generally existed within a “small circle of domestic concerns,” believing, alongside men, in strictly defined permissible feminine behavior, proper roles for women, and their own inferiority and limited capabilities.[3] Politics, for instance, was “outside the feminine sphere.”[4] But in the 1760s and early 1770s, Norton posits, the extreme political climate in the colonies, the tensions and clashes with the British government and army, began to shake up the gender order and create new possibilities. Women began writing in their journals of the major events of the day, avidly reading newspapers, debating politics as men did, participating in boycotts and marches, and even seizing merchant goods.[5] They published articles and formed relief efforts and women’s organizations.[6] The Revolution, in other words, was women’s entry into public life and activism, with no more apologies or timidity when pushing into the male sphere of policy, law, and action.[7]

The war also changed women’s labor. Some worked with the colonial army as cooks, nurses, and laundresses, often because they needed stable income with husbands away.[8] More still took over the domestic leadership and roles of their absent husbands, managing farms and finances alike, and would later no longer be told they had not the sense or skills for it.[9] Political debate, revolutionary action, and household leadership with business acumen profoundly shifted women’s views of themselves. “Feminine weakness, delicacy, and incapacity” were questioned.[10] Equal female intelligence was affirmed.[11] Some women even applied the language of liberty, representation, and equality to critiques of women’s subservience.[12] While still constrained in countless ways, by the end of the century, these new ways of thinking had opened even more opportunities for women. More independent, they insisted they would choose their own husbands, delay marriage, or not marry at all; more confident in their abilities, they pushed for girls’ education and broke into the male field of teaching; and so on.[13]

Norton’s engaging text is organized thematically, with a tinge of the chronological. It charts the “constant patterns of women’s lives” in the first half, what stayed the same for American women from before the Revolution to after, and the “changing patterns” in the second, how their lives differed.[14] Norton describes this as “rather complex,” stemming from various modes of thought on many issues changing or remaining static at different times — they did not “fit a neat chronological framework.”[15] The result for the reader is mixed. On the one hand, the layout does allow Norton to demonstrate how women viewed themselves and society before the war, then chart ideological growth and offer causal explanations. This is helpful to the thesis. On the other hand, the first half contains a wealth of historical information that is, essentially, only tangential to the thesis. For if the text presents what did not change, as interesting and valuable as that is, this has little to do with the argument that the American Revolution altered women’s lives. For example, Norton explores views on infants, nursing, and weaning in the first half of the work.[16] As these were “constant” beliefs in this era, not impacted by dramatic events, they are not much explored in the second half. Thus, the reader may correctly consider much information to be irrelevant to the main argument. Of course, it is clear that Norton did not set out only to correct the historiography that concluded “the Revolution had little effect upon women” or ignored the question entirely; she also saw that a wide range of assumptions about eighteenth-century American women were wrong, which to correct would take her far beyond the scope of Revolution-wrought effects.[17] Inclusion of this secondary argument and its extra details makes Liberty’s Daughters a richer and even more significant historical work, but gears it toward history undergraduates, graduates, and professionals. A general audience text might have been slimmer with a fully chronological structure, focusing on select beliefs in the first half (pre-Revolution) that change in the second (political upheaval and war).

Norton uses letters, journal entries, newspaper articles, and other papers — primarily the writings of women — from hundreds of colonial families to build her case.[18] She presents documents from before, during, and after the war, allowing fascinating comparisons concerning women’s ways of thinking, activities, and demands from society. A potential weakness of the historical evidence — there are few — mirrors a point the historian makes in her first few pages. Literacy and its relation to class and race have already been mentioned, constituting a “serious drawback”: the sample is not “representative.”[19] Similarly, are there enough suggestions of new ways of thinking in these hundreds of documents to confidently make assertions of broad ideological change? In some cases yes, in others perhaps not. For example, Norton cites women’s views on their “natural” traits. Before the Revolution, “when women remarked upon the characteristics they presumably shared with others of their sex, they did so apologetically.”[20] One trait was curiosity. Norton provides just a single example of a woman, Abigail Adams, who felt compelled to “‘excuse’ the ‘curiosity…natural to me…’”[21] The question of curiosity then returns in the second half of the text, after the war has changed self-perceptions. Norton finds that women had abandoned the apologies and begun pushing back against male criticism of their nature by pointing out that men had such a nature as well, or by noting the benefits of derided traits.[22] Here the author offers two examples. “The sons of Adam,” Debby Norris wrote in 1778, “have full as much curiosity in their composition…”[23] Judith Sargent Murray, in 1794, declared that curiosity was the cure for ignorance, worthy of praise not scorn.[24] Clearly, one “before” and two “after” citations are not an adequate sample size and cannot be said to be representative of women’s views of curiosity. It is often only when one looks beyond the specific to the general that Norton’s evidence becomes satisfactory. Curiosity is considered alongside delicacy, vanity, helplessness, stupidity, and much else, and the mass accumulation of evidence of beliefs across topics and time convincingly suggests women’s views of their traits, abilities, and deserved treatment were changing.[25] One might say with more caution that connotations concerning curiosity shifted, but with greater confidence that women’s perceptions of their nature transformed to some degree.

Overall, Norton’s work is an important contribution to the field of American women’s history, correcting erroneous assumptions about women of the later eighteenth century, showing the war’s effects upon them, and offering sources some historians thought did not exist.[26] While one must be cautious of representation and sample size, in more than one sense, and while the thesis could have been strengthened with data tabulation (x number of letters in early decades mentioned politics, y number in later decades, z percentage contained apologies for entering the male sphere of concern, etc.), Norton provides a thorough examination and convincing argument based on a sufficient body of evidence. Few students will forget the new language found in primary documents after the outbreak of war, a metamorphosis from the commitment “not to approach the verge of any thing so far beyond the line of my sex [politics]” to “We are determined to foment a Rebelion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any Laws in which we have no voice, or Representation.”[27]

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[1] Mary Beth Norton, Liberty’s Daughters: The Revolutionary Experience of American Women, 1750-1800 (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1996), xix, 298.

[2] Ibid., xviii-xx.

[3] Ibid, chapter 1, xviii. 

[4] Ibid., 170.

[5] Ibid., 155-157.

[6] Ibid., 178.

[7] Ibid., 156.

[8] Ibid., 212-213.

[9] Ibid., chapter 7, 222-224.

[10] Ibid., 228.

[11] Ibid., chapter 9.

[12] Ibid., 225-227, 242.

[13] Ibid., 295, chapter 8, chapter 9.

[14] Ibid., vii, xx.

[15] Ibid., xx. 

[16] Ibid., 85-92.

[17] Ibid., xviii-xix.

[18] Ibid., xvii.

[19] Ibid., xix.

[20] Ibid., 114.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Ibid., 239.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Ibid., chapters 4 and 8 in comparison, and parts I and II in comparison.

[26] Ibid., xvii-xix.

[27] Ibid., 122, 226.